Pittsfield Receives NEA Grant To Reinvent River

May 9, 2018

Pittsfield has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to design a park along the Housatonic River.

A longstanding city undertaking will receive a $75,000 boost from the NEA’s Our Town program, an initiative to invest in local communities nationwide.

“This Westside Riverway project has been in the works for a little over a decade," said Pittsfield Permitting Coordinator Nate Joyner. “The city, since 2007, has had a plan to connect basically the westside of Pittsfield to the river, which, for historic purposes, has kind of been neglected. It’s taken many years to  acquire the parcels along the river that’s given us the opportunity to put in this passive riverway park. Through the years we’ve engaged with local resident groups to steer that vision.”

“We are so happy in the office of cultural development to be involved in this project," said Jen Glockner, director of Pittsfield’s office of cultural development. Her office prepared and submitted the grant application to the NEA.

“There’s lots of partners involved in this project, including our office, the office of community development, the mayor is thrilled, and then we are so fortunate to have Tessa and Chris involved in this as well,” she told WAMC.

Glockner is talking about Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson, who make up architecture and design firm Arcade.

“Chris and I both grew up in the Berkshires," said Kelly, "and we started our architectural firm in Pittsfield with the receipt of a different Our Town grant from the NEA that we got along with the city of Pittsfield to start the Mastheads project.”

The Mastheads is a writers’ residency project in Pittsfield; it received its Our Town grant in 2015.

“There are five mobile writers’ studios," said Glockner. "The first year, last year, in 2017, they were placed at different locations around Pittsfield for the month of July. Five people came in from around the country and were writers in residence in Pittsfield. Worked out of the studios by the day and then lived in Pittsfield for the month and also took part in community conversations throughout the month.”

The project brought Kelly and Parkinson back to the Berkshires after years in New Haven, Connecticut. Based in downtown Pittsfield, they plan on making the most of this second opportunity to work with the city.

“A lot of cities like Pittsfield, these deinvested cities, have an urban fabric that in many ways is a remnant of the past," said Parkinson. "And I think what we do when we look at a place like Pittsfield is try to take that fabric and try to find narratives or ways to reinvent that fabric and make it belong to the present," said Parkinson. “Taking that idea to a project like this Westside Riverway Park, a lot of the way we think about projects is trying to think of how we can bring a narrative and a design process that involves as community, that involves the city, and make it some way tell a story of the place to make it important to the contemporary and present moment.”

Kelly says the Housatonic is the Rosetta Stone to understanding Pittsfield’s history.

“From the Mohican nation on to paper and textile mills along the river, artists and writers of the American Renaissance," she said. "The story of the Housatonic today in the public perception is largely one of PCBs. And part of the reason we find the opportunity of the Westside riverway part so exciting is that it’s a chance to sort of bring to light and open the conversation of all the other things that the Housatonic river has done in this community and meant to this region.”

From previous city efforts to include community groups like the West Side Neighborhood Initiative in the park’s planning, Arcade says it already has some ideas about what the park will include — from a new pedestrian bridge across the river to space for farmers markets and an open air pavilion.

“We will be working closely with the West Side Neighborhood Initiative and also the Working Cities Initiative to do a series of community design sessions that will be lead by a community design specialist,” said Kelly.

The grant period begins August 1st. Arcade says it’ll present an update with a month-long exhibition on the project at the Lichtenstein Center For The Arts this January.