If one is not lulled into a shallow reverie by the pretty trees and colonial architecture, the 39 or so towns that make up the Berkshires can be bewildering. In Western Massachusetts, Route 7 is miles and miles of agrarian-to-suburban economic disparity; on one end, rural farming communities, and on the other, old money bastions, a wounded paper mill town, a college town, struggling and fancy.
When I lived in the Berkshires 30 years ago, North Adams, Mass.—all rolling foothills and repurposed industrial desolation—was known for cheap bars, cheap rent, bad acid, and...that’s pretty much it. There were no jobs. No art galleries. No locally sourced pickle shops. After Sprague Electrics closed, the population went down by 4,000 and unemployment was at 14 percent.
In 1999, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) took over the Arnold Print Works/Sprague Electric factory complex. Since then, North Adams has seen reasonable benefits. There’s more jobs, more attention, more “culture” (whatever the hell that might mean), more tourism (at least to MASS MoCA itself), and a general sense of “Well, if the factories aren’t coming back, this’ll do in a pinch.”
In 2009, North Adams saw the inaugural Solid Sound Fest. The festival, “three days of art, music, and comedy,” founded by the alt-Americana, occasionally experimental folk rock band Wilco, takes place every other summer at MASS MoCA.