Downtown Pittsfield is like a ghost town that has been painted over.
They're rebuilding, I don't know who. I no longer read the Berkshire Eagle so I don't know what's causing the infusion of new business, renovated residences. My mother says, "I think it has something to do with corruption." She doesn't read the paper, either, but that's a safe assumption for anything that occurs in this city.
At the turn of the millenium, after years of nostalgic debate, they tore down the England Brothers building that was raised in 1905 -- a old department store left barren when the mall moved in as a monument for people to walk by every day on the way to work, a shell for memories of childhood and grandmothers and penny candy and a lost vibrancy of a city past its adolescence. I got away from my school group once, I don't remember when or why we were there but I suppose it must have been for one of the two shops on the lower level that were still open in the early nineties, and my imagination was fired by the seemingly endless scuffed tile and glassless indoor display windows until I believed that I, too, loved that place in its prime. The demolition felt as long as the debate -- for a whole summer, an empty shell of a building, a jagged metal skeleton and half-broken concrete, comprised an entire city block. After that, the empty space was there for over a year surrounded by barbed fence.
The building there now is the headquarters of the local county bank in its current transitory incarnation -- a financial Balkans in Western Massachusetts, the confederation and defederation of the local banks and consequent name changes is so rapid that the billboards cannot keep up with it and defunct financial institutions are still advertised all over the county. It is pink and fake marble, grown up so suddenly between Labor Day and midterms of my sophomore year that it still feels to me like it couldn't have been built from the ground up, but dropped there by some giant hand, and it looks out of place, too.
The revitalization of the downtown, whatever its cause, has left the city center of my county looking like a woman past middle age, unhealthy yet rich, smoothed over with plastic surgery and with makeup coated like paint over a pallid, cancerous complexion. Intermittent buildings are still empty, shop fronts boarded up, tall second-story windows gaping and vacant, broken, patched with plastic bags above the goodwill, across from the glorious, ornate 50s cinema now showing old Honeymooners episodes on Tuesday afternoons for senior citizens. Tattoo parlors have sprung up everywhere in the four years since it has been legal in Massachusetts, although the one where I got mine is either gone or lost amid the stores with new, brighter feathers. The wooden signs are still there on the surviving stores, accompanied now by plastic and, occasionally, neon. To me, the bright artificial colours look out of place, and I wonder if that is only because I knew this street before.
On the side streets, new houses are being imported and assembled like do-it-yourself dollhouses across from condemned townhouses and boarded-up hobby shops, a crossroads of a ghost town and a planned community. I got lost -- I'm still sick enough to get helplessly lost driving in my own county, which is why I'm here and not in my apartment -- and came back a different way, over farmland and frost heaves. Developers are building in vinyl-sided rows over some of the tracts of Bartlett's Orchard, even last fall one of the hubs of a region that has its very own Apple Squeeze festival, but the barns with caved-in roofs haven't been torn down and hauled away yet.
We are built by G.E. and unbuilt by Wal-Mart. I believe what they say about the people being a part of the land, about how Northerners have been made cold and remote by our winters like Ethan Frome. Though I was not born here, I feel a part of these hills and I understand in my body a world circumscribed by the new mountains regrown in a century after being logged to the skin. I feel the rise and swell of my sometimes ridiculous and generally extreme moods has always been modeled after and bounded by the depths of the seasons here. Our towns were established in the 18th century. Someone has died on every piece of land. We recall a glorious past of the Colonial Theatre and Edith Wharton and Melville and Hawthorne (they say that the white whale was really Mount Greylock, that Moby Dick was something on a landlocked horizon viewed from his porch rather than something borne of the sea) and a 19th century presidential railway stop. We exist in a twisted nostalgia. We paved over and built playgrounds and houses and hospitals on land poisoned by plastic, after we reseeded the Berkshire Hills and pretended the earth was never bare.
Winter has frozen construction as it stops and buries everything in this region of the country for months at a time, leaving me to wonder whether we will build over the other sides of the streets or not, whether my city will always feel as in a standstill, one foot mired in an unstable, hollowed past and one on something new and untested. Perhaps I imprint myself upon the land they way I imagine it has grown into me and I see it as tired, washed out by changing industry, unable as of yet to make the new life being breathed into it its own. When the rest of the buildings are replaced, the wooden signs gone, and the storefronts filled, maybe then it will no longer feel like a facade.
And I wonder what we will be when this new city, plated with vinyl like gilt, becomes ours. I wonder if, this time, we'll forget, until we are broken and remade again to remind us.
*send thoughts to little red*
back to musings index - back to the badlands