Things You Might Have Missed in Pittsfield This Week

Charter Review Debate; Dark Times for Pittsfield Schools; 2nd PPD accident in 6 weeks; Call Me Melville Kicks Off; EPA’s Re-Revised PCB Plan; Slim Hopes for Historic Plunkett School

The City Council has put its final stamp on the way it hopes to see a Charter Review Commission take shape, and its in the Mayor’s court now whether to work within their recommendations or proceed from a stance carved out by his City Solicitor Tuesday that it seems to (ironically) violate our existing charter. Click the link above for the full story, or try the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage here if you want the wrong names of which councilors opposed the plan.  See Tuesday’s Council Meeting and last week’s special meeting online via Pittsfield Community TV for more perspective on how these recommendations were arrived at.

Ellen Kennedy will helm Berkshire Community College– following a national search that saw 38 applicants, 7 interviewees, and 3 finalists, BCC’s board of trustees selected its current interim president and former vice president of administration and finance as top administrator to replace Paul Raverta, who retired in January.

In other education news, Pittsfield’s Public School Committee is coming down to the wire and running late into the evenings as it scrambles to replace its two top administrators before they move on to greener pastures.  Three Deputy Superintendent candidates were narrowed to two in interviews this week; school committee pushed a final hiring date up to this coming Wednesday while they conduct background checks on the 2 deputy finalists.  Interviews with 2 candidates for an interim version of the top job will occur June 13.  – The selection of either Basan Nembirkov or Gordon Noseworthy for a temporary 1 year super comes after the only finalist from a (some say rushed and amateurish) search process was not approved of by the committee.  But wait- it turns out, said finalist, Reza Namin, didn’t approve of the committee, either: the super candidate says he called to withdraw his name immediately following the interview, before a vote on him was even taken.  If that seems abrupt, consider for a moment that current super Jake Eberwein gave his notice after just one evening with the newly reorganized 2012 committee, as did student rep Christian Kennedy. Meanwhile, Mr. Eberwein and the school committee prepare for budget cuts and layoffs as next year’s budget is decided over the next couple of weeks.

On a more positive note, PHS may have set a record for the largest human whale ever created (pending official measurements of Rush Limbaugh) as part of the diverse kickoff for Call Me Melville, a 155 day celebration of the local author from now until Columbus Day weekend. [See video]

A city police cruiser caused a messy accident on 2nd St. Tuesday, which PPD says was caused by an officer’s undisclosed ‘medical incident.’  This is the 2nd time in 6 weeks that a police car has been involved in a MVA On April 13, a police cruiser struck a parked car on Pomeroy Ave and left the scene, having apparently failed to notice the damage done to it.  According to eye witnesses, the officer returned promptly after neighbors called the station to report this collision, albeit in a freshly washed cruiser. More on this later, perhaps- but for record keeping purposes, that’s 4 civilian vehicles repaired on the city’s tab for April and May, in addition to 1 telephone pole and a totally wrecked cruiser.

The EPA along with state officials presented a significantly revised plan for a GE cleanup of the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield, which has absorbed several of the suggestions residents made at the last Housatonic public hearing in Lenox in October… though it’s fair to say no one emerged from Thursday’s hearing crying “Victory!” – and, as I discuss in yesterday’s blog editorial, the solutions being presented still mostly ignore the still-glaring source of the contamination problem here in Pittsfield. 

Former Synagogue To Be Demolished

Returning to earlier in the week, the Historical Commission did a good job at its Monday meeting of demonstrating that its assessments and recommendations of what  buildings do and don’t merit further effort at historic preservation are not arbitrary knee-jerk responses, but informed decisions based on healthy, realistic discussion of a variety of factors.  In my opinion, the Commission chose wisely in approving demolition requests for two derelict properties in the city Monday, while working on strategies to stop the wrecking ball that portends to disappear the viable and versatile 100+ year old former Plunkett School building at the corner of 1st and Fenn to make way for an intended Dunkin Donuts location.  [For a photo tour of the Plunkett School click here, for a 20 minute video tour w/ comments from members of the Hist. Commission and Community Development board, click here.]

In other news, popular radio host Bill Sturgeon moves to the Brave FM, Olver crashed en route to Pittsfield, Gov. Patrick visited school kids in Lenox,  Rep. Neal opened a shared Pittsfield campaign HQ with Downing and Warren, drawing criticism from his opponents… and don’t forget to check the Pittsfield Gazette which has the listing for the upcoming meetings that will form next week’s headlines (print Gazette subscriptions are cheap and very worth it, by the way).

The Muddied Waters of Housatonic River Debate

The EPA held public meetings in both Berkshire County and Connecticut this week to exhibit their current strategic groupthink with environmental agencies in those two states (see: EPA Outlines Potential Plan for Housatonic Cleanup in iBerkshires) While the current planning document is still being called “preliminary and tentative” (the plan continues to evolve with each public hearing, some indication of a healthy process taking place), it seems that the position of Massachusetts’ Dep and the federal agency are at least a little bit more on the same page from the serious deviations seen when the Commonwealth offered its own presentation in October.

Among the steps forward that seem to have been incorporated into their ongoing planning ar a more detailed proposal of remediation (dredging and capping) at Woods Pond in Lenox, and the elimination of an earlier intention to place three PCB landfills in southern Berkshire County. This latter met with vehement opposition when first proposed in an earlier 2010 plan.

Personally, when the MA DEP and Federal EPA are releasing these reports, I sometimes wish I had a more extensive knowledge of both engineering and ecological sciences, so I could really evaluate the worth of what they’re saying personally, for myself. Because an unbiased interpretation of the data is hard to find.

We’ve heard extensive presentations in the Berkshires from state and federal environmental officials that a low(er) impact cleanup of the Housatonic is the way to go, that anything more rigorous would permanently alter or destroy the current beauty and ecological diversity of the river. Of course, these officials were all appointed, at the state or federal level, by politicians who’ve all received financing from General Electric, who stands to save hundreds of millions from a less intrusive cleanup. GE CEO Jeffrey (“send the jobs to China”) Immelt is Obama’s own job czar, an unholy partnership that continues to raise the eyebrows of honest skeptics everywhere. Worse for credibility, as protestors at the last Housatonic meeting in Lenox 7 months ago reminded me, former Mass. environmental secretary Robert Durand, who “helped” us with the creation of the Consent Decree, is now a top GE lobbyist.

So everything from these agency officials must rationally be taken with its own grain- nay, tablespoon- of salt.

Of course, there’s the Smart River Cleanup Initiative, a promotional campaign setup by 1Berkshire to advocate and lobby for a low impact cleanup. That marketing campaign, coincidentally (or not) began in January 2011, the same month that a $300,000 contribution from G.E. appeared on their books. Those associated with 1Berkshire maintain that the G.E. donation, the largest the company has made to any nonprofit in the area in well over a decade, has nothing to do with their coinciding immediate decision to launch a campaign that just happens to advocate a cleanup approach that would cost GE hundreds of millions less to conduct. Well, most of them- except for the two board members, Eugenie Sills and James Whalan, who resigned over this questionable lobbying.  The rest of 1Berkshire and its close associates in the community became, practically overnight, well versed and vocal experts in favor of an approach much more limited than even the current EPA/DEP proposal, one most closely resembling GE’s own money-saving suggestions.  Meanwhile, it’s hard for many area residents, even those immersed in cultural tourism circles, to recall one other major initiative or project 1Berkshire has undertaken since its much-trumpeted formation 2 years ago.

Of course, one doesn’t have to be taking in funds from any particular party to merit skepticism. Environmental activists can most certainly have their own knee-jerk anti-corporate biases, and I have plenty of times encountered a disturbing lack of understanding of fundamental scientific principles among such activists in the past.  There is also the natural human tendency to entrench oneself in a position, once chosen, and remain impenetrable to new data that might contradict that position.  So I often find myself consuming an awful lot of salt from every direction, contrary to the advice of my physician.

This time, though, science may in fact be on the side of groups such as the Housatonic River Initiative, who have called for a “fishable, swimmable river” from the very beginning. One of the major reasons cited for a reduced cleanup that would remove only about a quarter of the PCBs is the key vernal pools that dot the winding southern path of the Housatonic. In June 2011, GE told the EPA that “These activities would cause an immediate loss, in all or parts of these pools, of the amphibian and other species that depend on vernal pools for breeding. They would also cause alterations in the hydrology, vegetation, and soil conditions of these vernal pools.”

In its heavily advertised “educational” film “The Housatonic: The Fate of a River,” GE-selected experts tell us that the dredging done in Pittsfield under the Consent Decree was a failure, and that as a result vernal pools are not bouncing back. However, due to the existence of a document detailing GE’s own research on the already remediated 2 mile area of the Housatonic, we now know for sure that with careful (but expensive) efforts, vernal pools absolutely CAN be restored in the floodplain after dredging, and that it can begin to bounce back to its crucial biological balance in a surprisingly short time.

In fact, a vernal pool that was completely dried out in September 2010 had bounced back considerably by the Spring of 2011, with ““documented the presence of fairy shrimp, a full breeding chorus of wood frogs, approximately 100 wood frog egg masses, wood frog tadpoles estimated to number into the thousands, and transforming juveniles in the pool with tail remnants, any one of which satisfies the biological criteria for vernal pool certification …” See: Housatonic River Memorandum, Jan 2012

Vernal Pool returned in 6 months in Pittsfield

Perhaps not suprisingly, GE has not altered the scare film to include this unwelcome data. Speaking of the film, and its home website,, am I the only one who sees an ad for this in my Facebook interface virtually every day? As an old marketing hack myself, I can’t help but think of the old proverb: “A good thing sells itself, a bad thing advertises itself.”

Meanwhile, there’s still a shadow hanging over the prospect of any environmental cleanup effort of the “Rest of the River” (which is still years away at the earliest): Pittsfield, the original source of all the PCBs which GE illegally dumped for decades, itself was never fully remediated, and may never be. While the controversial Consent Decree signed by former Mayor Gerry Doyle provided for removal of large amounts of the toxic, mutagenic, and carcinogenic polychorinated biphenyls from its section of the river, and from Silver Lake (the latter of which has still not taken place), it still leaves us saddled with Hill 78, PCBs buried under Sabic, and in who-knows-how-many other little contaminated hotspots, like the forgotten old cistern in Springside Park above Broadview Terrace, where the concrete has begun to seriously deteriorate and rainwater once more begins to stir up contaminated sediment into our air and groundwater.

And, while EPA New England Regional admin Curt Spalding spent much of the 3 hour hearing Thursday assuring the crowd that their current, still emerging plans don’t necessarily preclude any proposed approaches, these Pittsfield sites are prettymuch off the table for discussion.

“That’s not going to happen,” he told one Pittsfield resident pretty unequivocably, of removing Hill 78.

So the one thing that isn’t going to be an option in the ongoing, continuously revised plans for eventually cleaning the Housatonic River, it seems, is finishing the cleanup at the source of the pollution.

Coming Soon! New Developments at I, Pittsfield

New developments are on the way at I, Pittsfield, as it will begin featuring guest bloggers and columnist side pages!

Stay tuned for a more detailed announcement soon, but at this time I can confirm the rumor that this will include writers that were part of the former cult alternative local news site (2007-08) … so brace yourselves for the unpredictable.

New brains, different perspectives, fresh angles and topics.  Bookmark it now and get ready.

If you would like to be considered as a guest blogger, get in touch

Never a Dull Week in Pittsfield

Long troubled Pittsfield bar Hermann Alexander’s saw its license suspended in the wake of a recent search warrant raid executed by PPD, who claim the tavern was a major hub of cocaine purchasing, where patrons could not only purchase the drug but where dealers went to resupply, sometimes from bar staff themselves.

The City Council hammered out compromises on a proposal from Councilor Jonathan Lothrop for how to go about establishing a proposed commission to review the city’s charter.  Latent party lines in city government were only mildly on display as the council worked out consensus over the key point of who would appoint the members of the commission and how many. An opening suggestion of 9 chosen by the council and 2 by the mayor was put forth by Barry Clairmont, whose argument with Mayor Bianchi in City Hall last week raised eyebrows, while ardent Bianchi ally Melissa Mazzeo pushed for 5 council and 6 mayoral appointments.  To their credit, the council eventually came to agreement in between, with a 7/4 split favoring the council (view meeting online.)

The nearly cancelled first 3rd Thursday of the year was a delightful success, with an array of talent from our own local youth on display sufficient to make any true, positive-thinking Pittsfieldian proud (Photos -iBerkshires – Video-YNN News).

Unfortunately, a much-discussed disturbance immediately following the event drew dozens of police after a crowd of assorted onlookers apparently became unruly while observing two officers breaking up a small spat between teenage girls. 6 teens were arrested, and others were pepper-sprayed, though PPD later declined to confirm this. This provided a gleeful opportunity for certain venomous spin doctors in the area to pursue their ongoing, unrelated personal grudges against Megan Whilden and all positive cultural activity in Pittsfield. Richmond resident Craig Swinson, who posts as DJ Bloom, Alex Denova, MrEatFirstAskLater and other prolific troll aliases on local forums, used it as a gleeful opening to resume his vengeance for whatever feelings of rejection he harbors against the local cultural scene, betraying his obvious hurt-kid grudges by referring to a random teen scuffle as “Megan’s Mess.”

Indeed, this unique and unpredictable incident was like manna from heaven for the few embittered rogues who are dying to see the much loved Pittsfield street fair done away with, probably because its gratuitous images of happy people detracts from their own divisive agendas. This gives them something, no matter how much of a stretch, to point to, after predictions by tabloid blogger Dan Valenti of “chaos and lawsuits” from pedestrians unable to navigate the slightly bumpy asphalt and two inch high man hole covers on North Street proved absurd Thursday evening.

Fortunately for Pittsfield, Mayor Bianchi is certainly smart enough to remain above the gripes of such disgruntled non-residents and take into account the clear majority of interested citizens in Pittsfield who clamored in unison last week in favor of the popular Pittsfield fair, which 80% of Pittsfield residents support providing city funding to make possible.

In other news, Jenn Smith reported on the long list of transitions to be made in Berkshire schools, with over a dozen senior administrators vacating their positions this year; Dollar General moved a step closer to its goal of opening a store in a largely residential area of North Pittsfield; and The Garden gained approval from the Parks Commission for a new 3 day bike & skate camp at the city’s popular new skate park, and 300 area students will attend a Youth Environmental Summit May 30 at BCC, as reported in the Advocate Weekly.

Turn That Frown Upside Down, North Street!

Preface: I sincerely hope that this will be read in the spirit of affectionate support and constructive criticism it is intended.

Myself and others have been hearing a certain amount of complaints lately from some North Street businesses. Obviously, the Streetscape construction has been part of that for a while. Probably none of us really had a total inkling how disruptive it would all be. But most recently, though, some of us are hearing a certain theme being rhapsodized about in the wake of the first of the year’s 3rd Thursday- that this street fair has somehow become less about supporting downtown businesses and is now more of a ‘carnival’ type attraction.

Ok, well, here’s my thing on that. While I have prettymuch tirelessly supported downtown and local business in general, I’m actually getting a little exasperated with some of the talk I’ve been hearing. I just want to really again emphasize up front, that I have been a huge cheerleader for them, particularly within the past year, going on and on to anyone who will listen from on the air of Good Morning Pittsfield appearances to off the record at City Hall- relentlessly preaching how we all need to support them, how difficult the construction has been for them, the need to speed up figuring out a better parking plan and other development projects – on and on until I must sound like a broken record.

However, there’s a few things that I think businesses need to keep in mind- as they are, and always will be, the largest deciding factor in whether they succeed or not.

A)I don’t think 3rd Thursday was ever intended to be entirely for their benefit, it’s for the whole community. It was originally thought up by the department of Cultural Development for Pittsfield, not the Department of Make Money for North Street Businesses. The latter is more the purview of Downtown Inc, which is the side of it they may want to more direct their energies, and perhaps in the form of helping and becoming more involved rather than just complaining.

B) In all honesty, from my perspective beating up and down the Upstreet strip, some of you could really be trying harder.. If there’s a change in who’s benefitting from the event, it could be that it’s shifting in favor of those who are making a greater effort, which seems in a lot of cases to now be the other vendors and the many nonprofits who aren’t based on North Street, but rent space to promote their orgs, causes and products. Meanwhile a lot of these stores, who don’t have to pay for anything because they’re already there, are just not putting their best foot forward. There was an awful lot of empty sidewalk space in front of their stores this past Thursday, why weren’t they making more of it? One (but not the only) notable exception is Wild Sage. Look at that model. Put some merch out! Get out in front of your store, have an attraction of your own, tie it in with your business. Show me how you work it!

C) Let’s not blow with the wind. For some, when they personally are having a good run, there’s all this glowing magnanimous praise- when they’re not, it’s BITCH-BITCH-BITCH. I hear a lot of them talk about how bad the construction has been, but then I’m like, yes, ok, where’s your marketing for your business?? Some of these places have never paid for an ad in their entire existence. These are tough times on a national level, and you have to be innovative and creative and work really, really hard to make it in business. Budgeting for marketing is a big part of that- always has been, always will be. If you need pointers on selling your spot, talk to Jess Lamb at Dottie’s Coffee Lounge, that girl knows how to shake her publicity engine!

D)It’s not the City of Pittsfield’s job to make money for merchants in a certain area –again, that’s more what umbrella organizations like Downtown Inc or Visitor’s Bureau/1Berkshire are supposed to do, and if they’re unhappy with their representation there they should become more vocal and shake things up within those structures. Why rant to others with less ability to help? Sure, there are some of us who have made it clear we care deeply about this city and will put in tons of our own time and effort into championing everyone else’s issues, perhaps even to the detriment of our own stuff (are we becoming suckers, I sometimes wonder?) … but that doesn’t mean we are the best outlet for these grievances.

E. Some of the sour faces and negative attitudes I have encountered entering downtown establishments, and in their external communications too (i.e. kvetching on Facebook= bad for biz) are simply not helping. I really think SOME North Street merchants could really benefit from a few lessons in simple SMILING. They, and their employees are the ultimate core marketing for their business, and frankly some would do well to remember that (or realize it for the first time!). Some of them are just too cranky. I can think of an example of one establishment in particular in the last couple of years, who constantly berated everyone on Facebook for not coming to events at his store, apparently unaware that that very behavior was making people not want to go there as much, consciously or unconsciously. I myself was one of the faithful, and even I stopped turning up as much in part because I was sick of being made to feel guilty about every other time I didn’t. People are turned off by the negative, and repelled by failure- so we really need to tell these merchants that even if things aren’t going so well, maybe don’t shout it from the rooftops that you’re failing! C’mon people, a little POSITIVE SPIN for #$&@’s sake!!

F. Again, marketing!! Did the bookstore ever run an ad, the whole time it was in business?? Apologies if so but I never saw one. The old adage is true, you have to spend money to make money! You can’t just build it and have them come. Longtime downtown businesses like Steven Valenti’s and Aerus Electrolux seem to understand advertising and reaching target demographics- why can’t more of them? And talking about marketing brings us back to the question of trying harder at 3rd Thursday. Simple logic should dictate that most people aren’t going to buy a lot of merchandise that night, it’s not the sort of event you really want to be lugging around a lot of bags at while you’re trying to eat an ice cream cone and keep track of your kid in a crowd, and enjoy some performances. SOOO, they need to really make an impression, so people come back and buy later. Catch their eye, strike their fancy, make them love you! Like women, shoppers need to be endlessly courted and romanced, not just on the first date. Get out in front of this thing, get out in the streets and start sweet-talking and smooth-operating!

G. If everyone was doing poorly, one could blame it more on a systemic problem. But the simple fact is that’s not the case. There’s a few people that are making money hand over hand, so one can’t blame all of one’s failures on a poor business climate. We seem to have forgotten that historically more than half of all new businesses will not make it, and there’s a lot of factors in all that, but the establishment and how it conducts its business has always and will always be the largest piece of the puzzle.

H. Step back and get some perspective. Frankly, for businesses on Tyler Street or Elm Street or West Housatonic or Allendale, the reaction to some of what is being said by North Street vendors is “WHO THE #$%@ do these people think they are, the Chosen Ones?” Ok, so the construction has been rough, and there’s a massive issue of parking infrastructure, but my god, I shudder to think how stores in other parts of the city must feel, where massive coordinated efforts and media campaigns and city projects aren’t bending over backward to help them! They just have to make it in business on their own, the old fashioned way of marketing and attracting customers to their establishment and then giving them good value for their buck and excellent customer service.

I. Ok, so nothing’s perfect, and of course there’ve been missteps and a learning curve in the last few years of redeveloping Pittsfield. There’s no cover-all guide book to urban renewal and nobody has all the right answers. But please, please, I implore you- try to think back to previous times. There are more people and organizations making efforts to support local business than I can remember at any point in the last 30 years. As a longtime Pittsfield resident who moved away in ’02 and moved back in ’08, maybe it’s easier for me to see the contrast… but it’s a huge one.

I. That said, you know I love you all, right? That’s not hyperbole. I have always and will always believe in and support independent businesses in Pittsfield, on any street they may happen to be. Since the days when I used to blow my allowance at the Landing Zone, or my very first pay checks at Sip of Seattle and Either/Or Bookstore, what’s mine shall be yours, to a large extent. If you have a project you need help with or an event you want to promote, my door is always open (figuratively speaking, that is- probably easier to call or email than show up at my door). Like the Pretenders said, I’ll stand by you. Take me in, into your darkest hour… won’t let nobody hurt you… even yourselves, if I can help it.

Stuff Happened in Pittsfield This Week

Rough Week on Allen St

First, there was the explosive brouhaha over the sudden cancellation then un-cancellation of May’s 3rd Thursday, which saw lingering debate and concern throughout the week.  Additional discussion on this blog, on Good Morning Pittsfield, and even tawdry Planet Valenti featured troubling speculation from a variety of angles and perspectives.

Then there was the heated exchange in City Hall chambers Tuesday  night over the controversial  replacement of longtime Licensing Board member Butch Pisani.  Was Councilor Clairmont “out of line” or was Mayor Bianchi “out of order?”  While it’s still a bit murky now, this situation will ultimately have a clear resolution, a final legal determination will get made, and either way it’s going to be awkward for someone.  Maybe everyone.

The School Superintendent Search Failed  … Well, not “failed,” I guess, it just took four months and we are zero steps closer to a new superintendent and will enter next school year with an interim super chosen at the 11th hour. On the upside, the search only cost 1,000 dollars.

On a more positive note, at a press conference Monday at PHS, Mayor Bianchi and city officials gave citations to our public schools, whose recycling programs are said to save Pittsfield taxpayers about 30,000 a year now. While recycling in our schools has certainly come a long way over the last 15 notes, we’re still 2% below the state average which is in turn about 2% the national average. So we’re still in the bottom half.

From the Blotter                                                                                        

Two local bottomfeeders, Lyle Parker and Matthew Demastrie, both 26, of Pittsfield, were arrested for the theft of 200 bronze flag posts.  Quick thinking by a local businessman and swift investigation by the PPD had the flag posts back at St. Joe’s Cemetery and these two dip$#!+s facing charges in short order.

Earlier in the week, Rabies tests came back positive on a fox that plagued the Williams Street area last weekend before being put down by PPD, leading to reminiscence on previous menacing canine encounters locally over the past century.

The driver of an SUV that struck two people during a “melee” in 2010 was acquitted of attempted murder charges, then hours later one of the victims was arrested for attempting to seek revenge on him with a knife.  Yikes.

Matters of Importance

State Senator Benjamin Downing was appointed to chair a second committee for the remainder of the legislative session, State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier sponsored a Corporations are Not People panel discussion at Barrington Stage 

Among the candidates for the newly redrawn 1st Mass. District Congressional seat, Andrea Nuciforo released a statement in support of Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, Bill Shein joined Springfield residences in protesting violence in their neighborhood, and in Washington Richard Neal along with Republican cosponsor Tom Reed introduced a bill to increase the bank-qualified debt limit and index it for inflation, while in Springfield service workers union members blitzed his office to urge him to opposing cuts to Medicaid and Medicare

…On a lighter note, pick up a copy of the new Berkshire Trade & Commerce this week (not online, sadly), which has a fun feature article on our local Zombie Action Committee, who have been making an awful lot of noise lately.   Also definitely check out this touching piece in Sunday’s New York Times by local fav Rural Intelligence’s Dan Shaw.

BAMCon: A Visual Travelogue (aka “what happens at anime cons… ends up all over the interwebs”)

If you somehow missed all the hype and local coverage of the 1st annual Berkshire Anime & Manga Convention, see Pittsfield Gears Up for Anime Invasion at BAMCon on iBerkshires or check out Derek Gentile’s account in Monday’s Berkshire Eagle for an overview of this new endeavor that launched last weekend at Pittsfield’s Crowne Plaza hotel.  Or simply scroll on and enjoy the mish-mash of clips, pics and highlights below.

The Chibi Project was a definite high point for me. The Project has been inventing new ways to destroy anime toys “for no good reason” for over a decade.  In this short clip Patrick Delahanty takes a handsaw to some odd little Sailor Moon figurines attached to a board.  To say I “get it” would be a lie, but I’m not ashamed to say it was inexplicably thrilling to watch.

A little boy named Devon was a smash hit at the costume contest Satuday.  His father said when he set his mind on dressing as classic Transformers character Starscream, he insisted that the outfit actually transform.  With a little help from his mom, various parts were detached, adjusted and reattached as he went from robot to airplane form, showing a delighted audience that he was “more than meets the eye.”  Devon earned awards in two different categories from the expert panel of judges.

The spontaneous cosplay singalong dance party while the masquerade judging was going on was  pretty hilarious; as organizers took requests for songs and enthusiastic fans kept returning to the stage for heartfelt renditions of animated theme classics from Pokemon to Mulan and even (cringe) Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.”

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There was more of that sort of thing going on around different parts of the Con, too, little bits of madness enough to bemuse or  scare the uninitiated (like the Minnesotan couple who upon checking in to the hotel, leaned to me and whispered “Is…everything… alright?”

 It wasn’t all fun and frivolity- sprinkled throughout the schedule were some more earnestly informational events, which added a certain adult intellectual dimension that seemed appreciated.


“In Anime, you tend to have a more complex, unpredictable story,” explained Jonathan Chambers, in a presentation called Anime vs. Western Cartoons, whereas in standard cartoons “There’s typically a simple plot, that’s usually defined as Good vs Evil… Anime also touches on a lot more topics- it’s politics, religion, humanity, and a lot of other concepts.”

Ghoulish freebies courtesy of Zombie Action Committee

Also on the serious side, perhaps even too much so for its own good, was the informational panel on Zombies- what they mean, where they come from, and what do about it. It came with a raffle for this gift bag of awesome zombie swag, though, and the winner, a Mr. Hermann, said he personally was stoked about all the zombie education.

At the very end, organizers of the Con held a Q&A to review and take suggestions from attendees while their minds were still fresh on it. This is a really smart thing to do at an event of this kind and it was wise of them to include it. Input ranged from things like having an organized ultimate frisbee game to suggestions of bands fans thought would be appropriate for next year.

Now that it’s all said and done and continuing to gush out onto the interwebs, the real story here, from a wider local interest perspective, is that Jon Wynn’s MediaCrash and a bunch of dedicated volunteers managed to pretty smoothly execute a totally viable 3 day anime and manga convention in Pittsfield that covered two floors of the Crowne Plaza, apparently covered its costs, and is looking ahead to a second year.  As several shred individuals observed, that’s demonstrative.  That sends a message to enterprises both in and out of the region, to organizations, promoters, and geeks with visions- that Pittsfield can be a location for viable niche events that draw locals and out-of-towners (various attendees hailed from parts of NY, CT, Eastern MA and I’m pretty sure a couple of Canadians).  If the area can be host to a successful anime con, it paves the way for all sorts of other cons, Star Trek, comics, horror, you name it.

Heck, why not a weekend of zombie themed events? No, no, I’m not supposed to talk about that yet… <zips lips>

For many more photos from BAMCon see

There are also more videos on the con’s own Youtube channel here.

The 3rd Thursday Debacle: A Mayoral Waterloo? [UPDATED 2015]

[UPDATE 9-14-15  — Original Blog Below]

Flash back with me to the early days of 2012, Pittsfield… one of Bianchi’s first discernible acts as new mayor was to host a forum for builders on permitting (whose primary input was the desire for a more 21st century online permitting system which 3.5 years later has not been implemented)… his second big standout move of the first term was to cancel the first 3rd Thursday street fair of the year.

While citing public safety concerns from the type of North St. construction that has gone on for several summers before and since, it was widely rumored to be in retaliation to the city department head that coordinated the event for not hiring an old buddy of his. [Later, his then chief of staff confirmed to me that saving cash in police overtime budget was also a consideration].

News of the move leaked during a 1st Fridays Artswalk and by the time the official announcement was made Monday morning his office was already so awash in complaints that by late morning he reversed his decision, the ferocity of the pushback apparently assuaging all his previous safety concerns.

While not a toe was broken nor an ankle sprained throughout the event, whose theme that month celebrated local youth, immediately following it- coincidentally, or karmically- transpired one of the most unfortunate and disappointing sights I’ve witnessed in this community.

Failure to break up a fight between 2 teen girls *somehow* erupted into into a “mass disturbance” – a hundred or more young people running and screaming and clashing with police on a side street once a proud hub of youth recreation. As the results and mistakes of that debacle were quietly repaired behind closed doors, the next month’s event saw an increased police presence which continued to run at high levels from then on- slacking only somewhat, but noticeably, immediately after said department head had escaped to greener pastures.

But then, Mayor Bianchi never wanted that department to exist in the first place, did he? He never supported creating and Office of Cultural Development, voted against it, Barrington Stage, and the Colonial as a City Councilor…. and aside from accepting invites to press conferences and ribbon cuttings, hasn’t actually done anything in two terms that shows any demonstrable support the local creative economy at all, come to think of it….The rumblings started Friday, and made for a turbulent undercurrent as the culturally-oriented base of Pittsfield strode downtown for the First Friday Arts Walk that evening. The first of this year’s 3rd Thursdays- the popular city street fair initiated by the Ruberto-created Department of Cultural Development and enjoyed by tens of thousands over recent years- was to be canceled, for the first time in its 6 years.

The reason: cited safety concerns regarding continued construction on North Street, part of the Streetscape project, another Ruberto administration gamble that has not been as universally well-received.

The problem with that reason: the (largely correct) perception of most Pittsfield residents that 3rd Thursdays have gone on without a hitch during much more disruptive periods in the seemingly endless downtown construction.

Continued discussion throughout the weekend grew bigger and more heated with each new person who heard about it. The flood of emails and calls to Mayor Bianchi’s office began Friday afternoon and grew to a fever pitch from Sunday night to Monday morning when public confirmation came out from Cultural Development via Facebook.

August 2011, at the peak of Phase II Streetscape disarray

“I am baffled at the canceling of the May 3rd Thursday by Mayor Bianchi,” said Ward 6 Councilor John Krol via Facebook. “I cannot understand why Mayor Bianchi decided to cancel on account of construction, particularly when 3rd Thursday continued for several months during construction last year.”

He and Councilor Barry Clairmont covered an even more extensive list of reasons why the cancellation was mystifying on Good Morning Pittsfield Monday morning.

Downtown merchants expressed concern in somewhat stronger language

Bullshit,” “an attempt to go after Megan Whilden indirectly” “a PR disaster for our businesses” were among the responses of proprietors to the Mayor’s decision Friday.

Dozens upon dozens, even Pittsfield expatriates living elsewhere, wrote and called Mayor Bianchi, and following a critical mass of complainants following full publication of the cancellation Monday, he revoked the protested cancellation late that Morning.

In its wake, a political hot mess remains, in which the prompt reversal for many raises serious questions about the validity of the mayor’s initial decision. Even pedantic rumor-blogger and faithful Bianchi cheerleader Dan Valenti issued some criticism- though as an avowed enemy and denier of all downtown revitalization, this criticism was of course mainly limited to his reversal of the unpopular decision.

The whole incident might well have simply been viewed as an unfortunate misstep in evaluating public safety concerns, if it did not hit upon contextual chords and differences of opinions in a very divided constituency, to issues that largely helped to define the 2011 election. Among the voters who backed James Ruberto in ’09 and Peter Marchetti in ’11 is a large subset of supporters who viewed Dan Bianchi as- in his own words- “A cultural Attila the Hun.”

As was heard in one of the more heated mayoral debates last fall, Bianchi initially opposed the creation of the Department of Cultural Development in two separate votes while on the City Council. At the time, Bianchi maintained that this was in response to the way in which then-Mayor Ruberto handled the dismissal of Megan Whilden’s predecessor at the Lichtenstein, Dan O’Connell. Since, looking back over the way it went down, in my opinion Ruberto did handle this transition very poorly, I have heretofore given Bianchi the benefit of the doubt on this subject. Politically, though, this issue has continued to hover, and suspicions have run high among the widening base of Pittsfield residents involved in the local creative economy. It would be folly to think Mayor Bianchi is unaware of this, and we have seen a demonstrable effort over the first four months of his term to stay visibly engaged and supportive of the cultural bracket, from his participation in a recent salon discussion on the subject at Ferrin Gallery to attendance of numerous cultural happenings.

With the 3rd Thursday cancellation, though, all of these concerns have been reinvigorated, and in fact have spread from the art scene die-hards to many residents previously content to stay distantly on the fence of the issue. In the wake of his sudden change of mind Monday, unanswered questions continue to swirl over the nature of Mayor Bianchi’s statement of reversal. The Mayor said he saw it as his duty to reexamine the decision following the outpouring of response from so many citizens, and that after meeting with staff Monday morning he was assured that North Street would be safe.

These explanations have left many wondering how the Mayor could not have known how important the 3rd Thursday celebrations are, both to residents and business owners, as well as why such a meeting to figure out how to hold the event safely didn’t take place prior to deciding to cancel it. This last question is particularly thorny, given just how incredibly quickly the city was able to figure it all out once the phones started ringing off the hook. The over-arching question for many is why wasn’t this all properly examined before the upsetting anouncement, which in retrospect seems like it could easily have been avoided. Is it really possible that Mayor Bianchi’s administration did not anticipate how widely unpopular and directly problematic this announcement would be?

The emerging idea that City Hall could have so misjudged the tenor of the constituents it serves on this issue has become a troubling one for many residents, including some of the most vocal in town. And now that the fears of Bianchi as “cultural Attila the Hun” have been revisited, it seems unlikely they will again subside as quietly and easily as after the election.

Even more potentially damaging to the corner office is the praise the cancellation received from some corners. There is a persistent block of angry, misanthropic Pittsfield residents who despise the city’s recent cultural renaissance, hate anything new and different no matter how proven its success is. I doubt any elected official in their right mind would wish to be seen as a icon to these trollish haters, even if some of them did help create the excruciatingly small margin of victory in November’s election. Of course, with the speedy reversal of the decision, even the sour-faced “why-can’t-we-just-go-back-to-the-old-days” crowd is showing disappointment.

As for the whole cancellation debacle, personally I hope the sentiments being expressed turn out to be wrong, and I think we all would welcome more clarification from the mayor.  But as it stands now the public deserves more and better explanation, especially the hundreds of people who put a huge amount of time and energy in preparing and participating. These things are a ton of work and that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  The answers given to account for this debacle remain incomplete.

Presidents in the Berkshires on WGBY

I was delighted to work with uber-talented producer Anthony Dunne and the folks from WGBY’s Connecting Point on this little segment about the fascinating history of Presidents who’ve visited the Berkshires over the years.  Local historian Eugene Michalenko and I share anecdotes about McKinley’s importance to the town of Adams, Grover Cleveland’s fishing ticket, Garfield’s assassination and Roosevelt’s harrowing near-death experience in Pittsfield.

For other miscellaneous tidbits or to add any incidents we may have missed, check out the original iBerkshires article that inspired the segment and feel free to add a comment.

Oh, and as you can see on the show, I seem to have committed myself to writing the White House to invite the President to visit Pittsfield.  More on that later….