The Common in Pittsfield. Photo Kelly Cade

Pittsfield: the city at the center

A city of 45,000, Pittsfield is the geographic and commercial center of the Berkshires, with a proud history of manufacturing — and the contemporary challenges and opportunities that the decline of that sector has brought. Cultural initiatives have lifted the city’s mood and kindled its aspirations to become a hub for the arts. The opening of cannabis dispensaries Temescal Wellness west of town and Berkshire Roots and Bloom Brothers to the east has also lifted moods. The recent opening of the $13.8 million Berkshire Innovation Center, after eleven years of planning and building, is another sign of the city’s resilience.

 

The stage set-up, in a tent, for the Berkshire Theatre Group production of ‘Godspell.’ Photo Emma K Rothenberg-Ware

Pittsfield’s downtown is now its  Upstreet  Cultural District, anchored by the beautifully restored 1903  Colonial Theatre, part of Berkshire Theatre Group, and the innovative  Barrington Stage Company, which normally attracts almost 60,000 patrons per year to its four downtown venues and has become the incubator of shows that regularly go on to stages in Boston and New York. Both theaters are closed this summer, but that hasn’t stopped their spunky companies from offering performances. The Berkshire Theatre Group is performing Godspell in the Colonial Theatre parking lot; Barrington Stage has its own tent, too, with performances planned through October. The  Whitney Center for the Arts, established by Pittsfield native Lisa Whitney in 2012 and located in the creatively repurposed 1865 Thomas Colt House, is normally another beehive of culture: it presents art shows, intimate theatre and music performances, and special events. It’s temporarily closed, but offering online exhibits. The vibrant Pittsfield visual arts scene features public art, galleries, studios, and cooperatives, and the  First Fridays  Artswalk  (5 to 8 p.m. on the first Friday of the month).  For the month of August, and perhaps beyond, the Artswalk has been re-imagined to encompass outdoor locations.  The WordX Word Festival is offering programming online. The Pittsfield City Jazz Festival is planning performances for September and October.

 

Berkshire Museum. Photo courtesy Berkshire Museum

Located in the center of town on North Street, the  Berkshire Museum, a wonderful resource for the community, began its phased reopening on August 1 and is also offering a full schedule of online programming. Like many small-city museums, its holdings range across subjects and fields of knowledge. The natural history displays in “Berkshire Backyard,” the aquarium, and the exhibits of industrial technologies developed in the Berkshires make it a great place to take children to discover worlds beyond their screens.  The new, immersive “Curiosity Incubator” gallery is a portal to greater awareness of the human family.

Right next door to the Berkshire Museum is the Museum Facsimiles Outlet Store, a fun store for gifts. If you’re in the market for furniture, Paul Rich & Sons, also on North Street, has 30,000 square feet of floor space to look at, most of it American made (and no assembly required). You never know what you may find at ReStore at 347 Columbus Avenue; the store carries donated home improvement products, building materials, and more; profits go to Habitat for Humanity.

Pittsfield isn’t all urban: the 11,000-acre Pittsfield State Forest offers fall camping and hiking, and the Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary and Lake Onota also provide fun outdoor experiences. The Bousquet Mountain Adventure Park is temporarily closed. If you’re looking for a pleasant spot to serve as a base for Berkshires experiences, the Bonnie Brae Campground, now under new management, has cabins and RV sites north of town near Pontoosuc Lake (see website for COVID-19 guidelines.)

Let Whitman keep Brooklyn; Herman Melville had Pittsfield. The native New Yorker bought a 1785 farmhouse in 1850 and settled in for some serious writing — and an intense affair with the mistress of the neighboring manor. He named his new digs Arrowhead after the many Indian ‘points’ that turned up in his fields, and it’s now a museum run by the Berkshire Historical Society dedicated to his 13 years’ residence under its roof. Visitors can see the room where Melville wrote Moby Dick, with its view north to Mount Greylock, whose profile is said to have evoked for the author the whale that obsessed Captain Ahab. He built a porch on the north side, too, and called it a piazza; you too can sit and look. The house is open Thursday through Monday with call-ahead reservations and online ticketing; a guide takes you through.

 

Mission Restaurant. Photo Ally Voner

You’ll have to eat and you’ll have to stay: you can do both at trendy, 45-room Hotel on North, another repurposed downtown building that successfully blends new and old; its stylish bar, restaurant and shops, and this summer — dining outdoors — attract both a local and out-of-town clientele. For eating and drinking, there are 50 other restaurants, cafés, and wine bars to choose from. Meet a friend for coffee at Dottie’s, pick up lunch at the Marketplace Cafédrop into Mission for a locally sourced seasonal menu or a glass of wine, or settle into Methuselah and sixteen taps of craft beer, artful cocktails, and artful eats.  Stop in at Thistle and Mirth for the beer and the company, and end up (if you’re still crawling) at The Lantern Bar and Grill, a venerable and recently reopened Pittsfield institution. If you’re going to have something to eat before heading to Barrington Stage in the center of town, District Kitchen & Bar, Flavours of Malaysia, Patrick’s Pub, and Eat on North, now offering are close by. Pittsfield restaurants, as expected, are following COVID guidelines. Check websites for full information.

 

North Street in Pittsfield. Photo Kelly Cade

Pittsfield is a good movie town, in normal times. All these theaters are temporarily closed. Check their web sites for openings. The Regal Cinema at the Berkshire Mall four miles north of downtown has ten screens, reclining seats, reserved tickets, popular movies. The renovated, five-screen, Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound-equipped Beacon Cinema downtown on North has very comfortable reclining seats, and shows operas in the Met’s “Live in HD” series. The Little Cinema, located inside the Berkshire Museum, is a source for independent films, documentaries, and more, including Saturday morning cartoons for kids (and adults).

 

The gardens at Hancock Shaker Village. Photo Gabrielle Murphy

For a glimpse into a different way of living, 700-acre  Hancock Shaker Village  beckons  from outside of town along Route 20 in Hancock. The Shakers created a utopian, religious,  farming  community here in  the 1780s around the ideas of pacifism, celibacy, and communal living. No Shakers remain, but their way of life forms the basis for a living history museum, with 20 authentic Shaker buildings and rich collections of Shaker furniture and artifacts. At the same time, it’s a working farm, with extensive gardens and heritage livestock. And you can do yoga with the goats. Hancock Shaker Village is open Thursday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Advanced reservations are not necessary, but social distancing and the use of face masks are required.