Pittsfield, Massachusetts: 10 Reasons to Visit
By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
We’ve been as guilty as anyone of barely slowing down as we’ve driven through Pittsfield on our way from Tanglewood in Lenox to Mass MoCA in North Adams.
In years past, Pittsfield seemed to be merely a crossroads with shuttered retail shops and all the untidy business of Berkshire County government. The handsome Beaux Arts commercial buildings along North Street may have hinted at the city’s flush past, but we couldn’t even find a place to get a decent cup of coffee.
These days, Pittsfield surprises everyone who stops by. While the rest of us have been whizzing past, the city has been quietly but busily reinventing itself. Here are 10 good reasons to find a parking spot and take a look around.
1. Even old is new again
“The Berkshire Museum was the only thing that kept downtown Pittsfield alive in the dark old days,” executive director Stuart Chase says, only half joking. “The only other reasons to come downtown were to go to court or go to the bank.” After more than a century as Berkshire County’s only public museum combining art and natural history, the institution recruited Chase from the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown to lead the charge into a new era.
Now the museum is hatching the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, named for the local donors who founded General Systems and pioneered Total Quality Management. Twin galleries are being reclaimed from offices and storerooms to showcase Berkshire firsts. But the museum hasn’t forgotten its eclectic past. What other institution, Chase asks, has “a mummy, Hudson River school paintings, shells, Alexander Calder’s first public commission, and even a small aquarium?”
2. Street life is back
Old-timers reminisce about North Street on Thursday nights, when people walked shoulder to shoulder with paychecks burning holes in their pockets. Today, the old department stores may be gone, but the people have returned. They frequent spots such as Wild Sage, with its tiny gallery in back and “antiques” and used books out front, and the fiber arts and gift shop Twin Hearts Handworks. Pittsfield native Cara Carnevale lived in the bohemian enclave of Madrid, New Mexico, and returned home with Southwest tongue in cheek. Twin Hearts “is where the fun people come to do fiber arts,” she says — and buy Boss Lady and Dirty Girl personal care products (made by local company Blue Q). Pittsfield, Carnevale says, has become “the cool place for people tired of paying South County prices.”
3. There are fun places to hang out
Also on North Street, Bellissimo Dolce has a classic see-and-be-seen scene with vast plate-glass windows and big mirrors. The folks behind this Italian bakery-café set aside Saturday nights for alternating programs of jazz sets and tango classes, and they even host the occasional weekday poetry night. (The strawberry cream cheese Bundt cake is no slouch, either.)
And when you need something more bracing than coffee, head to Brix Wine Bar. Owner Patrick McGinley relocated from Hartford, Connecticut, to open this very Parisian spot in 2005. Get there early for a seat, or stand at the zinc bar with glass in hand.
4. Something’s cooking
The Lantern, a classic American bar and grill with local art on the walls and ’40s jazz on the sound system, serves an exceptional burger. And for lunch with aspirations, it’s hard to beat the swordfish BLT at On a Roll Café.
Pennsylvania craft brewers Christine Bump and Bill Heaton stumbled onto Pittsfield on a road trip a few years ago and fell for the town. They revived a moribund brewery in 2005 and, as Pittsfield Brew Works, have been crafting 10-keg batches of artisanal ales ever since.
Top choice for pre- or post-theater dining is Spice, a temple of imaginative, seasonal comfort food in suave surroundings carved from the former Besse-Clark department store. Tucking into a plate of pasta and Maine lobster with spinach, bacon, and chive cream banishes forever the days when all you could wish for in Pittsfield was a decent cup of joe.
5. The show goes on
Summer 2006 was the Big Bang for culture in Pittsfield as two historic theaters reopened.