North Adams: the Berkshires’ ghost town

In many ways North Adams is a ghost town. Abandoned factories line the highways, run-down houses dot the hillside, and Main Street, with its old, closed-down movie theater and empty sidewalks, is a visage of our past. North Adams is the town we left behind when we moved to the suburbs.

But how did the town become what it is? Just what are all those abandoned buildings we drive by on our way down Route 2? Where has the hum of the motor gone in this old mill town?

North Adams’ story reads like that of most New England factory towns. It begins with people who tilled fields and cobbled shoes for a living.

The story has the usual villain: a factory that set up shop with the promise of a stronger economy and a better life. And it ends with the factory closing down, leaving behind only the promises, and a weary town that doesn’t know just what to do now.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Northern Berkshire Region, of which North Adams is the largest city, was nothing like what it is now.

With The Hoosac River providing a constant supply of water power, the region experienced substantial industrial growth, and an influx of manufacturing firms. With the construction of the Hoosac tunnel in 1875, this area became a major industrial center.

For a century life flowed relatively unchanged. Business was prosperous, as manufacturing fueled the growth of the country. North Adams was at its zenith. Population peaked in the first half of this century, and there were jobs for most people, college-educated or not.

Following the Second World War, however, the fervid pace of manufacturing began to slow. As with all New England mill towns, the industrial base dried up, and factories closed.

In North Adams the impact was blunted by the arrival of Sprague Electric. Owned and operated by Robert Sprague, the electrical manufacturing company moved its factories to North Adams in 1929. By the end of World War II it was North Adams’ largest employer, and the life-force of the city.

But as with everything, there was a price. Sprague offered the highest wages, and as a result many people abandoned their small businesses to work for Sprague. The town became dependent on one employer, and that employer enjoyed tremendous influence as only a monopolizer can. North Adams became the city that was swallowed by capitalism.

By the mid-1980s North Adams faced a crisis. In 1984 Sprague announced a reduction in its workforce, and a relocation of its headquarters to Boston. Five thousand people in the Northern Berkshire Region lost jobs between 1984 and 1990, and North Adams was the town that was hit the hardest.

Sprague’s withdrawal hurt the small business owner as well. The slowdown in the economy after the Sprague flight forced many small businesses to close their doors. The end result is that North Adams now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

What has all this meant for the town? Less money has meant worse education. The number of high school dropouts is high, and employment availability is low for even those students who graduate high school.

Adult illiteracy is common. The use of food stamps and other welfare programs is extremely high relative to the state average, as is the estimated use and abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Free and reduced lunches, a reliable indicator of poverty, are also high in North Adams. Currently over 40 percent of all elementary school children receive either free or reduced lunches at school. And gangs have recently started to infiltrate the town.

The depressed economy has taken a huge social toll on the town. The suicide rate in this area is between 40 to 60 percent higher than the rate for all of Massachusetts. By the end of the 1980s, over 15 percent of all births in North Adams were to teenage mothers. That figure is over twice the state average, and it is on the rise.

Teen pregnancy is one of the most devastating social ills, for it often plunges the mother into poverty, and severely limits the child’s life chances.

What else happens to these children? Consider that the Northern Berkshires has the highest rate of child abuse in the state. Incest, neglect and child molestation are serious problems. And so the children are devastated by a cycle of abuse, poor education and paltry job prospects. It is a difficult cycle to break

But the problem of poverty is not all that plagues North Adams. Because of all its troubles, it may never receive adequate attention, simply by virtue of its location. This is Massachusetts after all, and we are situated in the picturesque Berkshire Valley.

People in this state don’t see North Adams when they look at the Berkshires. They see Norman Rockwell, and his visions of a romantic rural utopia.

Imagine Ted Kennedy getting up in front of the Senate and asking for funds to stem illiteracy and child abuse in his state. The state that boasts Williams, Harvard, and Amherst lets bad things happen to it’s children? Impossible. And so North Adams, and towns like it continue to bear their burdens with little relief.

North Adams has tried to reinvent itself. MassMOCA, located in the old Sprague Electric building, is part of an attempt to establish this area as a leading cultural center of New England, and bring in desperately needed tourist dollars. But museums and money are not a cure for all of the town’s problems.

The cycle of poverty has been set into motion, and it will take a concerted effort to stop it.

And where does Williams, and Williamstown fit into this? Perhaps we are in part to blame. After all, we live in one of the richest towns in the state, yet do relatively little to help our neighbors.

So imagine yourself in North Adams. Isolated from the rest of the state, you have enough problems of your own.

But on top of all that, you face the cruel irony of living right next door to Williamstown. Right next door to a town of vast intellectual and financial riches.

That indifference may be the most disheartening tragedy that North Adams faces.

Maybe it’s time we did something about it.

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