|Cohen Seeks to Build Community With Seat on Pittsfield Council|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:59AM / Wednesday, July 24, 2019
|Yuki Cohen is a downtown business owner who feels an emphasis in helping small businesses there will ripple positives across the city.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It wasn't long ago when Yuki Cohen was going through a devastating time in her life and it was the community in Pittsfield that got her through it.
It was far different than she had known in the past, as she used to hustle in corporate America. The Berkshires are more relaxed, welcoming, and compassionate, she said, than her days in New York City. She was hooked. She started a business to add to that and is now taking another step by looking to join the City Council to help build that community.
"There are things we need to work on but I feel like we have all the tools we have to get there. Education is important, health is important, jobs are important, affordable housing is very important. These are things I think we can work on to get there," Cohen said.
Cohen is the owner of Methuselah Bar and Louge, which she opened in 2015. She said she opened the small North Street establishment in a hope to "add to the landscape" of a downtown going through a revitalization. But it certainly not what she would have thought she would have been doing years ago as a wealth manager on Wall Street.
Cohen is an immigrant. Her family was from Korea and at the time "it was such a third-world country" and her parents didn't see a future. They immigrated to Brazil first and then her aunt got a job in the United States as a nurse, allowing the whole family to move to New York City.
"My parents had this little grocery store that they ran for 17 years, God bless them, they worked every single day for 17 years, seven days a week, 365 days a year, 14 hour days without taking a break and they were finally able to retire," Cohen said.
As her parents worked endlessness, they were strict on her — her job was to go to school and get straight As and nothing less was acceptable. As a child, she had some resentment about that, especially as she saw her peers always having somebody home waiting for them. But now, she realizes how hard her parents worked "so we can have a better shot."
She said at the time she was a "good soldier" and did well in school and that opened the door to opportunities for her. She received scholarships and grants and was able to attend Brooklyn College and graduate with a major in accounting and a minor in psychology.
"As an immigrant, female and Asian during the '80s and '90s that was the one opportunity I had. I did really well in school and that was one thing I had that got me in the door," Cohen said.
She got a job in commercial lending, specifically with distressed companies. Her job was to analysis a company's credit and financial statements.
"I got tired of looking at distressed companies and decided that I wanted to be where the movers and shakers are so I went to Wall Street," Cohen said.
She went to graduate school at the Sterns School of Business at New York University. She wanted to get to Wall Street and in with the Fortune 500 companies because, at the time, she believed money would solve all problems. After graduating there, she got a job at the Bank of New York doing equity research. She was looking at stocks and helping decide which companies to include in portfolios. It was an exciting time there as it was just before the tech bubble had popped and money was flowing. She moved on to do personnel asset management.
She met her now ex-husband in New York and at the time he was what she described as a "ski bum." He was a Berkshire native who left his hometown and worked in hospitality in Colorado and skied all the time. It was somewhat of an "opposites attract" moment for her. After following orders and doing what everybody said was right, it was mind-opening to meet someone who had the freedom to do what they wanted to do. They got married and would frequently come back to the Berkshires.
"It seemed calmer and more relaxed. Not everything is perfect in life but there was a great vibe in the Berkshires," Cohen said.
When Cohen got pregnant, she didn't want to have her child grow up in the city. She had become disillusioned with the idea that you work hard and get promoted, as she saw how it was more about who you knew. She was tired of working in a cubicle. She had enough of the city and the couple moved to Lee where her ex-husband opened Moe's Tavern — right on the cusp of when craft beer had really broken out as a big industry.
"I was ready to leave the city. I was ready to leave corporate America and everything that I thought money solved," she said.
She learned the hospitality industry and talked with many people who came into the tavern. She learned their stories and found them "heart warming." She embraced the hospitality industry.
And the divorced happened. She said in 2011, her marriage began to fall apart and she had to move. She found a place in the Clocktower Condos. But she was alone and there had been a narrative about Pittsfield being a dangerous place. Eventually one of her friends from the tavern invited her out to yoga in Pittsfield. There she met people from Pittsfield who welcomed her with open arms. She found community, found friendship, and started seeing them every week.
There was something special in Pittsfield, she said, and she decided to add to it. She at first wanted to open in the space District is located but that had been occupied just before she could. She looked at the former Y Bar and took over the lease. She renovated the inside and opened in February 2015. It has now become a popular downtown establishment — at times too popular as she has gotten herself in trouble with occupancy and is now looking to expand.
She joined Jacob's Pillow and sat on the Finance Committee and was impressed by the organization's focus and long-term planning. Two years ago, current City Councilor John Krol mentioned that she would be a good addition to the City Council. But Cohen didn't see herself as a politician. She didn't run.
"I never saw myself as a politician. I still don't. It seems like something other people do," Cohen said.
But she saw an emergence of candidates in that election who had similar views as she does and that brought the idea of running home. She believes she has a lot to bring to the table and this year decided to run.
"When you watch politics, especially in Washington, you watch them argue. It seems like they are arguing for the sake of winning and their ego and not for the greater good, not what they are supposed to be doing. I don't feel like a lot of the times they are thinking about what is the best thing for the people, the citizens. They are just getting into arguments just to win," Cohen said.
She believes her financial acumen and experiences will be beneficial.
"I can look at the numbers and figure out if there are ways to make it better, make it more efficient, or cut things," Cohen said. "I can raise questions like why is this number standing out like a sore thumb? How do we get behind those numbers?"
She said starting her business she was given a partial list from the city as to what needed to happen before she could open only to find out that she then needed a $15,000 fan installed. She said she'd like to make sure there is a comprehensive list of items businesses need in order to open. She would like to create a group to help small businesses start-up and grow as she sees small mom and pop shops creating an "epicenter" in Pittsfield that will grow outward.
"A rising tide will lift all boats," Cohen said.
And education stands out from her experience. While she didn't realize it when she was young, it was that focus on education that gave her the opportunities she had gotten. She watched as South Korea focused on education and change completely for the better. She said many cities in the United States have been "laser-focused" on education and that helped build them. In Pittsfield, she believes a focus on education will create the "pipeline" to continue the city's growth.
She sees a lot of good in Pittsfield, not what the narrative was when she first came here. She has optimism for the future of the city and would like to contribute to that. But right now, she feels there is a stalemate among the council and she said many people have told her that it seems like the city's growth is stuttering a bit because of a lack of action.
"Let's have the courage to make a decision and if it is not the right one, then we'll learn from it," Cohen said. "But let's make a decision to at least try something."
She will be joined by Alexander Blumin, Jay Hamling, Auron Stark, Richard Latura and incumbents Earl Persip, Peter Marchetti, and Peter White for one of four at-large seats. Craig Gaetani could join the fray as he was certified to run for both at-large and in Ward 6 and Kenneth Warren was certified for at-large and for Ward 1 — those two will have to decide which seat they are seeking.