If it’s true that all politics is local, could the same be said about history? Maybe all history is not exactly local, but it does seem to be the portal through which many of us enter the past, whether it is tracing our genealogy, researching our house, visiting nearby museums, sites or roadside markers.
For me, moving to a new town and exploring its history helped me learn my way around, finding out who streets were named after and poring over old maps to see the evolution of the town as if it were the old computer game SimCity. Local history became one of my social circles, where I met and interacted with professionals and lay people with similar interests.
There is much that is unique about Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the largest city of Berkshire County, nestled in its rolling hills in the far west of the state. Beyond the social and the curious, did the history of this place speak to a broader view of national or international events, did it speak to current concerns?
There is much that is unique about any town or city, but delving into Pittsfield’s history reveals evidence of broader national trends and developments, how decisions taken and events played out far away affected people right here at home. More than that, the history of this place may also speak to broader concerns of the present.
These lessons gradually dawned on me in preparing the exhibit, “Turning Points,” on display at the Berkshire Athenaeum as part of the winter 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival held every year coinciding with school vacation in February.
Flip through any U.S. history textbook, and broad themes play out in this locale: early arrival and encounter with Native Americans, taming the frontier, rebellion against colonial authorities, industrial revolution, division over slavery, immigration and labor unrest, economic panics and technological progress, international trade and empire, the arsenal of democracy, postwar global dominance, industrial decline and loss of jobs and population.
Through these developments, these turning points, Pittsfield has adjusted and adapted, evolved and reinvented itself. The city finds itself in such a phase now, seeking to shape a future that provides opportunity and enhanced quality of life for its residents.
What strikes me about the current moment is that Pittsfield is really not all that different from many post-industrial towns and cities extending across the northeast into the Midwest. What is different, though, has been in this region’s rejection of a politician like Donald Trump in favor of his opponent. Trump’s messages of xenophobia, dark pessimism of carnage, and wild promises of jobs returning from overseas fell on fertile ground further west, but not here.
What in Pittsfield’s history accounts for this difference? History tells us of multiple waves of immigrants coming to this region, instilling an ethnic pride and diversity here that makes us more likely to welcome the newcomers from Latin America and Africa in our midst. History tells of past economic transformations, from agriculture to manufacturing, from textiles to electrical, plastics and defense industries that may point the way towards openness and experimentation to find the next stage of economic growth. History tells us that proximity to New York and Boston was important, continuing to today, less as markets for goods produced here, but as a source for visitors who come here seeking cultural and outdoor escapes.
Last summer, I met a young woman visiting Pittsfield from Youngstown, Ohio, and I asked her to compare the differences between these two rust belt cities. She was quick in her answer: “You have so much here. We have nothing.” A harsh statement, but a welcome one of how our home town looks to an outsider.
Read an article on the exhibit in the Berkshire Eagle.
Or you can read the panels right here: Turning Points, 10×10 Upstreet Arts Festival