I dream of Pittsfield

Something a tad lighter, since it’s been all “Time to save Springside Park” and “I can’t believe they don’t have condoms in Pittsfield schools” on this blog lately…

My dreams have been getting really crazy, and diabolically local-centric lately. Last night I dreamt I was on Good Morning Pittsfield with John Krol; I leaned into the mic and said “I can say this, because I’m never running for anything. The big problem isn’t ‘the government’, it’s ‘the public’. The public are terrible. Individually they might be made up of some lovely people, but together they’re just a scared stupid mob.” Then the fire alarms went off at Taconic HS and we went shuffling outside, where it was snowing in May. Steve Grossman showed up with a bunch of other guys from the state and said the school year was ending early so they could build the new high school. He showed me the building plans, and it was the Hydra station from LOST. I was like, “That’s a weird take on vocational education,” but no one else (a huge crowd had assembled) seemed to have a problem with it, and the whole scene turned into a big congratulatory ribbon cutting before I woke up.

Remembering the Bernie Baran Case

Reposted an editorial from ’06 that appeared in These Mysterious Hills in the Advocate Weekly, in light of recent local discussion of the film Freeing Bernie Baran, and because where it is currently online is difficult to find, and because this community should never forget what happened to Mr. Baran.

It summarizes the case up to the point at which Baran was granted a new trial in June of 2006, and is a handy review of what happened:



See also:

For Springside Park, the Time is Now

A Manifesto

[Note: if you’ve heard this basis spiel recently on Berkshire Buzz or Good Morning Pittsfield, or are just already a pro-Springside Park zealot, you can always skip ahead to the “What can I do to help?” page]

This Saturday April 21 (9:30-5pm) will mark the 23rd annual Friends of Springside sponsored cleanup day at Springside Park, our vast natural and historic treasure in the heart of Pittsfield.

For over four decades, the Friends of Springside Park, along with other concerned residents, have helped maintain, beautify, and protect this key expanse of woods, fields, streams, playgrounds and other recreational areas that comprise the some 231 acres. As city funding and prioritization of local parks has significantly fallen off over the past few decades, they  and several other groups involved in the park have looked out for it, picked up its trash, raised funds for improvements, planted trees and flowers, organized tours and events, and nobly held the line against a parade of unwise development schemes and potential incursions.

When the first parcel of land of what is now Springside Park was first bequeathed to the City over a century ago, it was based on the understanding of two conditions: that it be in maintained as a public park, what the Miller family who largely forged it envisioned as a Pittsfield analogue to Central Park, and “that it be reasonably improved forever.”

Through tireless efforts by concerned neighbors and organized alliances, the first has been managed, against all manner of innapropriate development attempts, from golf courses to housing. The second is a promise that the City of Pittsfield has for many years been failing to keep.

Despite valiant efforts by this coalition of dedicated residents, the challenges have been many, and the eroded trickle of financial resources and citywide attention has had a large impact over the last few decades, to the point where there is now a widespread perception of a site in decline.

Since I was a kid growing up nearby, and in all my time involved with Springside Park in various ways, I’ve heard a ton of questions and complaints regarding Springside Park. Most of them begin with the word When.

“When are they going to fix the pond?” “When are they going to restore the Springside House?” “When are they going to [fix/fund/repair/restore/repaint/rebuild] this or that?”  Frustrations fueled by fond memories of a lost Golden Era at Springside.

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The answer to one component of these questions has been clear to me for a while now. Potential answers to the rest have only recently really began to emerge in the public eye, and some of them are, in my opinion, very exciting.

The first answer is that “They” (whoever that is) aren’t ever going to do anything, of and on “their” (ambiguous) own. The squeaky wheel truly does get the grease, and If anything of real significance is to be done, it’s going to be because a critical mass of people persistently push for it, support it, and make it happen. If future improvements are to take place at Springside, it will occur in the way that every real improvement or positive change has occurred, through sufficient citizen support.

As to the question of when, as I see it, the answer must be now. The beginning of making some great things happen can be right now, if we dare it, if we commit to making it a reality. The timing is extremely apt right now to push forward on some really promising endeavors that could yield huge benefits and secure the future of our largest city park for years to come. In fact, any answer other than now for moving forward with some proposed initiatives could result in missed opportunities and another giant loss in a city that has already seen many so missed opportunities and lost so much of its historic fabric.

On top of that, we’ve had a constant dialogue in the last few years about economic development and attracting new business. Yet we’ve to some extent ignored the fact that similarly to cultural attractions, city parks and open spaces are one of the things that is very high among the checklist of things that companies examine when looking at locations around the country. The Common, a controversial site that was one of the city’s earliest graveyards, has received some TLC and development dollars over the past year, while the central gem of Springside Park, which in 2008 was added to the National Register of Historic Places, has suffered relative neglect. An as yet missed opportunity to elevate this place into the recreational and educational trove, the natural and historic beacon it could be for local residents and tourists alike.

However, over the last couple of years some very helpful legwork has gone on behind the scenes (due in large part to Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon, who has doggedly pursued the mission of bettering the park since elected) and with a growing body of research in hand, some key ideas have emerged. There are currently proposed plans for restoring and utilizing the 150+ year old Springside House, the only city owned historic mansion, a potential restoration plan for the pond, and a variety of other enhancement projects that could be undertaken.

Springside House circa 1970

The concept for repurposing the underused Springside House, just south of Reid Middle School at 874 North Street, is to offer facilities to BCC and other potential educational partners that could serve in part as a home base for a wide variety of environmental education programs. The diverse territory of Springside offers a unique centralized hub of several ecosystems, multiple vernal pools, hundreds of plant and animal species– and Springside House is perfectly located alongside the already thriving Arboretum and community gardening projects in the northern corner of the park and connected by trails to every part of park, from the back of Reid to the Doyle ball park and down along the entire back of the Morningside Heights neighborhood (it’s really much bigger than most people think). The advantages of such a use are many:

  • It would have a substantial educational benefit that could extend from higher ed down to elementary school students.
  • It’s an ideal use for some of the vacant spaces in the Springside House that is entirely in keeping with the stated purpose and original vision for the park- in fact, reinforcing and gaining greater yield from its natural resources.
  • There are multiple, viable opportunities out there for outside funding of such a project. Combined with the right willingness from city government, this could prove a perfect chance and reason to restore the house with little or no expense to taxpayers.
  • Every major citizen group and city department involved in Springside Park seem to be in support of it.
  • This use would still allow room in the spacious restored mansion
  • for other beneficial uses; as a place to hold functions, for enhancing and expanding cultural events like the annual Pittsfield City Hoopla, our native hoola-hoop festival, Eagles Band concerts, and other such festivities held there. This part of the park has been under-utilized as an outdoor performance venue compared to earlier years. That’s not to say it’s an opportunity for Tanglewood Pittsfield, but it has hosted concerts with crowds up to three thousand people (and without, like, destroying the Park, man).
  • -Nor, I’m told, would it preclude rental uses and the prime opportunity there for major revenue generation for the city- things like weddings, where site fees for other historic manors in the Berkshires can run in the tens of thousands, just to be there.
  • The restored house would then be a platform, beacon, and overall hub for launching and overseeing all future improvements to Springside Park.
  • Again, I have to list mission. Restoring the park’s major historic structure for such a purpose symbolically and actually sets us on a defining course that would keep reinforcing the original and long-defended vision for Springside, that it be kept up in an essentially low impact manner, as a place of natural beauty and public benefit. This would help safeguard for generations to come against condos and golf courses, and keep efforts moving in a way that fulfills the condition set forth 102 years ago by Kelton Miller that “This land is to have and to hold forever as a public park.”

This is something that can happen, and in a relatively near future. But it’s going to take a great deal of support. It’s going to, as they say, take a village.

It’s going to take people hours and donated skills and advice. It’s going to take the attention of city government, media interest, communication and organizational cooperation. It’s going to take a ton of citizen advocacy (see: What can we do?) to push it up on the list and keep it there long enough to get this done. It’s going to take knowledge, expertise, and donated labor from a variety of fields, from construction to business to environmental and all sorts of able hands and minds in between. And it’s going to take some contributions from our local financial institutions and major employers, who have as much stake in this majestic place as the rest of us.

And as always, the entire area will continue to require the ongoing formal and informal clean up efforts, season after season; the eternal holding of the line in keeping it pristine, and reducing the footprint of unfortunate littering and dumping. We gotta pick up the trash. It’s just the way it is. Even an hour of time, whether this Saturday (rain date: Sunday) or anytime on your own, makes a real impact.

Supporters of Springside would love to see this weekend’s cleanup be one of the largest in years, a sign of support and intention from the community that it’s ready to put its hands to it and its money where its mouth is to make this vital site the incredible asset that it it was always meant to be. The City of Pittsfield has made promises regarding Springside, from its recent master plan and open spaces plan a couple of years ago, and dating on back to 1910-and it’s time it started keeping those promises.

And then maybe after all those years of asking When, looking back the only question that will be left is where were you when the tide was turned, when things started to really happen, when we came together to achieve a real win for Pittsfield.

Click here to RSVP on Facebook for cleanup or see What (else) can we do?

Pittsfield Schools: Flunking on Prevention?

On Friday, the city of Springfield approved a condom distribution program in its public schools in the hopes of helping decrease its rate of youth pregnancies.  Meanwhile, many Pittsfield Public School officials continue to wring their hands and bury their heads in the sand rather than support practical and proven methods for trying to combat the city’s out of control teen pregnany problem.

According to an illuminating report recently in the Pittsfield Gazette, many in the school system  apparently do not favor duplicating seemingly obvious preventitive measures like that about to be implemented in Springfield, where condoms are finally to be made available to students on request.  More disturbingly, it seems the school committee has never even discussed the possibility of condom distribution, a practice that has been growing slowly but consistently for two decades.

Particularly surprising, since Pittsfield ranks eighth (Springfield is 4th) in teen pregnancy per capita in the state, and saw the 2nd highest increase of any Massachusetts city between 1999 and 2009.

“The reality is that the issues that lead to teen pregnancy aren’t solved by having a condom,” said Deputy Superintendent Barbara Malkas, who some believe may be the likeliest successor to outgoing Superintendent Eberwein (unless she snags a higher paying Superintendent position for which she’s being considered in Ashfield).

Ok, yes- but also, No.   Wait a minute.  Last time I checked at least one of the “issues” that leads to pregnancy is sexual intercourse. Use of a condom is said to deter this particular outcome of sexual intercourse by around 99%.

Obviously there are a variety of factors that inform the choices which lead to underage sex, and particularly unprotected sex; many are deeply entrenched on a sociological level which I do not even pretend to have ideas for fixing. For one thing, statistically, about 60 percent of teen mothers indicate that they have been the victims of some kind of child abuse in their lives, a chilling implication in a county where experts say we have the highest number- not percentage, but number- of child abuse cases in Massachusetts, despite being only the 11th most populous county in the commonwealth.

Is it a good idea for youths as young as 12 to be having sex? Of course it probably isn’t. Would we rather they didn’t? I’d guess a majority of people would concur with that.

As with so much of the idealism that floats around the topic education, I absolutely agree with those who believe that a larger proportion of parents should be doing more. It’d be great if more responsible parenting were to take off and catch on like the next big internet meme! Unless or until such high-minded societal reform takes place, in many cases our public school system is the last line of defense, the only major influence over or lifeline to our local youth that we as a broader community really have.

The often cited counter argument [aside from the whole huge issue of religious beliefs about contraception, which I’ll leave for another day] is ‘Why is it the school’s job (or the taxpayer’s) to provide this?‘ This line, so common of contraception debates, is irrelevant to me.  Many of the things we (taxes/government/schools) do is not strictly speaking, our job.  Some things we do because they’re just a good idea, because they save us all exponentially in financial and social costs later.

To merely dig in heels and grandstand on this point and wish that the desired views would just be adopted is to overlook the prevailing cultural realities of the age we live in. How many decades of evidence do we need that simply hoping for the best and putting our eggs in the basket of abstinence-heavy (or -only) educational support is hideously ineffective? It’s hasn’t worked for drugs (see: D.A.R.E. = Epic Fail), it doesn’t work for sex…  If you really think that any amount of educating and scaring is going to keep a vast majority of teens from ever engaging in any sexual acts, with often MIA parents, and almost every form of modern entertainment and commercial marketing suggesting the opposite of abstinence… I don’t know what to tell you.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a broad-based approach across the educational spectrum.  All the most conclusive studies seem to show that condom availability works well as part of a comprehensive sex ed strategy. All types of support are needed, including dispelling some of the troubling notions about parenthood some young people have.


A few school committee members, including  Daniel Elias, the most senior member, were cautiously reasonable on the subject.

“It’s kind of surprising that it’s never really been an issue,” the Gazette quotes Elias as saying, unable to recall the topic ever appearing on a school committee agenda in his 12 years. “Elias said if the condom issue arises in Pittsfield he’d welcome the dialogue. ‘I can make a case for it or against,'”

Yes, it is indeed surprising, shocking even, that our school committee has not even discussed this issue in at least twelve years, if this is the case.

Our continued failure to make a dent in this prevalent social problem in Pittsfield is dreadful, and resistance to such an obvious scientific method of reducing this travesty is mind boggling… as is why the subject has yet to  even  be really broached in our school system, when a growing percentage of other Massachusetts school systems have been implementing this with success for years?

In light of our  consistently bottom percentile on youth pregnancy prevention, why is this possibility not at least being explored more in depth, put out for public input to see what the community thinks? Why was this not done in like 1993, when this was already a tired plotline for tv dramas?


No Foolin’: Another Weekly Pittsfield News Roundup

I delayed the usual weekly roundup of Pittsfield happenings from Sunday to Monday to avoid any confusion on April Fools Day (New Year’s Day, to the initiated) about them being real. It can be difficult enough to wrap one’s head around news in Pittsfield at some of the best of times, and I have occasionally been accused of being something of a prankster around these parts… So, Monday morning, with (alleged) clarity:

A meeting of the City Council’s Finance Committee planned for Wednesday has been moved to tonight (c. 8:30pm Monday, after Ord.& Rules) to discuss authorization of 1.5 million dollars to pay additional costs of the McKay Street Garage reconstruction project. This is a matter of some public interest- at last Tuesday’s council meeting, former Councilor Joe Nichols spoke up during the public input period to call for inquiry into why the garage is in such a state of disrepair after only 25 years, and if the builders can be held accountable. His sentiments were then echoed by Alexander Blumen, a rising star at the city’s open mic… I’ll be blogging more on him at a later date.

Finance Committee chair Jonathan Lothrop said the meeting was moved up because the Council Chamber will be occupied for a special forum on building permits on its original date of April 4 (the 203 meeting room is also in use).

Tuesday night’s council meeting also saw the approval of Mayor Bianchi’s proposed small business fund, allocating $500,000 of the city’s remaining 6.5 million in settlement money from G.E. to offer loans and grants to small employers that might not qualify for more traditional funding. The Council also voted forward a petition from Councilor Melissa Mazzeo to recall PEDA  to report the council, this time on the hoped for life sciences incubator building, and in greater force this time. Director Cory Thurston previously appeared for two and a half hours of rigorous grilling at the Feb. 14 council meeting , for which they were chastised by the Berkshire Eagle.

School committee Wednesday expanded the list of applicants to be considered for the soon to be vacant Superintendent’s position from 9 to 10. Committee member Terry Kinnas, who has vehemently opposed the way the current superintendent search has been conducted, raised a curious question Wednesday, when he inquired about a rumor that a former school employee, Christine Canning-Wilson. Allegedly, she was told she could not apply for the position due to a previous legal agreement following resolution of a suit against the city several years ago. Kinnas said he had received an email as a school committee member, and had read about it “in the media” [ this assertion appeared on PlanetValenti earlier that day ]. Committee Chair Alf Barbalunga said he did not receive such an email, and Mr. Kinnas has not responded to an email sent Wednesday requesting more information or a copy of the email.
As the screening committee for applicants begins to assemble, a public input survey has been released and can be filled out online

The Department of Community Development hosted a panel of development experts from the Urban Land Institute on Thursday as part of a study of urban renewal possibilities for the West Street quadrant of downtown. Opportunities to develop market rate housing and create open spaces to redefine traffic and neighborhood perception were among the key subjects examined. While the initial presentation of findings was a bit vague (and the imperative for focusing renewal efforts on this “corridor” unclear), a full study will be available for public perusal in about six weeks.

The "West Street Corridor" being examined stretches to the Housatonic and railroad overpass, and includes the Berkshire Eagle and Clocktower Condominiums

While the masked bandida of the Elm Street (and one West Housatonic) robberies has allegedly been caught, another plucky female seems to have pretty casually pulled a heist back on Elm Street Friday, this time at Greylock Federal Credit Union. The Copycat Effect continues to rage across the city… or is there something to protestations by Mark Kenyon, that his mother Danielle is innocent of the other Elm robberies? Mark publicly denounced the PPD on their Facebook on their handling of his mother’s arrest two weeks ago  Investigation into Friday’s bank robbery continues. 

A fire on Clydesdale Drive was put out without intervention by a broken pipe, a water cooler, and a fish tank present, firefighters found, in the kind of oddball story that gets a lot of AP traction, and has already appeared in a couple dozen papers from here to Iowa as well as FireEngineering.com

Sadly, a more serious fire on Orchard Street claimed the life of 59 year old Claudette Roberts early Sunday morning. Several people I know spoke well of Claudette, “a sweet woman who was well liked by many people.”

On a lighter, but somewhat angsty note, yesterday was the most boring and unremarkable April Fools Day in recent memory for a city that for the last three years has seen garish public displays of absurdity (at least the Red Lion Inn can always be counted on for a little AFD flair)  How far we have fallen from the days when we had media across the region chasing their tails trying to figure out if we were really moving Park Square to Depot Street!!  Citizens, please email newly appointed Cultural Development Board member Javier Dominguez (dominguez.javier1@gmail.com)  and tell him to get some FOOLERY on their agenda!

On a final (human interest?) note, PCTV has aired and uploaded a special one hour show on the “Siege of Castle Greylock” catapult building competition, put on by General Dynamics and featuring students from many area high schools.  Some of these catapults were pretty rad, you can see great action footage shot by yours truly (after a whole lot of talking as my dad interviews all the kids).