North Adams: moving in the right direction

One gets the sense talking to folks from North Adams that things haven’t changed much in fifty years. Sure the factories might have closed down, but the town is bouncing back.

“This is a wonderful, wonderful town,” Shirley Davis told me as we spoke over the phone one afternoon. Shirley, a member of the Northern Berkshire Community Action Committee (NBCAC) has lived in North Adams her entire life, and now gives herself back to it through service.

“[NBCAC] does a lot of neighborhood stuff, such as bringing in absentee landlords for meetings, and just generally trying to bring neighborhoods back that have gotten bad,” Davis said. “We’re also involved with The Northern Berkshires Neighbors, a group that meets monthly to talk about the neighborhood. They recognize people for good deeds in the neighborhood, improve their own neighborhoods, a lot of good things like that.”

“We’ve also got a lot of business development going on,” she stated. “The North County Community Development Corporation, for example, gives loans to people to start new businesses. And they just secured a $60,000 grant from Bank of Boston for that purpose. We also help provide fuel and food assistance for families that need it.”

The North Adams Police Department echoes Davis’s sentiment. Upbeat and friendly, officers William Baker and Fran Mancuso speak highly of their town. “This town is back on its feet,” said Baker. “I think the people of North Adams have come to realize that they’re more resourceful than they ever thought.”

As community police officers, it is the job of Mancuso and Baker to work the streets. They patrol the community, meet the residents and help them solve problems before it is necessary, in Baker’s words, to “call for service.”

“People are so used to just having the officer show up at their door when there’s trouble,” explained Mancuso. “Our job is to get to know them, not just to bust them. We know most of the people in our areas by name, and they know us.”

“What we are here for ultimately,” added Baker, “is to teach people how to solve their problems. If that’s done properly, then community police will eventually be phased out, because we’ll be unnecessary.” Asked if that is likely, the officers point to Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, formerly North Adams State College. Calls for service are down 65-70 percent over past years and, as Mancuso said, “the only problem you see now is a loud stereo.”

“Considering our population, we have a wonderful school system,” said Lois Hobbie, a teacher at Brayton Elementary in North Adams. “There is so much positive educational expansion going on that goes unnoticed, because people only focus on the bad.”

In fact, there was a suggestion that North Adams might even have a leg up on Williamstown when it comes to education. “I have friends in the Williamstown school system,” said another teacher, “And I hear that Williamstown only caters to its top students. I know of some kids who weren’t doing well there, in terms of reading or whatever, and when they came here they flourished.”

Another issue is Williams College’s involvement in the North Adams community. Evidence of support from the school is not strong, yet many people on this side of the town line believe that Williams plays a major role in North Adams.

“I think involvement with North Adams is very important and I think we do a good deal,” said Williams College President Harry C. Payne. “Clearly our first obligation is to work with our town, but North Adams is an important neighbor, home to many of our staff, and in many ways a community evolving toward similar foci to Williamstown — education, arts, technology. We have a lot to offer each other.”

“We have a number of students involved in the schools and volunteering with agencies,” says Payne.

However, many of the students who work in North Adams do so through EXPR 252, a community service oriented class that will not be offered next year. Liz Buswick, Volunteer Center Coordinator at MCLA, sees little Williams involvement in North Adams. “I have talked with Lehman Community Council about working together on programs, yet there has not been a lot of contact… Not that the perception here is that Williams doesn’t do anything in terms of community service and volunteering, but rather that there is a lack of action between schools because there is a lack of communication.”

Marty West ’98, who has been heavily involved in community service during his four years at Williams, offers a similar view. “Besides the Berkshire food project, there doesn’t seem to be many service programs done in connection with North Adams. I think it’s hard to reach out to North Adams, because of transportation and time issues.”

This is not to say that Williams is completely uninvolved. There has been some involvement between the school and North Adams, as both collaborated on the idea of MassMOCA. Additionally, there is an agreement now to collaborate in creating an opportunity for Williams students to achieve secondary school certification at MCLA. But clearly all of this is relatively minor, and an almost minimum level of involvement for two entities in such close proximity to one another.

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