Social Change film series explores deindustrialization

As part of the College’s Social Change Film Series, Images Cinema hosted a free showing of Maynard Seider’s Farewell to Factory Towns? chronicling the often devastating impacts of deindustrialization in nearby North Adams. Seider, who taught sociology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) for 32 years, has since spent his retirement working on this documentary.

The film opens with a 20th-century overview of North Adams’ economic significance, highlighting the town’s history as a producer of textiles, rubber and electronics. From 1860 to 1946, the print works business O. Arnold and Company established itself in the Marshall Street location that now is home to Mass MoCA and touted the latest and most technologically advanced machinery used for cloth printing.

Thanks to the boon government contracts, both during the American Civil War to supply fabric for the Union Army and at the outset of the 20th century, Arnold Print Works was firmly established as the largest employer in North Adams. By 1905, Arnold Print Works employed approximately 3200 workers and was one of the leading producers of printed textiles worldwide. But after decades of success, falling cloth prices and the aftermath of the Great Depression forced the business to close in 1942 and consolidate to smaller facilities in Adams, Mass.

That same year, Sprague Electric Company bought the site. The company saw much success during World War II, manufacturing important components of U.S. weapons systems, including the atomic bomb. This success lasted decades: By 1966, Sprague had 4137 employees within a modest-sized community of 18,000. Yet after the war, as Sprague shifted its production toward the consumer market, lower-priced competitors with factories abroad forced the company to deal with shrinking sales and forced Sprague to move out of the current Mass MoCA building in 1985.

As the film explains, North Adams residents were not wealthy, but consistent employment afforded them ample luxuries such as trips to Boston to watch the Red Sox. Later on, Seider’s documentary illustrates a clear contrast between this situation and the current unemployment and poverty rates, which have been accompanied by a 20-percent increase in food-insecurity for households in North Adams.

The second portion of the film discusses the arrival of Mass MoCA. The contemporary art museum was largely the brainchild of Thomas Krens, then a professor of art at the College and director of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), and Joseph Thompson ’81, Krens’ colleague at WCMA. At the time, Krens had been looking for an industrial space in which to house larger works of contemporary art that would not fit in a conventional art gallery. Both community and private support allowed the project to continue despite economic roadblocks in North Adams and Massachusetts at large.

North Adams and the larger Berkshire community believed at the time that Mass MoCA would thrive as the economic savior of North Adams, helping to reduce the unemployment rate with the 600 jobs it was expected to create. Additionally, the resulting tourism was predicted to draw more people from the Berkshires and beyond to North Adams’ Marshall Street, boosting profits for other local businesses in the area. However, today Mass MoCA barely employs 60 people, and unemployment and poverty rates in North Adams still hover at 6.2 percent and 19.52 percent, respectively.

The third part of the film touches on the frustration and disappointment that many North Adams residents felt when Mass MoCA turned out not to be the town’s economic saving grace, but Seider made the final point that it is impractical and dangerous to believe that just one quick fix would revitalize the North Adams economy.

A panel discussion followed the film and featured Seider and Gail Carriddi, North Berkshire County’s state representative. Local residents and students casually brainstormed ideas on how to improve economic conditions in North Adams by opening up downtown North Adams to a more conducive business culture, welcoming more national franchises and exploring innovative ways to revitalize area agriculture.

Additional reporting by Cary White, staff writer.