It's been a hot second since the Gilded Age (the historical period, not the HBO drama whose second season recently dropped) put the Berkshires on the map as a train-stop destination for city dwellers.
The term, coined by Mark Twain, refers to a time in which abject poverty existed alongside glittering wealth—vestiges of which linger in area "cottages" once owned by the Vanderbilts (Elm Court), Carnegies (Shadowbrook), and Morgans (Ventfort Hall). Fast forward a hundred years, and destinations like Great Barrington continue to captivate folks from far and wide, among them Dr. Mark A. Taylor II, who, in August 2022, moved his family from Salt Lake City to Great Barrington after one visit to a place neither he, nor his wife, Emily, had ever heard of.
"Honestly, we were interested in this opportunity but really trying to find reasons not to like [the Berkshires]," says Taylor, citing the region's rural nature. "We were most taken aback by the support and kindness of the community," says Taylor, who recalls a recurring theme: "Everybody we met spoke fondly of how much they enjoyed living here and raising a family in the area." That feedback convinced him to join the medical staff at Fairview Hospital, where he is a general surgeon.
Since relocating, Taylor and his family have been busy exploring. Favorite activities include trekking to Tanglewood for the first time and visiting Naumkeag—another cottage, turned into a public garden and historic site—for the Great Pumpkin Show and Winterlights—a pair of pandemic-era traditions that persist to the delight of locals and visitors alike.
Cultivating Community ConversationsAs in the Gilded Age, there is a real wealth gap that institutions in the region are trying to address. In June, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center hosted a cohort of cultural nonprofits from Berkshire and Columbia counties to discuss findings from the Pay Equity Project launched during the 2021 Multicultural BRIDGE Inclusive Leadership Cohort, in which Executive Director Janis Martinson participated. First-hand perspectives from entry- and mid-level workers at area nonprofits made one thing clear: Passion is not a substitute for liveable wages, and the local arts sector cannot make good on its commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion without addressing the issue of compensation.
"For individuals coming from groups that have been historically financially disenfranchised, being asked to work at a nonprofit organization for a level of compensation that's financially precarious is not tenable," Martinson explains, adding that two thirds of those nonprofit employees surveyed indicate they are definitely leaving the field or likely to leave the field for a single reason: They can't afford to stay.
"It's really a systemic issue," says Martinson. Cultural consumers—the people who visit museums and attend performances—want to know they are contributing to something that's being done with integrity for the people who are providing that service. "Aligning and working together is the best way forward and the notion of 'doing more with less' (a popular phrase for too many decades), can no longer mean less for the people who do the work."
It was a close call for the historic Walter J. Koladza Airport, which would have been shuttered without a special permit issued by the Selectboard in mid-April. Named for its former owner, a World War II test pilot turned FAA examiner, the airport (in continuous operation since the 1930s) was threatened after a trio of residents filed suit in Boston Land Court, alleging the town was in violation of its own laws by allowing the airport to expand beyond zoning requirements. A group of locals coalesced around the cause, and the Citizens Committee to Save the Great Barrington Airport did just that—preserving a critical space for emergency medical flights and a home for 40 small aircraft.
In August, the W.E.B. Du Bois Sculpture Project tapped Richard Blake—a sculptor known for shedding light on often overlooked American heroes of color—to erect a statue honoring the civil rights pioneer, scholar, and Great Barrington native in front of the Mason Public Library on Main Street. "There's been a long history of wanting to honor Du Bois in this town...and a statue in front of the library seemed a natural match given his intellectual history as a sociologist and intellect," says Julie Michaels, project chairperson. A late-March Idea Jam allowed for diverse voices to discuss all aspects of the sculpture project, including its potential impact on issues related to race and race relations in the community. The independent group of local citizens remains $150,000 away from their fundraising goal of $375,000 for the sculpture.
On Elm Court, construction continues at the former Clinton AME Zion Church that Du Bois once attended. Upon its completion, the Du Bois Freedom Center will be the first museum and living memorial in North America dedicated to Du Bois's life and legacy. Locally, it will serve to celebrate the rich African American heritage of the Berkshires—one epitomized by President Emeritus Wray Gunn Sr., a fifth-generation descendant of Agrippa Hull, who served as a church trustee and congregant for more than seven decades.
In late October, special town meetings took place in Great Barrington (and seven surrounding communities) for the purpose of voting on a proposed eight-town merger between the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts. While Great Barrington and three neighboring towns voted in favor of the merger—proposed on the heels of dwindling school-aged population across the region and a call for increased student options—four Southern Berkshire towns rejected it (Alford was the lone supporter), leaving Berkshire Hills to forge ahead with building a new high school on its own.
Fairview Hospital has been a community fixture since 1913, when philanthropist Mary Mason, namesake of the town's public library, bequeathed property, land, and cash to establish a local hospital. The 25-bed, full-service primary care hospital, part of Berkshire Health Systems, boasts a World Health Organization Baby-Friendly-certified Maternity Unit, a five-star Medicare Hospital rating, and ranks among the top 20 Critical Access Hospitals in America."Having a quality hospital nearby is really important and unique in a rural community...especially a healthy one," says Lauren Smith, director of community relations and development. In addition to caring for patients and connecting them to more specialized care when needed, Fairview Hospital employs 300 community members.
For more than two decades, Railroad Street Youth Project has had its finger on the pulse of local teens—a group increasingly at risk of isolation in the Berkshires. "The most pressing need for young people is to have connection, support, and to be seen," says Ananda Timpane, founder and executive director of the nonprofit. For Timpane and her team, empowering those youth least likely to have their needs met in today's world remains top of mind.
"When we show up for youth who are experiencing marginalization, we build programs and spaces that meet the needs of all youth," Timpane explains. The project's ongoing work with recent immigrant youth and those who identify as LGBTQIA+ has hinged on creating a sense of belonging. "We see the impact the national conversation is having on young people," says Timpane, adding, "It's changing their ability to access spaces for youth who are queer, and it's changing how safe they feel in the world."
For the Fun of It
A handful of landmarks lend small-town charm to the local entertainment scene. Just prior to the town's only movie theater going dark in early June, local residents joined forces to form Save the Triplex—an effort to preserve the Triplex Cinema, considered the heart and soul of downtown. The grassroots organization—formed in April and spearheaded by Nicki Wilson—successfully purchased the community fixture from longtime owner Richard Stanley (whose 1995 opening of the cinema catalyzed Great Barrington's renaissance) in July. The Triplex Cinema reopened in mid-November as a nonprofit, revealing a fresh look and a renewed sense of purpose.
"As a nonprofit, our first mission is the community, making a center where people can come to do other things besides the movies," says Wilson, who is president of the board, in an interview with Rural Intelligence. "We will do the curating of films—including blockbusters—but will have one theater designated as a repertory theater offering film classes, documentary and art films, and talkbacks."
Old-school fans recognize Berkshire Community Radio Alliance as a valuable resource that's made airtime and education available to the public for two decades. The low-power, nonprofit station broadcasts live on WBCR-LP 97.7 and invites proposals for new shows featuring fresh and interesting content for the community. According to Vice President Graham Dean, community airwaves are experiencing a moment. "In an age of corporate media, local radio [has become] more important than ever," the early programmer says, adding: "The future looks bright for community media, [and] radio is only the beginning."
Just outside of town, the Egremont Barn is an unassuming joint—festooned with fairy lights and frequented by resident farm animals—featuring some of the best local, regional, and national touring acts to its rustic stage. After a January-long nap, Nick Keene and Jenny Rubin will again welcome folks for all manner of musical entertainment from karaoke and open mic nights to the stellar sounds of musicians like Jill Sobule, who kicks off the 2024 season February 1.
Want in on the action? The Downtown Great Barrington Cultural District (a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council) serves as an in-depth, interactive map and directory to all the area has to offer—spanning performing arts and entertainment; food and restaurants; art and galleries; shopping and retail; as well as outdoor public spaces and an event calendar.
As Taylor, the transplanted doctor, is learning, Great Barrington's allure is vast. His family has taken to exploring by foot and basking in the beauty that abounds both on and off the beaten path. "We essentially live in the forest, which is very different for us," he says, having grown up in a suburban, cookie-cutter house neighborhood of the Mountain West. He is quickly becoming a fan of the town's day-to-day pace—where neither he nor his patients are simply cogs in the machine. In fact, his experience working at Fairview Hospital is symbolic of what he likes best about small-town living: "In a small community, where people know each other, it's not only less busy but [folks] also get a lot of attention [which leads to] a very personalized experience."
Whether visiting for the day or putting down roots, discover for yourself why this town might, in fact, be the greatest of all time.