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.

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One thought on “The 3rd Thursday Debacle: A Mayoral Waterloo? [UPDATED 2015]

  1. Pingback: Stuff Happened in Pittsfield This Week | I, Pittsfield

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