John S. Dickson

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Intersections – Ten Pittsfield Neighborhoods

One of the only computer games I ever played was called Sim City.  This is the game where players build a city by adding residences, businesses, roads, buildings and react to the consequences of each of their moves.  Too many houses results in traffic congestion and resident unrest, quelled only when the player adds roads and public transport or starts building in a new area. Too many roads put a city’s fiscal situation in dire straits, so the player needs to figure out how to attract more businesses that could end up putting a strain on the city’s utilities.  And so on.

This game came to mind during the research and preparation of the exhibit “Intersections, A History of Pittsfield’s Neighborhoods,” on display at the Berkshire Athenaeum in conjunction with the 10 X 10 Upstreet Arts Festival in Pittsfield.  (All ten exhibit panels can be seen in the right column.)

The Lakeside neighborhood

Take the neighborhood called Lakeside, or as some have referred to it, Little Italy.  This covers the area east of Park Square, down Fenn Street all the way to East Street, with the lake in its name being Silver Lake.  When the first buildings sprouted up around Park Square, this area was most likely forested and then turned into farm or grazing land.  The first lots were sold to English, French and African American settlers so they could walk to work in the center of town or to church.  One early resident was Samuel Harrison, a 34-year-old preacher, who paid $50 for a lot on Third Street in 1852, two years after moving to Pittsfield to take up his duties at the Second Congregational Church.  Later, John Crosby bought a home in this neighborhood when he moved to the town to take up his duties as county sheriff in 1868.

The real impetus to growth in this area came from the Robbins and Kellogg Shoe Company that built a four-story factory on Fourth Street and immediately offered employment for up to 450 people.  The company built homes and tenements to house its workers.  Making shoes turned out to be a major draw for early immigrants from Italy who began to take up positions in the company.  They, in turn, pulled relatives and neighbors to the area as vegetable and fruit peddlers.  Another immigrant, Charles Genovese, saw a business opportunity as his neighbors had difficulty securing bank loans so he opened Banc Italia in the front of his residence on Fenn Street.  The influx of Italians then spawned enthusiasm in the community for their own church, and launched a 20-year campaign to build Mt. Carmel.  The first mass was held in 1924 and the church grew to include a parochial school, a parish house and a rectory.  The church held the residents in place, even after the shoe company closed in 1900, but by then, new jobs were available, still in walking distance, in the new Stanley Manufacturing and then General Electric plants.

New lots, houses and then multi-family units, shops and businesses, new arrivals, churches, schools, community centers.  These are the cement that hold together the neighborhoods in the city and propel the transitions through the city’s history.

Several characteristics became apparent during the course of the research.  First, for the most part, the city’s ethnic communities intermingled in these neighborhoods.  Kevin O’Hara, in his wonderful book Lucky Irish Lad, describes Halloween trick or treating in his Wahconah neighborhood, past the homes belonging to the Callahans and Horrigans, on to the Gagliardis, Douillets, Marinaros and Walczyks.

In addition, we were able to find and relay the stories of nationally accomplished residents tucked away in these neighborhoods, including our well-known figures Oliver Wendell Holmes and Herman Melville over on Holmes Road, but also those who should be more well known, such as Carolyn Claiborne Park, a BCC teacher whose book, The Siege, changed the way people view autism or Alfreda Withington, who lived on South Street and was the first female member of the Massachusetts Medical Society.  The acclaimed nature photographer Edwin Hale Lincoln took up duties as a caretaker on Allendale Farm and raised his family there.

Further, we unearthed stories about places that surprised even some current local residents.  I had a hard time finding people who lived near Fort Hill Avenue who knew there had been an actual colonial fort at the road’s intersection with West Street.  Or that there were once 17 billiards parlors in the city.  Or that the site of Walmart and Home Depot was once a thriving lumber yard.

Finally, it also became apparent that the story of transition is not complete.  Evidence of new arrivals still seeking to build new lives in Pittsfield shows up in Spanish-language masses at St. Marks’ Church on West Street or West African stores on Tyler Street.  The long tradition of welcome and recognition of hard-earned livelihoods continues to contribute to the rich mosaic that sets this city apart and offers it a future.

Appeared in Berkshire Eagle.

 

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Turning Points in My Home Town

The intersection at the center of the town, an oval that is still called Park Square. Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society

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.

Answering the call of duty as the city turns out to see recruits march off to fight in 1917. Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society.

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

 

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The Allure of Mills

What is it about passing an old mill building that pushes me off to some other world?  I pause, take a second look and a third, fourth, and more, drawn in by the features of the bell tower and stairways, the small design additions to the windows, doors and roofs.  Then my gaze wanders, looking for nearby streams and crossings, homes and paths.

Surely, the easy answer to the appeal would be the size and sturdiness of the buildings, made of brick and stone to withstand the pounding of the machinery and the risk of fire.  They don’t tower over the landscape as much as they dominate it.  Aerial views and maps show just how much space they occupy in a neighborhood, easy to pick out and get your bearings, in search of an old house or store.

The simple engineering behind raising such a structure had to be, in fact, anything but simple, especially without the mechanization and materials that go into modern construction.  Add to that the number of mills in Berkshire County which reaches well into the hundreds, and the speed which they went up, or were later added on to and altered to make full use of new equipment.

Curiosity cannot be satisfied.  How did they bring the heavy iron equipment into the mills?  How did people learn to operate the machinery?  How were people hired and what were employers looking for in selecting the operators?  How would they move one processed item completed on the second floor, up to the next stage on the third floor?   How did they find their markets, and get their products to them?

But the wonder of the mill really comes from imagining the stories, of the people who heard the bells, hustled along the paths, made their way to their spots at the machines, stood by them and repeated the same motions for up to twelve hours a day.  I realize that I probably wouldn’t, couldn’t last a week.

Ten years ago, I bought a house in Pittsfield, before I realized that my neighbor was an old mill, that a canal and reservoir that fed water to power the mill ran so close to my windows that I could hear the rushing water at night.  I could likely have heard the mill bell from my window, as did those who inhabited my house 100 years ago, sending them down some path long since grown over to get to work on time.

All this propelled me to put together a book, of historic photos, architectural drawings and maps which give a glimpse into that world.   Enjoy the dream.

 

You can find a copy through Arcadia Publishing.

 

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100 Days…. of Opposition

 

Tax Day Demonstration, Pittsfield MA

Tired of the 100-day review of Donald Trump’s Presidency?  You should be, with one exception.  The drama, ambition and accomplishment in the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency lie not in his record, but in the resistance to this President.

Ever since Franklin Roosevelt pushed through major legislation in his first 100 days in office, newly elected Presidents have had their early record measured against the same 100-day standard.  Donald Trump has called this threshold “ridiculous” and “artificial,” which would probably be an accurate statement except for the fact that he used the same 100-day timetable during his campaign to lay out an action plan portraying his ability to achieve a plan as bold and far-reaching as FDR accomplished.

The country was in a very different place in 1933, well into its third year of economic crisis, following the stock market crash in October 1929.  Unemployment levels moved from 4 million people in 1930 to 15 million by the time Roosevelt took office.  Thousands of banks had failed and industrial production had fallen by half.  The crisis demanded action, and demanded it on a fast timetable.

Roosevelt delivered in a way that re-shaped the nature of how Americans view government, addressing through emergency legislation and executive action all aspects of relief, recovery and reform needed to reverse the direction of the economy.  It was the nature of the crisis that dictated the unprecedented nature of FDR’s first 100 days.

That’s why this 100-day standard makes little sense.  Trump, despite his rhetoric indicating he inherited a mess, actually took over the reins of an economy in recovery, certainly better than the one his predecessor inherited in 2009.

What has been more akin to FDR’s dramatic first 100 days in 2017 has been the unprecedented nature of the opposition to Trump.

First, there are the protests.  They started before Trump took the oath of office and then swelled in the first 24 hours of his Presidency.  There were other demonstrations greeting newly inaugurated Presidents, from the 5000 women who marched before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration demanding the right to vote, to the anti-war protesters at both Nixon inaugurals and the thousands who marched to express their opposition to the election of George W. Bush in 2001.

What was different this time was the size of the demonstrations, not only in Washington DC, but around the nation and in cities in other countries.  Everyone but Trump and his inner circle acknowledge that the women’s march on the day after the inauguration surpassed the crowd attending his inauguration.  Another difference is that the protests continue, against Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from entry into the U.S., to build a wall on the southern border, to repeal health care, to refuse to release his taxes, to disregard the science of climate change.

Second, despite the control of both the executive and legislative branch by Trump’s party, the opposition has been surprisingly successful in derailing the pledges that the Republicans ran on, most notably the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  Funding for the border wall is a non-starter, tax reform has been reduced to a public relations one-page set of principles, and there’s no sign of a massive infrastructure program.  Republican party unity did help ensure that all of Trump’s nominees for Cabinet, except for the two who withdrew, were able to pass through the Senate, which also confirmed his nominee for the Supreme Court position, left vacant for over a year when the Republicans refused to grant a hearing for President Obama’s selection.

A third unprecedented focus of the opposition has been the speed with which courts have responded to requests to halt President Trump’s executive orders.  Both of Trump’s executive orders to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. have been thrown out, as has his administration’s threat to withhold federal funding from cities refusing to deputize their local police forces as deportation officers.   One organization – Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW – has filed a lawsuit alleging Trump’s conflicts of interests violate the Constitution and another, American Civil Liberties Union is preparing a second such suit.

Fourth, the reaction to Trump from beyond the borders has been an unprecedented rejection of what he is trying to impose here and abroad.  Not only do people outside the U.S. in the numbers of millions continue to join the protests, but voters in the Netherlands rejected the candidate who looked like Trump, and French voters will likely follow suit, worried about what they are seeing on this side of the Atlantic.  Far from acting as a global superpower, the U.S. is on the receiving end of lectures from world leaders like Theresa May and Angela Merkel on Russia, Justin Trudeau on trade and Xi Jinping on North Korea, all viewing perhaps Trump’s self-proclaimed penchant for unpredictability and flexibility as euphemisms for incompetence and lack of strategy.

Fifth, despite obstacles from the White House and certain Republicans, investigations within the Department of Justice and Congress were launched to look into the role played by the Russian government in helping Donald Trump get elected.  The implications for American democracy of any connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government in that effort necessitates a patient and thorough investigation and compilation of the facts.

Finally, a new, invigorated civic and political activism has sprung up to unprecedented levels.  Across the country, citizens are mobilizing to make their voices heard through town hall meetings where members of Congress are seeing attendance rise tenfold since January 20.  The volume of phone calls to Congress are setting records, reaching 1.5 million calls to the Senate alone.  Ad hoc groups have formed to partner voting districts across the red-blue political divide, to address redistricting that favors Republican candidates, to refuse to shop at businesses owned by or supporting the President and his family, to join voter registration drives.

When FDR set the standard for 100 days of accomplishment by an incoming President, he did so in the face of an acute crisis.  The crisis facing the country now is not any external mess, but is all that the new President stands for.  Addressing that crisis through a sustained opposition has been the real story of the first 100 days.

 

This article originally appeared in History News Network and The Berkshire Eagle.

 

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Correcting the first draft of history – Obama’s Red Line

The great undoing has started.   President Obama’s most defining achievements — from healthcare reform and economic recovery to the drawdown of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — divided the country to the extent that our new President and Congress are hell bent on undoing anything that might be considered an enduring legacy.

Of the many arenas for expected change, perhaps the most consequential will be the departure from Obama’s approach to advancing and protecting U.S. interests in the world.  Obama consistently prioritized diplomacy.  His two major international accomplishments came through diplomacy: securing an agreement to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and the international climate change agreement.  Unfortunately, both are high on the list of the great undoing of the Trump administration, regardless of the possible costs.

Donald Trump and his team cite a presumed loss of international prestige and influence around the world as a result of Obama’s reluctance to use military force without exhausting diplomatic solutions.  As their case in point, they have advanced a narrative about the no-good options case in a prolonged Syrian civil war.  Such a narrative has taken on a conventional wisdom that ignores the events that actually transpired.

The narrative has its own short-hand nomenclature: the red line.  In Syria, Obama laid down a “red line” in August 2012 that, once crossed by Syria’s President Bashar Assad, would draw the U.S. into military engagement in Syria.  Obama’s exact words were “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus,” referring to a decision on military involvement in Syria.

Within a year, video footage out of Syria began to seep out of Syria forcing such a “change of calculus.”  An August 21, 2013 attack against a suburb of Assad’s own capital revealed use of chemical weapons, and UN inspectors arrived in Syria to investigate.  Obama began preparing the groundwork for a military response, first by consulting with allies and then exploring options of limited strikes to cripple Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons.  Planners assessed the risks of military strikes against caches of chemical weapons.  While the U.S. had a stated policy of regime change in Syria, Obama focused his planning for military option on one achievable goal – the removal of chemical weapons.

A timeline of events over the next few weeks reveals how quickly events on the ground shifted to disrupt Obama’s plans.

On August 29, the British Parliament voted against Prime Minister Cameron’s motion condemning Assad for the attack, the first step for British participation in military intervention.  Weighing heavily on that vote was the still fresh memory of the consequences of British involvement in the Iraq war.

Faced with the loss of his closest ally, Obama made two announcements two days later.  First was his decision to “take military action against Syrian regime targets.”  The second was more consequential.  He also decided to “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

At the time, Obama sounded confident that he would be able to convince Congress on the appropriateness of military action, despite his awareness of the public’s weariness with war after Iraq and Afghanistan.

After just one week, it had become clear that Congress would not back Obama’s request to use military force in Syria.  Public opinion polls also opposed U.S intervention, and Obama was running into the same brick wall that a Republican Congress imposed on any proposals emanating from the White House.  On September 8, five Republican Senators announced their opposition and a sixth, Lindsey Graham, said “It’d be great if the Russians could convince Assad to turn over his chemical weapons to the international community. That’d be a terrific outcome.”

Faced with a near certain defeat in Congress, Obama’s room to maneuver was limited.  In what has been portrayed as an off-the-cuff remark, Secretary of State John Kerry opened up a potential avenue to achieve the same outcome as a military strike of eliminating the chemical weapons that Assad could use on his own people.  In response to a reporter’s question on September 9, Kerry said Assad could avert military action by the U.S. if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”  The Russians moved quickly to propose just such an outcome.  Obama responded tentatively, holding out the use of military action if such a plan was merely cause for delay.

The next day, Obama asked Congress to postpone a vote to allow for diplomacy to play out the diplomacy set in motion by Kerry’s remarks.

After an intense, accelerated negotiations, Kerry and his Russian counterpart announced on September 14 the framework of an agreement that would start a process to remove the chemical weapons in Syria under the supervision of the international community.

British destroyer escorting shipment of chemicals out of Syria in February 2014; photo courtesy of British Ministry of Defence

British destroyer escorting shipment of chemicals out of Syria in February 2014; photo courtesy of British Ministry of Defence

Less than a year later, on June 23, 2014, the UN certified that the last of Syria’s chemical weapons had been removed.  That included over 1300 metric tons at over 45 different sites in Syria.  The size alone of that stockpile makes it hard to conceive that military intervention would have had the same outcome.

Obama’s detractors, especially those in Congress who worked to thwart approval of military engagement in Syria in September 2013, suffer from amnesia.  Not content with this erroneous story line, some have connected the red line statement to the continued suffering in Syria, to the military involvement of Russia to bolster Assad, to a mass migration to escape what looks to be genocide in Aleppo and Syria’s other war-torn regions.  This is misplaced; Assad and Putin hold full responsibility for those crimes against humanity.

The red line narrative that ought to be taking hold as the nation prepares for the transfer of power reveals a leader who laid out a concrete goal and achieved it, through a diplomacy that involved the UN, friends and allies, and even adversaries.  We will come to appreciate such strategic deliberation.  My thread of hope is that we as a nation do not pay too high a price for the untethered, transactional bullying that lies ahead.

This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle and History News Network.

 

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