Down and Out in the Berkshires

From exclusive retreats like Canyon Ranch to cultural meccas like Tanglewood, there’s nothing but luxury in the Berkshires. And that’s the problem.

Photo by Toan Trinh (Luggage); iStock (Building); Getty Images (Mountain); Benjamen Purvis (Composite illustration)

I grew up in one of the quintessential Massachusetts college towns clustered in the center of the state two hours west of Boston. So when my parents wanted to treat themselves and their children to a night of world-class theater or music, they were less likely to head toward the Hub than to drive an hour the other way—out to the Berkshires, the commonwealth’s westernmost county, where New York City’s elite have long supported cultural institutions such as Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Jacob’s Pillow, sweeping grounds dedicated to the teaching and performance of dance. For my mother, a cultural omnivore and former dancer who spent stretches of her twenties in New York, the Berkshires were a form of compensation for the pastoral town where my father’s job as a professor had landed us.

The Berkshires, as I understood them, were a playground for the tastefully rich: rolling hills dotted with picturebook-pretty towns such as Lenox and Stockbridge; winding roads through quiet forests that opened without warning onto the emerald-green golf courses of the Cranwell Spa or the Gilded Age mansion converted into a Canyon Ranch. I developed a love-hate relationship with the region, and with people like the Washington, DC, native I once overheard at Jacob’s Pillow telling a friend that the capital city’s ballet company was simply not worth seeing, and so she attended dance only when she was up here. I resented them for throwing my provincial life into relief, yet enjoyed the idea that the cultural center of the universe was essentially in my backyard.

I had no idea that this paradise was also one of the poorest parts of the entire state. The southern third of the county may present as luxe vacationland, but its central and northern regions are home to two of Massachusetts’ most depressed cities, North Adams and Pittsfield, the former home of a General Electric power transformer plant that was shuttered in 1990. More than any other force, the steadily expanding tourism economy has stepped into the postindustrial void (sometimes literally: North Adams is beginning to compete with South County for tourists thanks to the powerful draw of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, built inside an old textile mill), and the sum of visitor dollars spent in the region has grown 30 percent since 2009. But the jobs tourism brings have little in common with the ones manufacturing took. They’re often part time or seasonal, low-skill and low-wage, providing no clear pathways to full-time professions. “The great thing about the Berkshires is that lots of jobs are available now,” says Jane Ralph, executive director of Construct, which provides affordable housing in the region. “The thing that’s tricky is that fewer of them are paying sustainable wages.”

Between the region’s favored status among elites and the reality that its median household income and health outcomes trail state averages, it’s easy to imagine that Massachusetts would want to lend a hand and prioritize its inland arcadia. But this slice of western Massachusetts has never had much clout in Boston and is peripheral in ways that go beyond mere geography. The four western counties combined have only 22 of the 160 state representatives and five of the 40 state senators; Berkshire County’s legislative voices number four in the lower chamber and Senator Adam Hinds in the higher one. And over the past 40-odd years, the state has generally looked the other way while the region has fallen behind. Parts of the county still lack broadband; the already sparse public transit system will weather cuts in the next fiscal year, despite virtually unanimous local opinion that residents’ lack of mobility is hurting the economy; and housing experts say the Berkshires can’t compete against the more populous counties to the east for enough affordable housing dollars to beat back the tide of second-home buyers driving up the cost of limited housing stock.

Even the Berkshires’ big success story, tourism, has been accomplished with limited attention from Beacon Hill. Massachusetts distributes the same amount of funding for advertising to each of 16 Regional Tourism Councils, regardless of how heavily they rely on visitors to prop up the economy—meaning that the Berkshires receive the same as, for example, MetroWest (each got $375,000 in 2016). That same year, New York spent a total of $55 million on tourism advertising, averaging more per region than Massachusetts spends statewide—putting the Berkshires at a clear disadvantage even in the area’s last bastion of economic strength. “We border New York State, and we’re in direct competition with the Hudson River Valley, the Adirondacks, the Hamptons, for visitors from the same place,” says Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of the economic development organization 1Berkshire. “Meanwhile, our neighbor in New York is outspending us 10 to 1.”

Governor Charlie Baker’s staff defends the administration’s commitment to the Berkshires, citing some $38 million in various investments and the fact that it’s awarded more economic-development grants per capita there than in any other region. But so far that isn’t exactly lifting all boats. As New England’s ritziest mountain playground struggles to secure its future, the question on locals’ minds remains the same: Why is Massachusetts leaving us behind?

Novelist Edith Wharton is said to have spent mornings in the Berkshires writing in her third-floor bedroom, overlooking her formal European-style gardens, propped on many pillows and surrounded by her beloved Pekingese lap dogs. In this fashion, she completed The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome. Around noon, she would emerge to entertain guests, or enjoy “long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region,” as she recalled later in her memoir, A Backward Glance. Henry James, who often visited Wharton at the lakeside estate she’d christened the Mount, nicknamed her “the Lady of Lenox.”

Urbanites such as Wharton and James have been flooding the Berkshires every summer since the end of the Civil War, when the Gilded Age titans of industry used their unprecedented riches to build palatial “cottages” where they could escape the city’s heat. The hills of western Massachusetts, where wealthy families staked out roughly 75 such estates in the towns of Lenox and Stockbridge between the 1860s and the 1920s, thrived on their reputation for seclusion and creative bohemianism, which contrasted with the hothouse high society of places such as Newport, Rhode Island. Wharton herself escaped the dance parties of Newport for the privacy of Lenox in 1901. The iconic sculptor Daniel Chester French kept a studio in New York and another in Stockbridge, on a farm he called Chesterwood. Beginning in the 1930s, first the New York Philharmonic and then the Boston Symphony Orchestra played annually in the Berkshires at the invitation of the region’s wealthy families, and in 1936, the Tappan family bequeathed its 210-acre estate—later named Tanglewood, a moniker coined decades earlier by family friend Nathaniel Hawthorne—to the Boston musicians to continue the concerts. Other Gilded Age manors have since become contemporary luxury retreats, such as the Canyon Ranch at the former Bellefontaine Mansion and the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health at what was once Shadowbrook, an estate built by banker Anson Phelps Stokes and owned for several years by the Carnegie family.

This privileged, pastoral version of the Berkshires always coexisted, however, with its primacy as an industrial hub, first for textiles and glass and later for paper. From the 1840s through the 1860s, Berkshire County produced more paper than any other place in the country. (In fact, paper made up a hearty chunk of the local economy until 2008, as The Berkshire Eagle has reported, when four South County mills shut their doors within a span of months, eliminating 170 jobs.) For the better part of a century, Pittsfield was a proud company town: GE opened its first plant there in 1903 and at its height employed 13,000 people in a city of 50,000.

Everything changed when the company began shipping jobs overseas during the 1970s and ’80s, and by the early ’90s, only GE’s 300-person plastics division remained in the Berkshires. It was eventually sold to SABIC, which decamped for Houston in 2016—the same year Baker’s administration offered GE what the Boston Globe described as “one of the richest incentive deals in the state’s history,” putting together a reported $120 million in tax incentives, infrastructure improvements, and other benefits to lure the company’s international headquarters to, of course, Boston. The Globe wrote that the move “cement[ed] the region’s reputation as a magnet for innovation.” In the coverage, GE’s century in Pittsfield—and the pollution it left in the Berkshires’ Housatonic River—appeared as an afterthought, when it was mentioned at all.

While Boston courts the jobs of the future, the Berkshires stay afloat by attracting affluent outsiders. Tourism—from hotels to restaurants to arts and recreation—employs more people than any other sector except healthcare. (Berkshire Health Systems, which operates a UMass teaching hospital in Pittsfield, is the county’s largest employer.) But here’s the rub: The average individual wage in the tourist economy comes to less than $30,000 a year—too little for comfort in a region where old farmhouses need upkeep, cold winters require fuel, and, at least in South County, tourists keep driving up housing prices.

As a result, people are leaving—especially millennials and anyone with a college degree. Luke Toole, whose family owns the Yankee Inn in northern Lenox, blames the lack of jobs and the long, freezing winters, when the dearth of activity can get downright depressing. “It’s tough because young people don’t stay here,” says Toole, who hails from the area and has watched nearly everyone he grew up with move away. “It’s a beautiful area, but it’s a tough place to be.” In turn, the Berkshires are facing a looming demographic disaster. According to a 2017 survey by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, almost half of residents under age 46 said they were considering moving in the next three years. “If we continue our natural decline, you start putting a tax burden on a smaller population, and it drives more people out,” predicts John Costa, a business consultant who lives just outside Great Barrington and serves on Berkshire United Way’s Economic Prosperity Impact Council. “It’s a classic death spiral.”

We may not be able to stop debating whether the urban elite have forgotten the working class on the national stage, but in Massachusetts—where the dynamic is on solid display along east-west lines—the topic is rarely discussed. The Berkshires are on the wrong end of what state Senator Hinds terms Massachusetts’ “winner-take-all” predicament, in which Boston attracts employers, jobs, and young residents, “and meanwhile,” he says, “we’re watching the opposite taking place out here.” Departing Berkshire-ites say they leave in search of opportunities and to escape the high cost of living in the region—or, more precisely, its mismatch with depressed wages. After all, says Lenox town planner Gwen Miller, “The wages you could expect to earn from hospitality or arts and entertainment in Lenox are not enough to afford market rent or a mortgage on a home in Lenox.”

Real estate in the Berkshires has nothing on the absurdity of Boston, but prices have been on the rise because of record demand. From 2016 to 2017, the average sale price of a single-family home rose 8 percent, to just under $280,000, and this past winter the listing inventory fell to its lowest point in 13 years. Miller attributes the growing demand and constricting supply to seasonal residents and wealthy retirees—especially in South County, where the average home went for $426,600 in 2017. In Lenox, Miller says, “We have more homes available on the market for a million-plus than we do homes that are $250,000.” A couple both working in the tourism industry—likely making in the ballpark of $60,000 a year combined—are virtually forced to commute from Pittsfield or North Adams, where the average home price is still under $200,000. And even there, stock is limited: The cost to build in the Berkshires is comparable with Boston’s, which means developers are hesitant to make the investment for a return that won’t rival city rents.

When it comes to affordable-housing dollars, Baker’s administration spends more per capita in the Berkshires than in Greater Boston—but the money doesn’t go as far, leaving the region pinched all the same. “Often, the state and federal funding programs are geared toward large projects,” says Great Barrington town planner Chris Rembold, explaining that a big development in the Berkshires is 40-something units, versus hundreds of units in Boston. Rembold says it’s generally easier to gather grants and financing to make a project like that profitable. It’s not all bad news, though. Lenox and nearby Great Barrington have recently launched programs to help year-rounders buy homes using locally awarded federal grants. And Baker’s office recently committed $1.5 billion to affordable housing in the state over the next five years. Still, it remains to be seen how much of that money will end up out west: In 2017, when Baker announced $72 million in direct funding and $28 million in tax credits for affordable-housing projects around the state, a whopping one-third of the 25 beneficiaries were in Boston—and only two in the Berkshires.

Soaring housing costs all but require the Berkshires’ poorest workers to commute from the less expensive towns in the north to jobs in the tonier south—a struggle that’s about to get even harder, given that Baker’s 2019 budget has left the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority $378,400 in arrears. “I’ve had people talk to me about how they’ve turned down multiple jobs because they can’t figure out how to get there in a reasonable amount of time on the bus,” says Alisa Costa of Working Cities Pittsfield, an initiative funded by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “I hear about 200 shifts at the Lee Outlet Malls not getting filled because they’re second-shift jobs in the evening” and almost all the buses stops running by 6:30 p.m. (They also don’t run on Sundays.) These challenges help explain why, at any given time, by one estimate there are approximately 1,600 open jobs in Berkshire County and twice that number of people collecting unemployment benefits. People want to work but can’t afford to get there.

The biggest imbalance between the Berkshires and Boston, though, concerns the kinds of jobs awaiting locals at the other ends of their commutes. “A couple things put us at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining employers,” says Butler of 1Berkshire, citing the lack of transportation and a less-educated workforce that “can’t compete with the talent coming out of institutions inside 495.” The lack of broadband has also kept the Berkshires in the dark ages, though the Baker administration has made progress in that area. In November, the legislature appropriated $45 million to spend on public-private partnerships to wire the “last mile” and hook up western Massachusetts’ most remote towns, hopefully by 2020. Still, bringing the Berkshires into the 21st century will not, by itself, attract businesses and save the region—especially in the face of stiff competition.

An hour from the Berkshires, New York’s once down-at-the-heels Tri-City area upstate has emerged as a thriving tech hub—prosperity that hasn’t crossed the state line. “There’s a corridor of innovation and technology from eastern Mass. to the nanotech hub in Albany that goes through the Berkshires, but we’re this geographic hub in the middle that doesn’t get attached to it in an intentional way,” Butler says. “That’s going to be hard for the region to do on its own without a strong partner in Massachusetts.”

Indeed, it is individual New Yorkers, not the state of Massachusetts, who are making the biggest investment in the Berkshires. In April, a rapturous piece in the real estate section of the New York Times described the region’s growth as creating a “cultural corridor,” much of it driven by Manhattanites who fell in love with western Massachusetts. Thomas Krens, the longtime director of the Guggenheim Foundation who led the art museum at Williams College during the 1980s, has returned to the Berkshires with a long list of plans to revitalize North Adams, beginning with an Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, to be designed by Frank Gehry. (The state also kicked in a $250,000 grant.) A husband-and-wife team of architects, Salvatore Perry and the Columbia University–affiliated Karla Rothstein, are revamping an old textile mill down the road from Mass MoCA. David York, an animal-loving philanthropist who made his fortune in New York’s fashion scene, recently chose North Adams to house his collection of canine-themed art in what he is calling Museum of Dog. Restaurants and breweries are popping up, and real estate is booming. One Realtor told the Times that 90 percent of his clients come from New York.

Locals can only hope that their region keeps attracting dollars and visitors from across the state line. In fact, the Berkshires’ sense of kinship with New York goes deeper than economic dependence. “Berkshire County is really much more a part of New York than Massachusetts,” Toole says. “Not only because people from New York come here. We go to Albany to do the shopping. All the radio and TV stations are from Albany. We speak more like the people from New York than the people from Boston—we don’t have that accent at all.” Many people commute back and forth across the border with neighboring Columbia County. Meanwhile, busy, affluent Boston feels a world away from the secluded Berkshires—and is the last place most residents would think to look for help. “Massachusetts is such a small state, and metro Boston is half of it,” Toole says. “We’re out here by ourselves.” He laughs. “Maybe we should secede to New York.”

The most optimistic Berkshire-ites hope the future of their region looks like the Lenox-based startup Zogics, where every surface gleams, from the freshly finished hardwood floors (the company recently moved offices to accommodate its growing ranks) to founder and CEO Paul LeBlanc himself—tan and curly-haired with very white teeth—who has the glow of an exceptionally healthy person. He tells me he biked 30 miles yesterday.

Zogics, which sells fitness supplies, earned a spot on Inc. magazine’s latest list of America’s best places to work, and in the Berkshires, it’s one of a few companies that people inevitably point toward when they want to prove that the economic situation isn’t so dire. “If I were starting from scratch and could locate a new business anywhere, it’s hard for me to not put the Berkshires at the top of the list,” LeBlanc tells me. “I think you’re going to see a lot of startups and others deliberately setting up shop here to take advantage of the quality of life, knowing that these days, you can build a company almost anywhere, so why not have a view like this from your office”—he gestures out to the green hillside behind him—“and a bucolic 15-minute commute?”

Some hope the same natural and cultural riches that attract tourists every summer can draw a vibrant startup scene to the Berkshires. “The economic impact of tourism is more than the jobs it creates,” says 1Berkshire’s Butler. This spring, Baker’s administration gave the Berkshires its largest-yet chunk of money to follow that vision, announcing a $12.5 million investment in the idea of the region as a “life sciences innovation hub” in the form of a new Berkshire Innovation Center (BIC). The 20,000-square-foot facility is set to open this summer in Pittsfield, where companies will be able to share training and information as well as access labs, clean rooms, and expensive equipment such as 3-D printers. In a March statement, Baker described the innovation center as an investment that would “continue to improve Massachusetts’ position as a global leader in the life sciences” and “help the region attract more employers in innovation and technology.” (By point of comparison, a couple of months later, the state announced it would spend $20 million to bring Amazon to Boston’s Seaport.)

Could the BIC secure the Berkshires a place on the map of what Butler described as the Boston-to-Albany tech corridor? Its chairman and president, Stephen Boyd, an area native and the CEO of Boyd Technologies, which develops and manufactures medical devices, already sees his company as an extension of the booming biomedical industry in Boston. “To be close but also produce an economy of scale in the Berkshires, where manufacturing is less expensive, is valuable,” he says. “The ideation going on in Cambridge can be scaled very close to where it’s needed.”

Until then, the image of well-heeled crowds setting out lawn chairs at Tanglewood conceals as much as it conveys about life in these mountains. Beneath the romantic reputation, the Berkshires and Boston “are moving in two different directions,” says Hinds, the state senator. “We need to address the problem, to make sure we don’t have a tale of two states.”