North Adams and Mass MoCA look to the future — Part 3

On a spring morning, the line stretched out the door at Touchy Coffee on Main Street. The new popup from Troy, N.Y., was drawing curiosity and interest.

Ben Lamb and Tom Bernard see an energy in the city, and they hope to see it sustained. Even with the challenges of the pandemic and recovery — or even because of them — they see investments in the local community and economy that depend on the city’s invigorated reputation. Bernard is a North Adams native who has served two terms as mayor before becoming director of Berkshire United Way, and Lamb a recent city councelor serving on the Mass MoCA board.

They consider new businesses that have opened downtown recently — the Bear and Bee Bookshop, Heart’s Pace cafe, Casita — the new Mexican restaurant opened by the owners of Chingon Taco Truck — the Plant Connector offering begonias and local ceramics, and workshops on terraria.

MCLA alums have opened the Common Folk collective, gathering visual artists and musicians downtown. A shoal of art galleries and spaces have opened around Installation Space on Eagle Street and Walkaway House nearby, and Savvy Hive among several new vintage shops.


Victoria Palermo's Bus Stand turns a bus stop into color as vivid as stained glass on a sunny day in North Adams.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Victoria Palermo's Bus Stand turns a bus stop into color as vivid as stained glass on a sunny day in North Adams.

And Lamb sees connections with the Roots Teen Center and the community gardens near the UNO community center, Hexagon Bagels, and Touchy Coffee opening their popup on Main Street.

He has seen local shops and nonprofits and creative spaces ebb and flow over time, he said, and the flavors change, but walking up Main Street today he sees a growing energy and an interesting diversity of businesses buzzing around town.

“You have the Porches Inn,” he said, “and Tourists Welcome, which is consistently ranked as a top hotel in the world, and GreylockWorks, with its own ecosystem” — a renovated mill that now holds the Break Room coffee shop, Berkshire Cider Project, Greylock Distillery, the Railroad Street Artists Collective among a group of local businesses, studios and professional offices.

Tables and ferns line the outside courtyard at GreylockWorks on a sunny day.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Tables and ferns line the outside courtyard at GreylockWorks on a sunny day.

Just up the road at the Norad Mill, Berkshire entrepreneur David Moresi has gathered local ventures from Belltower Records to Tupelo Press, Freia Fibers hand-dyed yarns and Tunnel City Coffee Roastery.

“I think they have grown from that fertile soil,” Lamb said, listening for Mass MoCA’s reverberations through time.

‘The Pittsfield Metro area — all Berkshire County falls into that area — had the highest rate of new address reallocation, people moving into the community, in the entire country.’ — Ben Lamb

Many of these businesses have opened within the past four years.

“The Berkshires have changed a lot after Covid,” says Sue Killam, Mass MoCA’s managing director for the performing arts and film. “People are finding their way here and choosing to stay here because of a way of life.”

The pandemic has made a difference, Lamb said, but in rural areas some of that difference has been positive. Though North Adams, and the Berkshires, have lost population since the 1980s, that trend has changed and even reversed.

“Everybody was getting out of urban areas,” he said. “In the spring of 2020, the U.S. Postal Service had done a study of the movement of addresses around the country and the Pittsfield Metro area — all Berkshire County falls into that area — had the highest rate of new address reallocation, people moving into the community, in the entire country.”


Rose B. Simpson’s clay figures lean together wearing clay beads in the ceramics show at Mass MoCA.

Armando Guadalupe Cortés’ 'Castillo' honors the people and the land in his native Mexico with vividly bright seeds as well as stones, feathers, figurines and more, at Mass MoCA.
Armando Guadalupe Cortés

Armando Guadalupe Cortés’ 'Castillo' honors the people and the land in his native Mexico with vividly bright seeds as well as stones, feathers, figurines and more, at Mass MoCA.

And though Covid has calmed and some have returned to larger cities, he sees a growing number of people in the Berkshires, and more flexibility as people are working hybrid, virtual or remote.

At the same time, Bernard said, a diversified, creative economy takes more players. To sustain this kind of growth, he believes the city needs deep, long-term planning, married with intentional business development. It takes resources and consistency and the right kind of innovative minds to make the dream a reality.

“It’s great that people come to Mass MoCA and to North Adams and are enchanted and ensorcelled by it,” he said — “as I am. I love the city. But it’s accidental. It’s people dropping in to Solid Sound.

“What would it take to get a company to understand that the cost of living is lower here, the cost of real estate is lower, and you have access to natural beauty, culture, good school systems …? And this is the time. Look at the cost of commercial real estate in Boston.”

An artist in residence paints in a studio at Mass MoCA.
Mass MoCA

An artist in residence paints in a studio at Mass MoCA. Press photo courtesy of Mass MoCA

When he was serving the city, he said, some of his colleagues and neighbors saw him focused on the creative economy.

“It was an easy knock to call me the MoCA Mayor, because I had worked there and I was supportive of the museum. And I laughed. I embraced it. Why would someone not want to be the cheerleader — and the accountability buddy, because accountability is key — for a museum contributing in collaboration with the city?”

On a sunny spring afternoon, Killam looked around at the teenagers in the courtyard, school groups and artists the museums annual Teen Invitational Exhibit.

Toshi Reagon performs The Love Sessions at FreshGrass at Mass MoCA. Press photo courtesy of the museum

Toshi Reagon performs The Love Sessions at FreshGrass at Mass MoCA. Press photo courtesy of the museum

The museum has had an active spring already, as they have negotiated a strike, raised their minimum wage to $18 an hour, an annual income of more than $37,000 — and announced $1 Million Barr Grant supporting creative placemaking efforts.

The Barr Grant will allow them to work with the North Adams, Killam said, even to dedicated staff positions, on projects like the Army Corps of Engineers current study on restoring the Hoosic River, protecting against flooding and re-envisioning the 70-year-old cement flood chutes that encase the water through much of downtown and the museum’s campus.

They museum is also working with the city on projects to extend the bike path between Williamstown and the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail in Adams and open access between the museum and downtown, including a study of the Route 2 Overpass. And Mass MoCA is looking into artist housing and studio spaces, and creative economic spaces and environmental sustainability on their own campus.

Around their 25th anniversary, the museum also plans unveil their new strategic plan, Killam said.

“I applaud Kristy’s vision,” she said. “On the flood chutes, she said we have to have a point of view. We’re at the hub of it.”

Bernard sees a need for robust technology infrastructure, access to housing, public transportation and support for the downtown, for people who take the risk to open local, independent ventures.

As in many rural areas, North Adams faces challenges in ensuring the people who live and work here can find family, friendship and community, and sustainable work in their fields … and enjoy the Berkshires’ rare balance of intellectual life and natural beauty.

“I’m hopeful,” he said, “that in the next few years, what Joe Thompson built with so many other people, the board, staff, artists, performers, curators, will evolve. With friendship and appreciation for Joe Thompson, any institution has to persist beyond its founder and origin story.”

‘I’m hopeful that in the next few years, what Joe Thompson built with so many other people, the board, staff, artists, performers, curators, will evolve.’ — Tom Bernard

He has a deep appreciation for the place Mass MoCA is growing from, he said, but sustainability never comes tied to one person and one vision. He is hopeful, that people are continuing to come and continuing to invest, and people in the Berkshires continue to stay focused and relevant.

“… How do the current leadership and future leadership reconcile what Mass MoCA is, can be and needs to be,” he asked — “exciting, messy, chaotic — messy and chaotic are what Mass MoCA does, in the best possible way, when they’re done with creativity and respect.”

And how do they go on … so locals can sit with friends over fresh carnitas, and savor Osman Kahn’s visions of djinn in the ether, and listen to Bang on a Can musicians playing new music in the courtyards on summer nights.


People gather among the local restaurants, taco truck and microbrewery in the Mass MoCA courtyard at night.
Photo by Kate Abbott

People gather among the local restaurants, taco truck and microbrewery in the Mass MoCA courtyard at night.

This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer in May 2024 — my thanks to editor Fred Daley.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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