PITTSFIELD — The mayor of this city steps out from City Hall on a hot weekday morning to do the thing she has been accused of not doing: walking the streets of downtown and speaking to the problems that have reached a crescendo among business owners.
Cutting crosswise through the Dunham Mall pedestrian side street to North Street, she has a choice. Turn left, toward the restored commercial space where a cheerful Brooklyn couple hopes to open a brewery next spring, or right, in the direction of a florist whose owners recently posted a photo of their vandalized window splattered with raw egg and who declared they will leave this city because conditions have “gotten worse and worse.”
Considered an essential organ of the Berkshires, downtown Pittsfield is — ideally — where commerce, the arts, restaurants, residences, rich, poor, middle class, immigrants and native-born meet, greet and engage in the county’s closest thing to energized urban living, set amid elegant and historic architecture.
But, talk with business owners these days and a consensus emerges that downtown has reached a critical juncture. Optimism intermingles with frustration and resignation, sometimes in the same breath.
“Being in business on North Street is kind of like being really popular in high school, but having really embarrassing parents,” says Jessica Rufo, owner of Dottie’s Coffee Lounge at 444 North St. “We’re all doing so well, but Mom and Dad are, like, passed out in the living room and, like, their car is always dented up.”
The florist Township Four is looking to pull out because of safety concerns. RJ Stohr Diamonds & Fine Jewelry recently posting a banner across its window: “We’re Moving!! This Fall!” — an exit blamed on the city’s metered parking policy. Talk downtown recently quickly turned to “Mom and Dad” — to this city’s mayor, Linda Tyer, and her administration’s commitment to a safe, clean, functioning, thriving downtown.
Upon the invitation from The Eagle, Tyer steps out to North Street. She opts to turn right.
The word on the street
“I’m pretty proud of our downtown,” says Tyer, who was inaugurated to a second four-year term in January 2020 after a 4-point election margin. “I understand there are challenges, and I am open to hearing from people who have concerns, and I’m certainly willing to engage in creative problem-solving, and I also think we have a lot going for us.”
She is walking past a vacant storefront at the corner of Fenn Street before coming upon a prime example of what downtown has going for it: Barrington Stage Company, whose shows this summer have been sold out.
Not everyone has criticisms to direct to the present administration.
“The city bent over backwards to make this season happen,” says Branden Huldeen, Barrington Stage’s artistic producer and director of new works. Huldeen, who also serves as board president for Downtown Pittsfield Inc., which promotes the business district, said, “I think that there are optimistic businesses that see what the potential is and where we could head.”
The mayor walks past the Abbey Cutters hair salon. Later that day, when asked about the state of North Street, the hairdresser there, Peppe Duvalle, stuck out his fist and pointed a thumb downward. Duvalle, who has been cutting hair on North Street since 1993 and hears the scuttlebutt, says, “Everybody thinks they’re a bunch of boneheads in City Hall, and as far as the mayor is concerned, she doesn’t do anything bad, but she doesn’t do anything good. That’s what I hear.”
Next door, Bill Whittaker, co-owner of The Garden, a snow, skate and apparel shop, is willing to get specific. In an interview with The Eagle, he said his issue is parking, ticketing, the reconfigured lines of North Street and safety.
Last year, through a grant the city received from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the city began creating a series of “parklets” — they extend out into North Street — as community spaces for dining and social gathering. The problem for The Garden, Whittaker said, is that two parking spaces in front of his store and a third across the street were sacrificed. To make matters worse, he said, the city’s aggressive ticketing downtown has led to customer complaints.
His business partner, Luke Kessler, was ticketed when trying to quickly unload merchandise in front of the store, with his vehicle’s hazard lights on.
“They shouldn’t be ticketing people in the first place,” Whittaker said. “I don’t think you should have to pay for parking downtown. They should be going the other way: They should be trying to incentivize people to get downtown. If they want stores to stay down here, they’re not acting like it, let’s just say that.”
He opposes, at least for now, the city’s paid parking system, which launched in 2017 to improve parking space turnover for would-be patrons. “How about let’s get downtown to the point where it’s booming and people are fighting for retail spaces, and then let’s pay for parking, you know?” he said.
Whittaker supports the new bike lanes that extend in each direction of North Street, but is puzzled. “The lines are not clear as to where you are supposed to be. It feels like they just painted lines over lines, and people just have no idea. People are confused.”
Tyer said the new street configuration that includes the bike lanes and parklets is “in its infancy.” The bike lanes, for one, align with a long-held vision to make the city more bike-friendly, she said.
On ticketing, she says the city has responded to complaints by implementing a warning system for first-time offenses and by making the first 30 minutes of parking free. Parking remains free at nights and on weekends. She acknowledges that the first attempts at reconfiguring traffic flow resulted in “a bit of an obstacle course,” but the confusion has been corrected, she said.
“I am really excited to be able to tell people that our downtown has a protected bike lane,” she says. “If we need to make tweaks or if we need to undo something or do something differently, we are certainly open to that.”
Concerns for safety
Walking north from The Garden, Tyer passes the three-story building that houses an unemployment office, an expanded juvenile court and a clinic that treats people with opioid addiction.
Whittaker said his neighbors are not always “the most cordial people.” Panhandling has increased outside his door, as has smoking, even though smoking is banned within 10 feet of business entrances along North Street.
“I’m all about getting people help,” he said, “but putting places like that right next to businesses: Not the best.”
When asked about that, Tyer said her administration tried several years ago to persuade the landlord of that building and the tenant — the commonwealth of Massachusetts — to at least open up the street-level spaces for use as retail spaces. Her efforts went nowhere, she said.
In the meantime, she points to the city’s partnership with Downtown Pittsfield Inc. to form an “ambassador program,” whereby employees in fluorescent orange T-shirts walk the streets from early July through Labor Day to assist people. The ambassadors, who work in pairs until 8 p.m., focus on concierge service and safety, and they carry a police radio in the event they encounter problems.
Tyer comes upon the home furnishing store Paul Rich & Sons, where Pam Rich, in a separate conversation with The Eagle, says problems downtown require more than ambassadors. Downtown needs beat cops, social workers and a commitment to keeping public spaces clean and maintained, Rich said.
“We love the downtown,” she said. “However, we feel we need more support from this administration and the Police Department and more visible presence of police personnel and also social workers to de-escalate problems in downtown so that people feel safe.”
Tyer said police do have a presence downtown, of course, but not someone on foot patrol. It’s not in the budget. “I do support that and would implement that if I had the resources to do it without diminishing the security we need to provide for the entire city,” she said.
As for keeping the streets and public spaces clean and maintained, Tyer explained that the city struggled with finding a contractor this year to do the work. “We didn’t get anyone submitting a bid as a landscape company,” she said.
Rufo, the owner of Dottie’s, wonders why that information wasn’t communicated to business owners who watched as downtown increasingly grew unkempt this year.
“If someone said, ‘Hey, the contractor fell through and we’re not going to maintain [public spaces], we would have gone out to do it. So, instead, everything just looks abandoned.”
Tyer said city work crews were recently reshuffled to allow for downtown spaces to receive attention.
‘I lost it on Facebook one day’
Tyer walks past the furnishings store Circa and past Mission Bar & Tapas, to North Street and Maplewood Avenue, home of Dottie’s. No one, Tyer included, disputes that a sometimes loud and rude crowd that relies on the city’s social services had gotten out of hand here in recent months.
Merchants throughout downtown report upsetting confrontations with troubled people, including with teens, who congregate outside their businesses and sometimes enter and raise havoc. The merchants report having to navigate around trash and, sometimes, human waste. Vandalism has been an issue throughout downtown.
“I lost it on Facebook one day,” Rufo said.
Soon after her posting, the city came and removed four city-owned benches by her cafe that had become notorious gathering spots. “Great,” Rufo said. “Thank you for doing that. It’s definitely a healthier work environment, and more pleasant dining experience. But, it’s also not fixing the problem.”
She said, “I want to be a part of the community that is servicing and noticing and advocating for the people who are sick in our community — that they are being taken care of in a way that is productive, that our businesses will be more productive. … That’s sort of the conversation I want to be having. And that’s the committee I want to be involved in.”
Rufo said the city rightly takes credit for distributing financial assistance to businesses such as hers during the COVID-19 lockdown. But, she said, a better investment might have been to aid people without homes, and those who struggle with substance abuse and mental disorders.
“I’d gladly give back $5,000 the city gave me for programming, preventive efforts, de-escalation training for businesses,” she said.
When asked about the city’s efforts to serve those with social needs, Tyer said: “There’s an important balance we have to strike, and that balance is something we’re struggling with.”
She noted that the city in February collaborated with The Christian Center to have a 24-by-60-foot trailer placed on nearby Robbins Avenue. She said the trailer serves as a comfort center to provide people who are homeless with a place to go and receive food and shelter in the hours during the day that ServiceNet’s shelter at the former St. Joseph High School is closed.
The city is receiving a total of $40 million in coronavirus pandemic relief money. Residents this past week urged the city to use at least a portion of it on affordable and accessible housing opportunities and mental health services.
From North Street and Maplewood Avenue, Carr Hardware is within view, and Tyer would like the record to show that she supports the artistic window wraps recently installed there that put the 93-year-old business into hot water with the city. The building inspector had flagged the wraps and other signage as a violation in May.
“To me,” Tyer said, “I feel like this was a failure to communicate within my organization, and we own it. I own it.”
A man in a red SUV drove past with the window down and hollered out to the mayor, “Keep up the good work.”
She rejects any implication that she and her administration are not committed to downtown. Her career in public service began in 2004, when she was elected to the City Council. She notes that one of her “proudest votes even still today” was her support for city financing to help restore the historic Colonial Theatre on South Street, which reopened in 2006.
The project was considered a linchpin in Pittsfield’s downtown-revitalization efforts, a way to reverse the economic decline that occurred in the city after General Electric began downsizing in the mid-1980s.
Another proud moment, Tyer said, was her support of public financing for the Beacon Cinema, which opened in 2009 in the renovated Kinnell-Kresge building on North Street.
She notes that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, she established the city of Pittsfield Economic Recovery Program to distribute local and federal money to residents, community organizations, cultural institutions and small businesses, including those downtown.
‘A fatigue and a frustration’
She crosses the street, to another challenging corner. At North and Linden streets, the home of The Lantern Bar & Grill, the owner, Bjorn Somlo, makes a distinction between life inside his business, which is “wonderful,” and life outside his door, where “there is a fatigue and a frustration.”
The way he sees it, the “meteoric success” experienced in Berkshire towns outside Pittsfield has resulted in undue pressure on Pittsfield.
Pittsfield is where more and more people now vie for a portion of the county’s remaining housing that is relatively affordable. Pittsfield is where more and more people in need of social services have little choice but to congregate, and to do so within a smaller and smaller footprint: namely, downtown.
“Pittsfield is becoming more and more charged,” Somlo said.
Meanwhile, what is missing downtown, he and others said, is a critical mass of foot traffic that would help tilt the focus toward the city’s charms rather than its struggles. Business owners say the biggest obstruction to increased foot traffic is the sense held by many throughout the county that downtown might be unsafe and unclean.
“And so if it’s perception, it’s reality,” said Bart Raser, owner of Carr Hardware.
Somlo, who took over the century-old iconic Lantern in 2018 and reopened it in 2019, said that when business owners try to raise these issues with City Hall, the conversations rarely bear fruit.
“I think one of the biggest things is, when you call City Hall, they kind of just talk at you,” he said. “They’re nice, but you kind of feel like you’re just dealing with a really good defender, and they’re just kind of like blocking all your shots. So, you don’t get to someone that feels actionable at all.”
While he and many others credit the Police Department for being responsive when called upon, many of the problems downtown don’t rise to the level of crime, or crime that would be prosecuted.
The city, Somlo said, needs professional staff on the streets with the talent and training to handle the challenging effects of poverty, drug abuse and mental disorders — people who can say, “Hey, man, do you want to just come down the street with me? You know, it seems like you’re having a tough moment,” he said.
“We have nothing like that,” Somlo said.
Still, he said, despite everything, “What the city does have is just this enduring hope.”
He said, “People are so pissed off because they see so much potential. This place is just [rife] with potential.”
Walk a half-block south from The Lantern, past the empty storefront vacated by the Familiar Trees bookstore, which relocated to Great Barrington in July, and you come to Jan Perry Realty, whose managing broker, Billy Keane, has a wild little wish.
“If I had my druthers,” he said, “I would just bring everyone to my house and I’d sit them around a table and I’d serve them beverages, and we’d all talk about what the problems are and how to solve them. That’s what should be happening now.”
He said that, by and large, the goals of all the stakeholders in Pittsfield are the same, “but there seems to be a distinct breakdown in communication between our municipal leadership and our business leadership and, frankly, our creative leadership.”
He added that, at this table in his home, he would include room for the city’s homeless population. “These are our people,” he said.
One business has had enough
Just past Jan Perry Realty, the mayor approaches Township Four Floristry & Home, owned by Jed Thompson and Nathan Hanford.
“I’m very sad that they’ve made a decision to leave our city,” Tyer said. “And we continue to be here to help them, if they should decide that we can — we can do more for them.”
As the mayor resumes walking, a woman approaches her shouting about how Thompson and Hanford have been subjected to homophobic slurs. Tyer says this is news to her. Once the woman passes, Tyer says, “It concerns me that Jed and Nathan are feeling that their lifestyle has come under attack. That is something that I wish I knew more about.”
Thompson and Hanford declined to speak on the record.
In a recent Instagram post that included a photo of their egged storefront window, they asked for leads for retail space outside Pittsfield. “It is not safe for us here,” the post read.
The mayor comes to the corner of Bradford Street. A merchant at North and Bradford, who preferred not to be named, said he recently installed a new security system for his business, after acts of vandalism. He said there is soliciting for prostitution occurring on that corner.
Tyer said she has advocated for the establishment of a crime watch, a partnership between downtown businesses and police that discuss public safety. In the meantime, she said, the city has encouraged business owners and residents to reach out to the Police Department if they would like to have a free security assessment performed at individual properties.
‘The city tries’
The mayor walks past K’s Merchandise, whose owner, Kay Kim, said in an interview later in the day, “The city tries, the city tries. But, there aren’t enough people here anymore. People move away. The population has gotten smaller.”
That is true. Pittsfield’s population steadily has declined since 1960, from about 58,000 residents to just over 41,000.
For Pittsfield businesses and cultural institutions, this means, at least in part, a pivot from catering to locals to burnishing the city’s image as an arts and cultural destination for out-of-towners.
On cue, Tyer comes to the former Besse-Clark department store that now houses the 45-room Hotel on North. A $14 million investment owned by Pittsfielders David and Laurie that opened in 2015, Hotel on North has good news to report.
After an eight-month absence of food service there, the boutique hotel will again have a restaurant and bar with the opening of Berkshire Palate in coming weeks.
Hotel on North is a “key” component to downtown revitalization efforts, Tyer said.
Still, for Laurie Tierney, downtown’s potential remains only partially tapped, exasperatingly so.
Pittsfield, she said, “could be amazing. We are the Brooklyn of the Berkshires. It’s edgy, it’s gritty. … But, what’s missing is the traffic — people downtown.”
Her frustration, she said, extends back to before the present administration. “A lot of it is from our forebears, from people who said years ago, ‘Let’s put social services downtown. Let’s say it’s OK to have a juvenile court downtown.’”
She noted that down the street from her, the developer Allegrone has bought the historic Wright Building, at 255 North St., and plans to begin a $7.5 million renovation to create 16 to 20 market-rate apartments and 12,000 square feet of retail space.
She questions the degree to which the city is stepping up to help recruit businesses for the street-level retail spaces there and the empty storefronts elsewhere.
“Everyone who works for the city has to be in the hospitality business,” she said. “We have to sell the city, have pride in the city. We have great businesses, passionate people, smart people who just want a little love, a little support, someone to stop by and say, ‘How are you? What’s going on? What do you need? What can we do for you?’ An ambassador — not ones wearing orange shirts, but a real one.”
In other words, the mayor, her administration, the city’s elected officials.
‘The greatest small city in America’
It’s the same complaint lodged by Steven Valenti, of Steven Valenti Clothing for Men, at 157 North St.
“Jimmy Ruberto used to say, ‘Pittsfield is the greatest small city in America,’” Valenti said, referring to the former mayor who served from 2004 to 2012. “Jim Ruberto would come into this store once a month and say, ‘What do you hear?’ and ‘What do you need?’”
Referring to the pandemic, Valenti, 70, who has worked downtown since he was 16, said, “We’ve fought a war, and no one has asked us how we’re doing?” Meanwhile, he said, everywhere he goes, friends and acquaintances ask him, “What the hell’s going on downtown?”
When asked about this, Tyer said, “I guess I would just apologize to the businesses who have felt that I haven’t been present for them. And I would also say that every mayor has a different style of working, and that is not to suggest that my way of working in any way diminishes my passion for North Street.”
Tyer walks past the vacant storefront that, until last year, housed Jim’s House of Shoes, a mainstay for more than a half-century. Its owner, Marc Abecassis, has retired.
Despite businesses that have closed or moved away, Tyer points to others that have set up. For instance, Latino Market El Gallo más Gallo opened on North Street in January. The Spot, a juice bar, opened in May on North Street. Kismet Bridal Studio opened in July on Bank Row.
Moreover, the former owners of The Olde Heritage Tavern in Lenox soon will open 101 Restaurant and Bar in the Holiday Inn on West Street. “It’s an evolution,” Tyer said of downtown, “and it will be a constant evolution.”
That constant evolution includes Rick Stohr, who has announced he is moving his jewelry business from downtown to East Street this October.
Stohr said the city’s metered parking system has amounted to “zero convenience” for his customers. He, for one, is not opposed to metered parking. He is opposed to people being permitted to hog a spot all day. He has asked the city to set time limits. He said the city has not shown an interest in addressing his concern.
To the city administration, he has this to say: “I don’t want to be a thorn in anyone’s side, but we’re fighting for our livelihood because you’re ruining it.”
The new retail space he is moving to will be in a stand-alone building with 11 parking spaces.
Valenti reckons this will be the first time in 120 years that North Street goes without a jewelry store. Stohr said the move was avoidable.
New dreams brewing
Tyer recalled that her memories of downtown Pittsfield date to her childhood, of smelling hot dogs at the lunch counter in the Central Block of North Street, in the old J.J. Newberry’s store, which closed in 1994.
Occupying a space in the Central Block these days is Lindsey Tuller, co-owner of the Berkshire General Store, which is for sale — not because business is bad, but because she wants to leave the region for new adventures. This adventure has grown old.
“There’s not a week that goes by here where I don’t follow someone out the door after I watch them steal from me, and I have to scream at them to give me my stuff back,” Tuller told The Eagle. “There isn’t a week that goes by that the hallway isn’t trashed. We need more of a police presence here. We really do.”
Tyer crosses back over to the City Hall side of North Street. She is late for a meeting. She has to get going.
“I just want to say my door is open,” she said. “Our downtown is a work in progress, and we have to keep nurturing it, and we will.”
Meanwhile on North Street, new dreams are brewing on a hot summer day.
Mike Dell’Aquila and Sarah Real, who recently relocated to Pittsfield from Brooklyn, N.Y., are planning to open a seven-barrel brewpub, Hot Plate Brewing Co., on North Street in early 2022. They prefer to keep the exact location of their proposed brewery under wraps until all the licensing matters and the rental agreement are complete.
Why a business here?
“We wanted to find a place with potential but that isn’t yet fully baked,” Dell’Aquila said. “It was the right mix of getting in at a time before it becomes like Great Barrington and totally saturated.”
With the mayor back at City Hall and with downtown merchants engaged in the commotion of commerce and the challenges of a not-yet-fully-baked revitalization effort, Dell’Aquila gives a fresh take.
“New York City,” he said, “is like a bunch of mini Pittsfields. Look, if we don’t get in here, someone will, because this is a really good location.”