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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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?