Ethan Zuckerman, my Williams College classmate (although perhaps better known as an international development/technology & communications guru and co-founder of the terrific GlobalVoices blogging movement), had an interesting post on his personal blog the other day, offering his impressions of Pittsfield and North Adams here in the Berkshires. He and a number of his readers really captured the sense of depression that can permeate a post-industrial mill town, and which can be particularly debilitating for the poorest residents. This depression is one of the psychological barriers we have to be prepared to face with our Berkshire County asset development program, which is largely focused on the residents of Pittsfield and North Adams.
Ethan’s post was in the same spirit as the novel I’m reading now, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Empire Falls,” set in a former mill town in Maine that could easily be North Adams or Pittsfield. I’m only about a third of the way through, but the struggling, working-class characters feel so familiar to me from the encounters I have in North Adams every day. Russo knows this kind of town so well; I highly recommend “Empire Falls” to anyone interested in the social and economic life of a small post-industrial New England town.
And as long as I have found myself using this post to create some high-brow context for the towns and the people with whom my asset development work is taking place, I might as well bring in Thomas Lux’s “Grim Town in a Steep Valley.” Lux has long been one of my favorite poets, a blue-collar man-of-the-people sort of poet if such a thing exists in the world of serious poetry today, a great storyteller who can be hilarious in one instant and heartbreaking the next. This probably won’t be the last time I refer to Lux on this blog, but “Grim Town in a Steep Valley” (although directly inspired by a town in the Merrimack Valley of eastern Massachusetts, I think) is another lens into the place that North Adams and Pittsfield are coming from, and is certainly more heartbreaking than hilarious. The poem was first published about 15 years ago, around the time North Adams (and many former mill towns in New England) hit rock bottom, and the geography and psychology of the poem (and even details like the abandoned shopping cart in the shallow river) always take me back to my memories of North Adams at its worst when I was a student nearby in Williamstown.
This valley: as if a huge, dull, primordial ax
once slammed into the earth
and then withdrew, innumerable millenia ago.
A few flat acres
ribbon either side of the river sliding sluggishly
past the clock tower, the convenience store.
If a river could look over its shoulder,
glad to be going, this one would.
In town center: a factory of clangor and stink,
of grinding and oil,
hard howls from drill bits
biting sheets of steel. All my brothers
live here, every cousin, many dozens
of sisters, my worn aunts
and numb uncles, the many many of me,
a hundred sad wives,
all of us countrymen and -women
born next to each other behind the plow
in this valley, each of us
pressing to our chests a loaf of bread
and a jug of milk…. The river is low
this time of year and the bedstones’ blackness
marks its lack
of depth. A shopping cart
lies on its side in center stream
gathering branches, detritus, silt,
forcing the already weak current to part for it,
dividing it, but even so diminished
it’s glad to be going,
glad to be gone.
Thankfully, that’s not exactly the North Adams of 2007, but those grimmest of grim times have left their mark in many ways, and we who are working to reach the broadest possible segment of the population with support for economic empowerment and opportunity would do well to remember those images and give credit for every step taken out of such depths.