A friend recently contacted me about a piece he heard on NPR’s All Things Considered. Titled “North Adams: A Manufacturing Town for Art,” it was a story about a small city in Western Massachusetts and its large contemporary art museum. My friend remembered that I used to work in a neighboring town, but what he didn’t know is that I was born and raised in North Adams, MA and this story would resonate with me in multiple ways.
It’s a story we’ve all heard before, of how “a crumbling mill town” tried to reinvent itself as a mecca for the arts by turning a vacant factory complex into a buzzing contemporary art museum. And, of course, you know how this story ends.
But when you begin to unravel its many threads, this story becomes even more interesting, more cautionary and finally, speaks to the troubling era in which we live and those better days that we long for.
According to the ATC story, when the factory closed more than 3,000 jobs were lost. I remember that time. A town that once was proud of its strong working and middle classes and its ability to be self-sustaining in a relatively isolated part of the state seemed to transform overnight. A community of working families soon became a home to retirees and the chronically unemployed.
And Main Street disappeared. Literally. One entire side of a downtown street, distinguished by early 20th century architecture and shops, movie theaters and restaurants was bulldozed and replaced by a couple of banks and a K-Mart parking lot. Today the K-Mart is gone but the parking lot remains. As North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright wistfully commented, “Our Main Street was like the mall at Christmas.” No truer epitaph for a simpler time has been spoken.
Stephen Sheppard, of Williams College says it best, “There was an initial assumption that having MASS MoCA would transform this Main Street to be like it was in ‘the olden days.” And that is the assumption that drives our desire for our cities to be reinvented by the arts.
We’re not looking towards a new reality based in the present economy and social landscape. We want the arts to embrace the façades of our youth and transform them into something we can still relate to, even if it isn’t the manufacturing economy of the past.
When MASS MoCA opened, we believed – and if we’re going to be honest, the museum and its supporters helped us to buy into the fantasy – that things would go back to the way they were, but be better. That jobs would spring up, Main Street and its businesses would come alive again, and the working middle class and its families would once more take their place in this new improved world.
I know exactly what Dick Alcombright means when he says that Main Street was like the mall at Christmas. It was bustling, and warm, and friendly and full of hope. At least that was what it felt like in our youth. But malls are the new downtown, you can’t restore half a street to its former beauty, and you can’t necessarily base an economy on a tourist class while hoping there will be new restaurants and stores that you or your kids can afford to patronize. And the jobs you’ll reap are more likely to be service jobs without the wages or pensions that your grandparents once enjoyed.
Part of the problem is that we don’t reason through our expectations. Whether it’s a sports arena or a “world class art museum,” we’re still not sure what its long-term affect will be on a community. But whatever changes come about, they will be organic to the place – its geography, demographics, education and income levels – as well as the greater trends that affect us all, such as a sputtering economy and a new way of consuming art and entertainment by a new generation.
Has MASSMoCA been the answer to a struggling city’s prayers for renewal? No, but it was never meant to be. What it will provide is something more intangible, long term, and will never recreate Christmas on Main Street. Nor should it.
Those are our memories. MASS MoCA and the new populaces it attracts will have to create their own.