City Was a Blank Canvas

Times Staff Writer

The first snow fell softly, dusting the tired old city with a sense of serenity. In the five downtown blocks that once housed theaters, restaurants and busy department stores, vacant buildings stood dark and doors were shut tight. There was little sign of life at Saturday nightfall.

Then suddenly, joyously, the artists burst onto North Street.

Laughing, working feverishly, they dragged sofas and chairs from their studios to the sidewalk. Someone brought a lamp and a coffee table. Out came trays of cookies and steaming mugs of hot cocoa. Eighteen painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, poets and dancers set up their outdoor living room directly outside the storefront where Ven Voisey had just installed a work he called “flutter,” a metallic moth circling a glowing bulb.


The snowy sidewalk celebration last month was completely unscripted, said painter Maggie Mailer: an occasion whose very spontaneity captured the spirit of Mailer’s Storefront Artist Project.

An unusual collaboration involving city officials, business leaders and a group of hard-working artists is helping to transform this city in western Massachusetts. Over the last two years, Mailer persuaded many of Pittsfield’s largest property owners to turn over empty storefronts on North Street to more than 30 artists. The artists pay no rent for street-level studio space that in many cases allows passersby to observe them as they work.

Though any economic payoff is not yet measurable, the artists’ presence has enlivened downtown Pittsfield. Windows on North Street showcase the whimsical sculptures of Rachael Champion, the delicate brush paintings of Roppei Matsumoto and Mailer’s own paintings, which focus on architecture and family. A few new restaurants have opened, bringing chefs from Boston. This summer, a company that sells designer resale clothing on the Internet located its headquarters on North Street, with Chanel shoes and Prada suits in the window.

Despite skepticism from some residents, the city is poised to create a cultural development department, and the mayor wants to designate a downtown arts district and provide incentives and other benefits for artists.

“This whole thing has just evolved, more or less organically. We have never, ever sat down and made any kind of plan,” said Mailer, 33. “Everything is just bubbling up.”

Mailer said her mission was to “make working artists a part of everyday life on the street.”

Pittsfield, the blue-collar stepchild of bucolic Berkshire County, has been suffering since General Electric Co. closed a plant in 1989 and 13,000 people lost their jobs. A General Dynamics factory also shut down, putting another 1,000 out of work. Then a shopping mall opened 10 miles away. North Street became an urban commercial graveyard, anchored ingloriously by the courthouse and the bus station.

The plant closures drained Pittsfield of its skilled middle class, as well as its century-old image as a strong, successful community. The population declined to 42,000 from more than 50,000.

The remaining residents tend to be state and county workers, healthcare professionals who work here at the county’s largest hospital and lawyers connected to the courthouse. Many former GE workers stayed, although they no longer had jobs. The depressed housing market attracted families and individuals on public assistance who used city services but paid few taxes.

On North Street, despair was everywhere. Proud old structures with Corinthian pillars fell empty. Businesses selling T-shirts or bridal wear moved out as fast as they moved in. Tattoo parlors, a Goodwill store and a shop that sells used videos took hold in brick buildings where elegant shops once thrived. The movie theater closed.

“When I came here 30 years ago, Thursday was payday at GE,” said Robert Proskin, owner of an office furniture company, one of the few businesses that has remained on North Street. “The sidewalks were so full that everyone walked in the streets. They all went over to England Brothers, one of the department stores that had to close. That is all gone now.”

For several years, committees and experts explored ways to reinvigorate this charmless city that claimed -- among other dubious distinctions -- the state’s highest out-of-wedlock pregnancy rate. All agreed that Pittsfield’s major hope for survival was its location in the center of a region that draws 2 million visitors a year.

But as tourists flocked to the performance centers and galleries of Lenox, on one side of Pittsfield, and the theaters and museums of Williamstown, on the other, they passed through Pittsfield as fast as possible, eyes straight ahead, said Peter LaFayette, director of the Berkshire Housing Development Corp. City leaders tried to woo new companies, promising easy access to New York and Boston -- each less than three hours away -- along with a lifestyle that many compare to a colder version of Northern California.

But even with cheap real estate prices, “we always ended up losing,” LaFayette said. “It got to the point where it was almost embarrassing to bring these businesspeople downtown. It was dismal -- dozens of vacant buildings, and no restaurants.”

Pittsfield’s bleakness appealed instantly to Maggie Mailer. She grew up nearby, in the tonier communities of Lenox and Stockbridge. Her mother, jazz singer Carol Stevens, was the fifth of novelist Norman Mailer’s six wives. Maggie had eight siblings scattered among the various households -- and all pursued some form of art. Maggie said she always knew she would be an artist.

Studying art and architecture at Columbia University, Mailer devised a theory about “glass-box” creativity, speculating about what would happen if artists were to work in public view.

After college, Mailer worked as a painter in Brooklyn. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she found she could no longer work happily in New York. When a friend from the Berkshires offered her a job in 2002 helping to refurbish Pittsfield’s vaudeville-era theater, Mailer left for what she thought would be a year’s sojourn.

Joyce Bernstein, a property owner involved in the restoration, offered Mailer free studio space in a vacant building on North Street. Mailer saw a chance to test her thesis.

“I wanted to know if I was just crazy, if I was the only one who could work that way, out in full view,” she said.

Mailer walked up and down North Street. Where so many others saw dead space, “I had this vision of a necklace of artists’ studios,” she said.

She took her idea to North Street’s landlords, eventually persuading them to provide studios worth about $200,000 per year on the rental market.

Bernstein said some property owners worried at first about liability. They also voiced concern that they would have to fix up crumbling buildings so the artists could occupy them for free. Mailer assured the landlords that if necessary, the artists would repair the studios themselves. And the city agreed to relax some building codes.

Bernstein, whose two adjoining buildings take up a half-block on North Street, eagerly made more space available to what became known as the Storefront Artist Project.

“I think that not having empty space or ugly windows gives almost a subliminal message that things are picking up,” said Bernstein, who next year will open a restaurant in a defunct department store next to Mailer’s studio. Bernstein said the restaurant would feature exhibits curated by storefront artists.

City officials also became involved. As president at the time of Pittsfield’s Downtown Development Department, LaFayette heard about the project and visited Mailer one Sunday in her studio.

“She can be pretty captivating,” LaFayette said. “So I offered to work with her to identify other storefronts.”

Mailer posted “free studio space” announcements in coffee shops and art supply stores in the area. Painter Douglass Truth saw one of the fliers, and soon he was working in a 2,000-square-foot space that had been home to a thrift store.

“I felt so lucky to be there,” said Truth, who now works a block away in a 1970s-era space vacated by a savings and loan. He paints on large canvases, using bold colors to depict street scenes, interiors and flashy flowers and landscapes. His works are sold in several California galleries.

He took the thrift-store space on a one-year basis and moved when the city wanted to refurbish the building. He said he was prepared to move again if the savings-and-loan space found a paying tenant. All the storefront artists, he said, recognize that their studio space is temporary.

The thrift-store studio “was warm and had great windows,” Truth said. “When the weather was good, I kept my door open. People would walk by and say, ‘Oh wow, a painter on North Street.’ ”

His landlord then, the Berkshire Housing Development Corp., told him that in exchange, he had to do something for the elderly residents who lived in low-income apartments upstairs. Truth painted portraits of them.

Another painter, Gail Downey, brought at-risk teenagers to the studios to work with the artists. Sculptor Nicole Peskin volunteered to teach teenage girls how to make metal sculpture. Phylene Amuso, another sculptor, produced a show about the storefront artists for a local cable channel. Amuso also plans to recruit children to make a large granite mosaic in one of Pittsfield’s neglected neighborhoods.

Some of the artists staged events purely for fun. Jeb Colwell, part of a band called Hector on Stilts, decided one day that the storefront artists could use a little class. So he organized the North Street Orchestra: a half-dozen artists who composed a mock-rock opera, performed entirely on toy guitars.

“I think we are helping to create a progressive spirit here,” Colwell said. “And I think it is becoming infectious.”

Alan Bauman owns the savings-and-loan building where Colwell, Truth and a cluster of other artists have studios totaling 4,000 square feet. The windows were tinted in the 1970s, allowing the occupants to see out -- but no one outside to see in.

Mailer calls it “the un-storefront.” The artists regularly hold open-studio sessions so the public can see them at work.

Bauman said that in a healthy real estate market, the space might rent for about $4,000 a month. “But until the time when we can create a demand for this commercial space, we are happy to have these artists,” he said.

“I love having them,” Bauman added, “if for no other reason than that they give great parties.”

Though the 30 artists on North Street are not generating income for Pittsfield, Mayor James Ruberto said “something is happening” that may lead to an economic turnaround.

“This has created a tremendous energy in the community,” he said. “Pittsfield is coming alive again.”

The mayor conceded that some residents and merchants are doubtful, wondering what an arts community will do for them.

“Not too many people in Pittsfield show an interest in the arts,” said Randy Drewniack, manager of a mattress store on North Street. “I am not trying to sound condescending, but there’s got to be a draw to bring business here. And the storefront artists are not it. North Street is dead.”

But Jon C. Teaford, a professor of urban history at Purdue University, said artists have helped bring change in other old industrial cities -- among them, Portland, Maine, and Portsmouth, N.H.

“These cities can definitely be saved,” he said. “There are a lot of people who go to the Berkshires, and if the city gets rid of its ugly reputation, they’ll go to Pittsfield.”

This year, Mailer cut all her ties to New York and settled for good in Pittsfield. Then she got organized. She took on a partner who specializes in marketing. The Storefront Artist Project gained nonprofit status. Mailer appointed a board of directors. Recently, the group began pursuing grant money to buy a building and set up business training courses.

Most important, the artists became a vital part of the city. Many took up residence in Pittsfield.

Mailer’s theory had become a working reality -- with no better proof than the sight of artists drinking cocoa, outdoors, on a snowy night on North Street.