PART 3 OF A !!PLANET EXCLUSIVE!! — “WILL IT GO ‘ROUND IN CIRCLES?” THE CAROUSEL PROJECT GETS OFF TO A SLOW START, BUT FROM THE GET-GO, THE CITY SHOWED AN ODD DISDAIN FOR THE PROJECT. WHY? THE ANSWER REVEALS MUCH ABOUT PITTSFIELD’S OFFICIAL DYSFUNCTION
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
Third of a four-part series
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, THURSDAY, NOV. 1, 2012) — Those who grew up in and loved the Pittsfield of the 1950s and 60s didn’t realize, of course, how the three Ps — politics, power (of GE), and pollution — would come to transform the city from a model of civic pride to an example of urban breakdown. Therein lies the relevance of this cautionary tale. By all reasonable standards, virtually every town or city would welcome a majestic, hand-carved carousel, given as a gift, paid for by private funds, that would provide a civic touchstone for generations to come.
THE PLANET has seen the magic of a carousel on commerce, levity, and art in the fabulous display at the 2.4 million-sq. ft. Carousel Center-Destiny USA, the country’s second mall, located in Syracuse, N.Y. Our readers have informed us of another one operating in Rhode Island. Putting aside a critical discussion of a carousel as art, there’s no question: these iconic bits of Americana are people magnets, and where people come, commerce commences. Cities like Syracuse get it.
And thus, the city’s failure to land what could have been a key piece of the revitalization puzzle stands as a fitting symbol of its own political ineptness, a condition that has led to civic and economic decay. No one would claim the coveted title of “economic engine” for a carousel. Pittsfield has been sold that bill of goods too many times — EV Worldwide, Workshop Live!, the Beacon Cinema, the new stadium, and more … they were all touted to be “economic engines.” We know how it turned out.
A Project Born Out of Love for the City of a Man’s Youth
Some of us are takers. Some are givers. Jim Shulman was one of those latter people. He grew up in Pittsfield, moved out, got an education, and became Dr. Jim Shulman, eventually serving as a hospital vice president. He never lost the love for his hometown, an affection he wanted to express in a tangible way: “I wanted to give back to my community and do something that could be a phenomenal work of art and at the same time provide an opportunity for the ordinary people of the community to have real ownership and participation.”
Shulman’s plan involved in a literal way the efforts of “everyday folks” from Pittsfield and the surrounding communities in Berkshire County “to feel positive and have a legacy. Enter the concept of building a carousel, suggested by my wife Jackie, who grew up near an amusement park.”
Shulman says he intended the project to be
(1) Something people could actively participate in, no matter what social class to which they belonged.
(2) Something that would be an incredible work of art as well as an educational piece.
(3) Provide a recreational activity affordable for everyone.
The First Step: The Shulmans Meet with Mayor Ruberto
Here, as best as we can piece it together from our various equine and non-horsey sources, is how the narrative proceeds:
In July 2005 the Shulmans met with Mayor Jimmy Ruberto and presented the idea of organizing the community to create the carousel. The mayor thought it was a great idea, but he made it clear that the city had no money for the project. He apparently had recently committed GE economic stimulus money to a number of projects: theater restorations, a cinema, and a museum renovation. Ruberto was already feeling heat for not using the dollars to create high-paying, good-benefit jobs for the community.
The Shulmans told Ruberto they did not want city money for the project. Instead, they requested from the corner office leadership support in terms assistance in fund raising, grants development, publicity, and other such infrastructure or the project would not fly. At the time, in 2005, Ruberto supported the carousel and even suggested the carousel be located on the Common.
Jim Shulman then began his due diligence. He met with many people in the community and got tremendous encouragement; some people said they would pledge money. The widespread commitment gave Shulman the morale-boosting fortification he needed, and he took the next step.
Having no art or woodworking experience, Jim succeeded in carving a horse, which he named Obie for OB Joyful. Obie can be seen today in the window of Jim’s House of Shoes, named for Jim when his Dad opened a store near GE in 1946. Shulman reasoned that if he could carve a horse without experience, then ordinary people in the Berkshires could do the same with some training.To demonstrate their commitment to the project, the Shulmans couple bought the only available property near downtown for a possible location for the carousel in the event no other place might be available when the project was completed. The space was less than two blocks from Park Square at Center and South Church Streets.
The Berkshire Carousel project got off to a slow start. The Shulmans hired a local non-profit consultant, Gene Wenner, to meet with grassroots volunteers, and together they tried to organize the project in 2006 and 2007. Late in 2007, Shulman, who today lives in Ohio, took over the leadership role. Moreover, the Shulmans provided funds for a director and professional carver to get the ball rolling. Maria Caccaviello, a local grassroots community consultant, was brought on board as director. Walter Ruess, a master wood carver from Ohio, relocated to Pittsfield to recruit and train volunteers. The project was off and running by May 2008. Volunteers carved the first horse in August 2008.
Where Was the City When The Project Was in Its Nascent Stages?
Shulman had several more meetings with Mayor Ruberto, who again verbally endorsed the project but did little to support it and never involved the business community in garnering support as Shulman had requested. It was Jim Shulman who first alerted Ruberto in 2005 that 2011would be the 250th anniversary of Pittsfield and how he (Shulman) thought the carousel could be a key event for that year. On one visit, he showed Ruberto a book that he was working on for the 250th anniversary.
Pittsfield cultural affairs director Megan Whilden never recognized the project as art, even though it has turned into one of the largest volunteer permanent art pieces ever created in New England. Whilden had nothing to do with promoting the project for Pittsfield, never attended any of the events, art shows, or fundraisers, and many times failed to act on press releases provided by the carousel group. According to sources, she was known to talk to others disparagingly about the project director, Caccaviello. it should be noted here that many of the best local artists left out of the city art events gravitated to the carousel project, where they have been welcomed and have participated in many art events.
Despite Caccaviello’s participation in Downtown Inc., the organization never included the Berkshire Carousel in its 10-year plan, even though it knew about the project and the proposed location on Center Street. According to sources, Downtown Inc.’s Peter Lafayette also spoke disparagingly of the project to community leaders (this was shared by at least three people with the carousel folks).
The lack of support by the city government leadership drew statewide attention. When Berkshire Carousel applied for a construction grant in 2008 to house the carousel, the Massachusetts Cultural Facility Fund (MCFF) told project leaders that it was clear: the city did not support the project. The MCFF indicated that without a partnership with a municipal government, there was no hope for state monies from MCFF. The question remains an open one: How did the MCFF know the city did not support the carousel. Who in city government dropped that dime?