EXAMPLES OF community conflict sown by talking heads and internet trolls are all too common these days. Pittsfield could be a place where one might expect to find such division. Residents know firsthand what it means to see good manufacturing jobs disappear overnight.
Yet in Pittsfield, these challenges have pulled residents together rather than apart. A succession of civic leaders have shared a common vision for a more inclusive and prosperous city, and they’ve worked collaboratively to achieve it.
The city’s entry in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge is a notable example. The tag line for the award-winning initiative co-led by 29 partner organizations is, “All people in Pittsfield experience a safe, thriving, and just community.” This project is just the most recent illustration. For years, Pittsfield has fought industrial change with a united front. Pittsfield Promise was one of the first community-wide early learning initiatives in the state, and 1Berkshire is a rare, truly regional economic development effort.
It’s no wonder then that when the Gateway Cities movement took shape, Mayor James Ruberto, who served the city from 2004 to 2011, was one of the first to jump on board. While smaller and geographically remote, Pittsfield leaders played an outsized role in the early days of the Gateway Cities campaign. Pittsfield’s current mayor, Linda Tyer, was quick to pick up the torch after taking office in 2016.
We sat down with the two leaders to get their perspective on what it takes to get a community to coalesce in turbulent times and how Gateway Cities work together to advance shared interests. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
GATEWAYS: Mayor Ruberto, can you speak to how the Gateway Cities movement that we know today got off the ground a decade ago?
JAMES RUBERTO: Eddie Lambert, who was the mayor of Fall River, was collaborating with John Schneider, who was then at MassINC, on the concept of Gateway Cities. Eddie took the project very seriously, and he was really the spark plug that got us enthused.
At the outset, we were like a little motorboat. We were trying to see how we could turn things around or how our ideas might, when we worked together, create some legislative activity. It quickly resulted in some new grant programs. Linda can show you our Common now, which is really a focal point of the community. It got its start through Gateway Cities funding.
More important than even the early funding is the fact that it provided us an opening to join together. It was a means to talk about our needs and have serious conversations about how we address the issues that join us all.
GATEWAYS: Back then, you were a mayor working on a two-year term. That’s not much time to pass legislation and actually see it play out. How did you decide it would be worth the effort to join up with other cities on legislative advocacy?
JR: In a two-year office, if you want to see ultimate progress, your leadership style has to show that you are willing to take risks and that you are willing to establish priorities that you truly believe in. And you have to work hard to insure that those priorities get followed.
As an example, Mayor Tyer has established a priority to make Tyler Street an improved portion of this community. Tyler Street has suffered from neglect for a number of years, and it is only through her leadership that vision will ever become reality.
Whether it is a two-year term or a four-year term, you have to stick to your guns. You create values; you then work off those values to say, this is how we are going to make this community better. Time does not influence that part of leading. If the people don’t like it, then they toss you out, and they damn near tossed me out!
GATEWAYS: We are now in a time with so much division. Many communities are divided as to how they will solve the very real challenges that they face. But it seems like that’s not so much the case in Pittsfield.
LINDA TYER: Right, and just to speak to that, the history of Pittsfield is so deep, as it relates to General Electric’s legacy here. General Electric dominated our economy, and generations of families benefitted from their presence here. When they left, Pittsfield lost its identity. For a long time, 20 years, there was this group depression. Pittsfield didn’t know how to identify itself or what its future was going to look like.
Mayor Ruberto was elected in 2004. I came on the city council that same year, so I had the privilege of working with Mayor Ruberto at a pivotal moment. It was a moment in time when our city said, yes, we have this legacy with GE, we recognize it, and now we are going to start designing our future. Mayor Ruberto led that in an amazing way, with the enthusiasm that was necessary to bring along an entire community into believing that we could be as awesome as we were in our GE hey day. We could have a future that is bright and brilliant, and that is part of the lesson.
I learned during the time when Mayor Ruberto was leading our city. It is also what I want to carry on in a way that is unique to where our situation is now—where we are today and where we imagine ourselves in the future.
JR: As time continues to pass, more and more people are feeling engaged in the community of Pittsfield. When I took office, there was a loss of hope in the future of this city. There was a hard-core group of people who felt negative about everything from General Electric to the sun that shines above us. They harbored that and carried that. As time is passing, I sense that there is less and less of that. I think the mayor is describing this community as it is today.
Linda is very good at celebrating small successes. Small success, or making it a great day for Pittsfield, is critical for people to recognize. It is forward-looking and it is positive. She has done an excellent job in fostering that.
GATEWAYS: Retaining young talent and making sure that everyone contributes to the civic leadership in a city that is becoming more diverse are challenges that all the Gateway Cities are facing. Can you talk about how Pittsfield does that?
JR: This is one of Mayor Tyer’s biggest accomplishments in the short time that she has been mayor. When I left office, one of my regrets was that I didn’t do enough to make sure that city government’s composition reflected the demographics of residents. Mayor Tyer has worked tirelessly for two years to make certain that all of the people of Pittsfield know that they are represented, and that all of the people of Pittsfield have an equal opportunity to become an employee of the city.
LT: I really appreciate Mayor Ruberto recognizing that, because it really is a core value of mine. I have lived all over the world, and I know how important cultural diversity is to a community. I have seen, in addition to our growing cultural diversity, which is going to be key to our future, emerging young professionals and an interesting momentum from the young people in our city. They believe this is a place where they can live happily and find opportunities for work. They are engaged in community life; they want to serve on boards and commissions. In some ways, their participation has been organic, but it also has to be nurtured and fostered.
When I’m looking for someone to serve on a board or commission, I go to the 40 Under Forty* alumni or I go to the class list of the Berkshire leadership program. I’m looking for those young professionals that I can recruit to become a part of this organization, so that we strengthen the relationship between community life and the role that government plays in that. It has been a wonderful experiment that is really starting to show some results.
I feel that this is Pittsfield’s great moment. We have turned the corner from when people were feeling hopeless. As Mayor Ruberto said, there was a grip on the idea that we are not going to believe in any opportunities, and a group depression just prevailed. That does not exist anymore. I think that is why this moment is so crucial for our future. This idea that we celebrate and nurture cultural diversity and that we engage with our younger generation, while still taking care of the day-to-day business of running a city is so important to strengthening the fabric of that belief.
GATEWAYS: Thinking about the future, what should the priorities be for the Gateway Cities legislative agenda?
LT: I think that one of the things that you’ll find in all of the Gateway Cities is this challenge that we have with declining housing stock. It is specifically
Berkshire Community College, in partnership with 1Berkshire and The Berkshire Eagle, launched the Berkshire County 40 Under Forty awards to recognize outstanding young professionals excelling in their industries through their leadership roles.
related to the fact that our cities are older. In Pittsfield, over 60 percent of our housing stock was built before 1950. Without the proper efforts to maintain that housing stock, it is difficult to keep our neighborhoods stable. It has had a direct impact on our fiscal challenges here in the city. We have reached our levy ceiling because values across the city have been stagnant. The lack of quality housing also makes it difficult for young professionals to find a place where they want to live.
It is a big challenge because local government doesn’t have the resources for housing initiatives. This is why our TDI [Transformative Development Initiative] is so important.
We also need home improvement programs so that we can fix houses before they get to the point where we have to tear them down. New England housing stock has great character, features, old porches, and interiors, but it can be hard to repair and restore.
I have had many conversations with various state agencies about these issues. There hasn’t been much momentum around it yet, but it’s really the next great opportunity for how to improve the quality of life for residents of this city or future residents of this city.
JR: And that’s a forward-looking approach that the Mayor is taking. When we talk about people engaging and believing that this city, despite its challenges, has a future, it is because we consistently look to the future and say this is what we have to continue to fight for. She keeps trying to push that door open a little bit because once it gets a gap, it will pop.