By Bill Shein
October 6, 2016
Way back in March, 2006, I wrote a newspaper column commenting on the turnover in storefronts in downtown Great Barrington. As old, longtime stores closed up, many of the new ones, I wrote, could easily be named “The Super-Fancy Shop of Really Expensive But Largely Useless Trinkets.” At that point I’d lived here full-time for just five years, but could see things changing quickly.
The Great Barrington area was, many suggested, transforming into a “Hamptons of the North,” with an economy increasingly built upon luxury goods and expensive restaurants for a small, upscale crowd. Five years before Occupy Wall Street sounded the air horn about the growing gulf between most of us and a few of us, the transformation was evident right before our eyes.
The trend has continued apace. Today, it goes without saying that the feel and flavor of Great Barrington – the hub of our local south County region – has been forever altered, and not only because of the still-shocking emasculation, er, “redevelopment” of Main Street, which has left the town’s primary thoroughfare looking as if it is an exact, cheaply built replica of Disney Epcot Center’s exact, cheaply built replica of an architect’s design for nondescript, flavorless Great Barrington. No doubt the faux old-style clocks and “gas” “streetlights” were manufactured by a company called “Adding Insult to Injury, Inc.”
CUT TO: Town officials, in the wake of a future hurricane that destroys all of downtown Great Barrington, standing triumphantly beneath the massive, still-standing traffic-light poles, smiling and patting each other on the back as the lights flash from green, to yellow, to red…
Today, local shops sell clothing that’s embarrassingly expensive, with more and bigger shops coming soon. Should you find yourself with an extra $1,000 knocking around your pocket, you can today buy a single cashmere sweater and perhaps a matching scarf at one well-known downtown store. Really, people?
Want to catch a new film at our beloved Triplex theater? First you need to endure an overly long, self-congratulatory, upscale-sponsor-promoting ad for the Berkshire International Film Festival. It’s a promotional film that goes on, and on, and on, and on for way too many minutes – or is it hours? – with drone-shot footage of glittering festival parties and events, as if no one involved in its production was familiar with the vital job of “film editor.” A job for which they give out Academy Awards, by the way.
And yes, Great Barrington is now brimming over with restaurants with very expensive menus. And, I might note, very few vegetarian entrees. (“We’ll make you a plate,” they say, which means a few microscopic vegetables spread out on a three-foot-diameter saucer for $25.00.) Opting out of meat is, apparently, shocking to the foodie sensibility of chefs these days. (IMPORTANT ASIDE: For many, whether meat is “local” or not, and even if animals are “treated well before they’re slaughtered” is not nearly enough to overcome the reality of these animals’ ultimate, early, and unnecessary fate.)
Soon, serving a high-end clientele with expensive housing, luxury goods, and expensive meals — all boosted by self-congratulatory, “ain’t we grand?” media — may be all that’s left here. Ironically, perhaps, the region’s important nonprofit and creative sector similarly relies on funds from that narrow economic segment. You work with what’s available, and that’s where things are today.
What’s local is clearly national, too. The rise of Trumpism has been fueled by a continuing, decades-long, slow-motion economic collapse, the two Americas, the insult and injury delivered to millions of families to whom more burdens are being shifted. Pay more for everything, from inadequate healthcare to college to credit-card interest, while jobs become less secure, less-well-paid, on-call, and so on. Those who profit from this evolution have invested heavily in our politics, where billionaires and millionaires and corporate lobbyists lavishly fund candidates from both major parties to ensure things will never change very much.
So with that context, is it ironic, or sad, or outrageous, or embarrassing, or just simply unconscionable that coming soon to a dioxin-laden parcel of land on Bridge Street will be affordable housing? Adjacent to the town’s sewage-treatment plant? Kudos to those who labor hard to bring affordable housing to the region, but really?
Yes, those wearing average-to-low-priced sweaters may soon be able to look out their window at a structure that processes all that’s left after those expensive restaurant meals, while children play outside next to five acres of uncapped, dioxin-contaminated soil. Perhaps another lucrative construction project for “Adding Insult to Injury, Inc.” Thanks to my friend Mickey Friedman for his recent column soberly explaining why that’s just, well, wrong.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe there’s nothing to be done, maybe it’s just the way things are and will be. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable, unless a Hamptons-like enclave is what’s truly desired. And even that’s not sustainable. We’ll see what happens, by the very, very, very bright lights at midnight on Main Street.
(This column first appeared in The Berkshire Record newspaper on Friday, September 23.)