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Pittsfield 2020 Year in Review: City Grapples With Social Issues
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
04:09AM / Tuesday, December 29, 2020
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Wally the Stegosaurus prepares to leave Pittsfield in April for a makeover.


Police Chief Michael Wynn marches in the procession to Durant Park in June. The chief says he is committed to working with community groups to build a more equitable society.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield in 2020 addressed social issues such as police reform, inclusivity, and domestic violence, along with a worldwide pandemic.

In June, following weeks of worldwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., at the hands of police, Pittsfield began to look at the Police Department’s use of force policy and saw a number of rallies and protests against police violence.

Police Chief Michael Wynn committed to the work of "building an equitable society," capping a rally and procession in June organized by Berkshire Interfaith Organizing to honor Black Lives Matter that ended in Durant Park where the procession also answered in the affirmative to be a partner with police in these efforts. 

While waiting for guidance from the Legislature, the Pittsfield Police Advisory and Review Board issued a statement in September saying the use of neck restraints is currently not authorized by the PPD. This was before the Legislature implemented a police reform bill in December that limits no-knock warrants and bans chokeholds.

That same month, the City Council cut $100,000 out of the Police Department budget and allocated $85,000 of that for additional mental health clinicians. The Police Department also reported that its partnership with the Brien Center for mental health and substance abuse services is going well and was seeing positive benefits.

In an effort to aid non-English speaking Pittsfield residents and provide incentives for being bilingual, The Ordinance and Rules subcommittee unanimously approved Mayor Linda Tyer's proposed ordinance to compensate city employees for being bilingual and bi-literate.  Under this ordinance, a city employee may be eligible for an additional $125 a month for either oral or reading/written fluency, or $175 for both oral and written fluency.

To fill a gap of needed services for domestic abuse victims and survivors, District Attorney Andrea Harrington launched a High-Risk Team designed to bring multiple disciplines together to strengthen social service and law enforcement responses to domestic violence.  Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito was in attendance for a socially distanced press conference at The Common on First Street to announce this initiative. 

Pittsfield mourned the loss of former Mayor Gerald Doyle Jr., who died in August at the age of 62. Doyle was successful in forcing General Electric to live up to its obligations to the city of Pittsfield, signing a consent decree with GE that guaranteed $10 million to the city, and the cleanup of PCBs.

The city also said goodbye to Pittsfield Public School's Superintendent Jason McCandless, who became superintendent at Mount Greylock Regional School District after being offered the post. Pittsfield chose Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis as interim superintendent and held McCandless to his 90-day notice, which ended in November.  The School Committee has begun the search process with the expectation of having a new permanent superintendent by July 1, 2021.

COVID-19

Pittsfield, along with the rest of the world, saw death, cancellations, and a different way of living because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The virus reached Berkshire County in early March when a man admitted to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield was the first in the county to test positive for COVID-19.

By the end of the year, at least 40 residents at Hillcrest Commons had died, the majority of the city's 46 recorded deaths. Berkshire Medical Center treated more than 270 patients since March and had 51 deaths.

To aid Berkshire Medical Center's efforts to fight the rapidly escalating public health crisis, award-winning singer/songwriter James Taylor and his wife, Kim, donated $350,000 to the Pittsfield hospital to establish the COVID-19 Relief Fund for Berkshire Health Systems.

The Taylors said they felt the need to support BMC because the Berkshires are their favorite place to be even though they travel globally. James Taylor has performed at most of Tanglewood’s 4th of July concerts since 1974.

BMC also received sizable donations from Adams Community Bank and MounainOne Community Bank, which each donated $100,000 for COVID-19 efforts.

On March 23, in the second week of the pandemic, Gov. Charlie Baker announced an emergency "stay at home" order mandating that only essential businesses continue operating.  At this time, Tyer was in contact with Baker and the Berkshire delegation asking for three critical things: expedited access to personal protective equipment from the national stockpile for first-responders, faster access to testing supplies and labs, and the inclusion of economic response and recovery in Community Development Block Grant applications.

Berkshire Medical Center joined a convalescent plasma study being done by the Mayo Clinic in April, turning to recovered COVID-19 patients for blood donations that have the possibility of helping those currently suffering from the virus.


BMC set up a tent for drive-through testing in the spring. It later expanded to testing sites in North Adams and Great Barrington.

In June, the City Council accepted $900,000.00 from the state through the CARES Act to be used for pandemic-related expenses. This was the first installment of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, as the city was eligible for $3.7 million total.

Pittsfield experienced a beacon of hope toward the end of 2020 when Berkshire Medical Center was one of 21 hospitals selected to begin receiving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine in December.  BMC got to work offering the vaccine to individuals who are in most contact with the virus and will offer the vaccine to all 4,000 employees.

Pittsfield was also added to the nationwide Stop the Spread program or for asymptomatic, cost-free testing around the same time as one of the three testing sites in Berkshire County.  This was in great need after a COVID-19 surge following Halloween weekend that placed Pittsfield in the high-risk category for transmission.

Pittsfield’s long-held traditions fell victim to the pandemic as well. The Fourth of July Parade was canceled for the first time since 1977 and replaced with a historical document on Pittsfield Community Television called "Fighting for Independence: The History of the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade."

Other cancellations included the annual Halloween Parade that locals have enjoyed for the past 25 years, the iconic 3rd Thursday season, which had been a staple event since 2006, and the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony that was done virtually. The Halloween Parade was replaced with a segment aired on PCTV called "Haunted Streets: A Celebration of 25 Years of Halloween Parades," that looked back at some of the best floats and moments of the past 25 years of PCTV's parade coverage.

ELECTION

In addition to experiencing a global pandemic, 2020 was the year that Americans voted in record numbers in the presidential election.

Leading up to this election, Pittsfield Democrats were active in encouraging eligible citizens to exercise their right to vote. In mid-October, the Berkshire Brigades participated in a nationwide "Big-Send," a national campaign by nonprofit Vote Forward to encourage participation in this year's presidential election. The political group collected was able to contribute thousands to the Big Send. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier contributed 50 letters addressed to individuals in the state of Florida.

Both Edward Markey and Joseph Kennedy III made stops in Pittsfield and the county during the Democratic primary campaign for U.S. Senate. Markey, who won re-election to the Senate, spoke in Park Square twice, first in July during a primary campaign swing where he spoke about education, health, and the Green New Deal and again at a last-minute rally at the end of October on the tail-end of his campaign.

On Sunday, Nov. 8, county Democrats celebrated the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris win (nearly 2-1 in Massachusetts) with dancing, a drum performance, and speeches.

CANNABIS

Pittsfield saw a boom in the cannabis business in 2020. In February, the Community Development Board voted to allow outdoor marijuana cultivation in residential districts as long as they are 500 feet away from homes instead of restricting pot growth in residential areas.  That same month, the Zoning Board of Appeals approved True East Leaf's special permit request to grow and sell marijuana at the former Richmond Bakery on Seymour Street.

The Community Development Board also approved an indoor cultivation facility at 71 Downing Parkway, the former Coca-Cola warehouse, and an outdoor cultivation facility at 997 Peck's Road that will be converted from a farm.

It was a big year for recreational and medical dispensary Berkshire Roots, which opened in April 2019.  The company’s three-story cannabis cultivation facility on Dalton Avenue is nearing completion and Berkshire Root's two-story, 100,000-square-foot cannabis cultivation facility at the former Ken’s Bowl got the OK from the Community Development Board and was then approved by the Zoning Board of Appeals with conditions on the approval adopted from the recommendations from a third-party review.

Pittsfield saw yet another cannabis dispensary when Colonial Cannabis Co. opened in December on 1021 South St. in the former Amazing.net.

HOMELESSNESS

The pandemic impacted all of Pittsfield in some way, shape, or form, but housing insecure and homeless individuals may have been affected the most. A homeless advisory committee was re-established to aid these individuals in September 2018. In December, the committee was re-established again to better clarify the group's purpose with administrative support provided by the Office of Community Development.

Over the summer, homeless encampments were springing up in Pittsfield parks, most commonly at Springside Park. In conjunction with ServiceNet, the city had set up a temporary shelter at the former St. Joseph's High School to abide by COVID-19 restrictions, but this facility shut its doors in early July after running out of funds. Because of the closing of the shelter, many individuals said they had no choice but to camp outside.

During this time, the city asked police not to remove individuals camping in the parks and supplied portable toilets and handwashing stations. This lasted until December, when the Parks Commission set a date of Dec. 1 for individuals camping in the park to evacuate. This deadline was set out of concern for their well-being, with the Parks Commission hoping that these individuals would choose to enter the reopened shelter at St. Joe's.

People have remained in the park during winter weather, as the city is not enforcing the evacuation. City officials agree that more needs to be done to aid unsheltered residents but are generally confused over the right path to take.

The Community Development Board earlier in the year approved the development of a 40-bed homeless shelter at First United Methodist Church. This shelter will be operated by ServiceNet and is expected to be ready in May 2021.


REAL ESTATE & INVESTMENT

Private investment group Mill Town Capital made a variety of investments in Pittsfield in 2020. Right down the street from the Morningstar apartments in the former St. Mary's Church complex that Mill Town partnered in, the investment group is renovating a vacant group of buildings into 36 new housing units.  

Mill Town also invested in the community development space Tyler Street Lab, which entered into a two-year lease agreement with the investment group. The lab will temporarily re-occupy 730 Tyler St. while Mill Town renovates 741 Tyler St. and it will move into its new space once renovations are completed.

Mill Town purchased the historic Bousquet Ski Area in late May and, in December, announced that it would be expanding the Bousquet brand with two sister facilities. Berkshire West Athletic Club across from Bousquet will become Bousquet Sport and the former Lakeside Christian Camp on Richmond Pond will be The Camp by Bousquet.

Pittsfield also received a $3 million MassWorks Infrastructure Grant for improvements on Tyler Street that will be put toward fixing the problematic intersection of Tyler Street and Woodlawn Avenue and doing streetscape improvements on roads, sidewalks, and crosswalks.

The year also started out on a high note with the opening of the Berkshire Innovation Center, a symbol of a "bright, bold future" for not only the city of Pittsfield but the Berkshires as a whole. More than a decade in the making from concept to opening, the $13.7 million hub for technology, training and entrepreneurship was packed on Feb. 28 with business and community leaders, and state and local officials past and present who helped shepherd the project over the years. 

The governor and lieutenant governor attended the ribbon cutting; less than two weeks later the governor declared a state of emergency.


ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Though the COVID-19 pandemic canceled most of Pittsfield’s arts events, some were able to pull through. Berkshire Theatre Group produced "Godspell" over the summer, being the first musical in the United States to be approved by the Actors' Equity Association in the wake of COVID-19.  This was performed in an open-air tent adjacent to the theater with strict protocols to protect the health and safety of audience members and staff.


Actor Elizabeth Banks, a Pittsfield High graduate, recorded a greeting to the city's two high school graduations.

North Street also saw a new mural in 2020 above the West Side Clock Shop titled "The Sun Will Rise."  This piece was created by Jesse Tobin McCauley, Jay Tobin, and Stephanie Quetti and was made possible by Artscape and Mill Town Capital.

Essential front line workers received a great surprise when cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax performed nine surprise pop-up concerts in Lee and Pittsfield on a flatbed truck equipped with a stage, sound system, and a strapped down piano. These pop-up performances were made possible through a collaboration of the musicians' production team and several community groups including Mill Town, City of Pittsfield Department of Cultural Development, Blue Q, Falcetti Pianos, Quality Moving & Storage, GHP Powered, and several local artists.

The Berkshire Athenaeum was also a backdrop for the TV Show "Unsolved Mysteries" as it featured local UFO sightings by the Reeds, brothers Matt and Thomas, who say they've had four encounters with aliens.

Wearing a mask just in case, Wally the Stegosaurus left his post in front of the Berkshire Museum for some much-needed repairs of his 50-year-old body at his birthplace, the Louis Paul Jonas Studios in Hudson, N.Y. The 1,200-pound fiberglass dinosaur will return to the museum in the spring.

In other news, Berkshire Community College celebrated its 60th anniversary with an hourlong special on PCTV, an Iraq and Afghanistan War Memorial was unveiled in Pittsfield’s Veterans Memorial Park on September 11, Pittsfield adopted alternate side parking for snow emergencies, the City Council funded the mayor's home renovation program and Pittsfield native Jeannine M. Ryder was promoted to the rank of Air Force brigadier general.

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