CLiA inspires students to ‘disappear’ into North Adams

In his 2001 book Disappearing Into North Adams, Joe Manning looks around, interviews, photographs and transcribes a small Massachusetts town that is at a point of holistic juxtaposition. North Adams is simultaneously in an economic slump and on the cusp of a potential rebound. It houses pockets of vibrant artists and young families new to the area, alongside those who might have once worked for the Sprague Electric Company, the abandoned factory that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) now inhabits. People are both entrenched in the past and locked into the future. But some of the most compelling people are those who are not at any crossroads at all, and are instead focused on the one thing that is at the heart of every individual in the North Adams community: simply living their lives. 

Joe Manning was first acquainted with the North Adams community in 1996 after he and his wife traveled to the Berkshires to see the opening of a Mass MoCA exhibit and, upon discovering the article had misprinted the date of the opening, decided to explore the town. After a day of walking around, Manning was enraptured. To him, North Adams was like many other New England towns ravaged by the loss of a factory but was compelling in its geographic location and architectural look – Manning entitled a previous work on North Adams Steeples with regard to the consistent architectural style of the area. “You can feel the impact close up,” Manning said of the unique way that the loss of factory has affected in North Adams. 

The impact that Manning refers to, beyond that of the closing of the factory, is that brought on by of Mass MoCA, which opened in the late 1990s and polarized the community into two branches.  [There were those] that thought that Mass MoCA was going to save the community and those who wanted a resurgence of the factory,” Manning said.  The opening of Mass MoCA, which was established in the ruins of the extinct Sprague Electric Company factory, solidified the position that factories would no longer serve as the center of the community economically or culturally. 

Generally, Manning finds that the town has a perspective of progress, in part because “a lot of the people who were looking backwards have passed on,” he said. However, in addition the young progressives that have moved in, Manning identifies a group of older people that are looking forward, albeit with hesitancy – they have witnessed the collapse of the town before and are therefore wary to attach themselves to much tangible hope.

Economically speaking, these young people have not gentrified the area; rent has not dramatically increased nor have populations of people been displaced by new, young wealth. Culturally, however, there is a sort of gentrification taking place. Manning talks about how the young people speak, as he put it, “a new language,” one that the older generation does not fully understand. Far from trivial differences in contemporary vernacular, what Manning is getting at is that they value things differently. “[Before the museum,] people valued their families, their church, their job. [Now,] people are beginning to value art,” Manning said. The older generation is struggling to wrap its head around this fact.

What Manning finds in the North Adams community, however, is that both of these demographics are trying very hard. Younger people are sending their kids to the local public school, actively getting to know the history of the town, representing the town on school board and historical societies, doing whatever they can to immerse themselves in the community that they are driving. “Two sets of people aren’t necessarily going to understand each other,” Manning said, but what is so charming about North Adams is the fact that both groups are truly trying to do so. 

The working class of North Adams, however, “is not intellectualizing their problems,” Manning said. “Mass MoCA has nothing to do with their lives.” The working class population of North Adams has been working day in and day out even before the factory closed and was obviously hit the hardest when the industry did fall. Now, as the image of the town seems to progress, these individuals are “just trying to live their lives,” Manning said.

Manning finds that this mentality of just going about one’s work is not isolated to the working class in North Adams but actually extends to the entire community. In his book, Manning interviews “regular people” who have wildly compelling and complex stories that, to them, are not extraordinarily interesting. Modesty is what truly distinguishes North Adams; in all of his interviews, none of his subjects bragged and, at the end of the day, people “didn’t take themselves to seriously,” Manning said. Among artists, retired factory workers and people living paycheck to paycheck, humility is at the core of every member of the North Adams community. 

The Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) has recently launched an initiative to exhibit Manning’s work as a gateway for students to get involved with the North Adams community. “I think the book does a great job showing us that North Adams has a rich and valuable history, and shows us the potential North Adams has as a major hub for Western Massachusetts,” Jay Habib ’18, who worked on this initiative, said.

The College functions as an almost utopian community, separate from the real world, where individual strength is backed by the support and kindness of others. With its distinctive modesty and genuine care for the town they inhabit, the people of the North Adams community have much in common with students at the College.   

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