Art project draws new hope for a struggling city in Mass.

Storefront experiment might help bring life to moribund Pittsfield

December 05, 2004|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PITTSFIELD, Mass. - The first snow fell softly, dusting the tired old city with a sense of serenity. In the five downtown blocks that once housed theaters, restaurants and busy department stores, vacant buildings stood dark and doors were shut tight. There was little sign of life at nightfall that Saturday.

Then suddenly, joyously, the artists burst onto North Street.

Laughing, working feverishly, they dragged sofas and chairs from their studios to the sidewalk. Someone brought a lamp and a coffee table. Out came trays of cookies and steaming mugs of hot cocoa. Eighteen painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, poets and dancers set up their outdoor living room directly outside the storefront where Ven Voisey had just installed a work he called "flutter," a metallic moth circling a glowing bulb.

The snowy sidewalk celebration last month was unscripted, said painter Maggie Mailer: An occasion whose very spontaneity captured the spirit of Mailer's Storefront Artist Project.

An unusual collaboration involving city officials, business leaders and a group of hard-working artists is helping to transform this city in western Massachusetts. Over the last two years, Mailer persuaded many of Pittsfield's largest property owners to turn over empty storefronts on North Street to more than 30 artists. The artists pay no rent for street-level studio space that in many cases allows passers-by to observe them as they work.

Although any economic payoff is not yet measurable, the artists' presence has enlivened downtown Pittsfield. Windows on North Street showcase the whimsical sculptures of Rachael Champion, the delicate brush paintings of Roppei Matsumoto and Mailer's paintings that focus on architecture and family. A few new restaurants have opened, bringing chefs from Boston. This summer, a company that sells designer resale clothing on the Internet located its headquarters on North Street, with Chanel shoes and Prada suits in the window.

Despite skepticism from some residents, the city is poised to create a cultural development department and the mayor wants to designate a downtown arts district and provide incentives and other benefits for artists.

Pittsfield - the blue-collar stepchild of bucolic Berkshire County - has been suffering since General Electric Co. closed a plant in 1989 and 13,000 people lost their jobs. A General Dynamics factory also shut down, putting another 1,000 people out of work. Then a shopping mall opened 10 miles away. North Street became an urban commercial graveyard, anchored ingloriously by the courthouse and the bus station.

The plant closures drained Pittsfield of its skilled middle class, as well as its century-old image as a strong, successful community. The population declined to 42,000 from more than 50,000.

The remaining residents tended to be state and county workers, health-care professionals who work here at the county's largest hospital and lawyers connected to the courthouse. Many former GE workers stayed, although they no longer had jobs. The depressed housing market attracted families and individuals on public assistance who used city services but paid few taxes.

On North Street, despair was everywhere. Proud old structures with Corinthian pillars fell empty. Businesses selling T-shirts or bridal wear moved out as fast as they moved in. Tattoo parlors, a Goodwill store and a shop that sells used videos took hold in brick buildings where elegant shops once thrived. The movie theater closed.

For several years, committees and experts explored ways to reinvigorate this charmless city that claimed - among other dubious distinctions - the state's highest out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate. All agreed that Pittsfield's major hope for survival was its location in the center of a region that draws 2 million visitors a year.

But as tourists flocked to the performance centers and galleries of Lenox, on one side of Pittsfield, and the theaters and museums of Williamstown, on the other, they passed through Pittsfield as fast as possible, said Peter LaFayette, director of the Berkshire Housing Development Corp.

Pittsfield's bleakness appealed instantly to Maggie Mailer. She grew up nearby, in the tonier communities of Lenox and Stockbridge. Her mother, jazz singer Carol Stevens, was the fifth of novelist Norman Mailer's six wives.

Studying art and architecture at Columbia, Mailer, 33, devised a theory about "glass-box" creativity, speculating what would happen if artists were to work in public view.

After college, Mailer worked as a painter in Brooklyn. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she found she no longer could work happily in New York.

Joyce Bernstein, a property owner involved in the restoration, offered Mailer free studio space in a vacant building on North Street. Mailer saw a chance to test her thesis.

She took her idea to North Street's landlords, eventually persuading them to provide studios worth about $200,000 per year on the rental market.

City officials also became involved in what became known as the Storefront Artist Project. As president at the time of Pittsfield's Downtown Development Department, LaFayette agreed to help.

Although the 30 artists on North Street are not generating income for Pittsfield, Mayor James Ruberto said, "This has created a tremendous energy in the community. Pittsfield is coming alive again."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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