The downtown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts is likely to be jam-packed tonight for the first of this season’s monthly Third Thursday street festivals. But May’s event had to survive an unexpected cancellation by the mayor before rebounding on the strength of public support. New England Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin has the story.
At the monthly Third Thursday street festival in Pittsfield, the smell of grilled meats typically wafts through the air, volunteers from non-profit organizations offer brochures and raffle tickets, and the amplified sounds of street bands clamor for attention.
That’s from a YouTube recording of Berkshire Bateria performing at a past Third Thursday. The event routinely draws ten thousand or more people, organizers say. For tonight’s kick-off event, at least half that number is expected.
Spearheaded in 2007 by the city’s own office of cultural development—a creation of then-mayor James Ruberto—the warm-weather series has been seen as a sign of Pittsfield’s revival, a way to bring people to the streets of downtown and see the shops, restaurants and galleries that have sprung up in a still-gritty city economically haunted by the shuttering of its local General Electric plant in the 1980’s, and more recent shocks like the bankruptcy of KB Toys, which had its headquarters here.
So when the new mayor, Dan Bianchi, abruptly cancelled the first month of the sixth season of Third Thursdays with only two weeks’ notice, many responded with alarm.
Megan Whilden, the city’s director of cultural development, had to bring the news to the scores of businesses and organizations slated to participate. She says it was, quote, like canceling Christmas.
“That look of shock and their mouths dropping open—it was a terrible thing to have to go around and do.”
Mayor Biachi cited pedestrian safety related to ongoing street construction downtown. He also said he didn’t want to delay completion of the project by shutting it down early for a day.
Facebook lit up with outrage over the cancellation, and Bianchi reported receiving dozens of phone calls complaining about his decision. Within hours, he issued a new announcement: Third Thursday was back on. It was a swift about-face by the new mayor.
His safety concerns were mollified, he says, and he also better understood the extent to which Berkshire cultural organizations use the event to build momentum for their efforts.
“I was sure that people were very supportive of Third Thursday. What I didn’t understand initially was how many non-profit organizations use Third Thursday to help with their fundraising and budgeting and awareness for their organizations.”
One of Bianchi’s first moves since taking office was, in fact, to re-hire Whilden, and he’s voiced support for the city’s nascent cultural renaissance. Still, some supporters of the city’s efforts to put cultural development at the heart of downtown revival see the Third Thursday flap as an ominous sign of the new mayor’s lack of commitment to these efforts.
Then a member of the Ruberto administration, City Council member John Kroll was part of the group who created the event.
“Actions speak louder than words. The knee-jerk reaction to pull the plug on such a key event, a real signature event in the city of Pittfield, was disturbing to me.”
Whilden describes her new boss as perhaps more cautious than his predecessor, but wise enough to heed and respond to a popular outcry. Bianchi dismisses any attempt to draw broader conclusions based on the episode.
“I don’t know how it does but I’m sure people are going to draw the kinds of conclusions that they would like to draw.”
For this month, at least, Third Thursday in Pittsfield is a go. Cue the barbecues and street bands. For New England Public Radio, I’m Jeremy Goodwin.