Saturday, July 16, 2011

Undying Deindustrialization -- Even When Obsolete Factories get Great Art

Posted by Deirdre Oakley, NORTH ADAMS, MA – Twelve years ago The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) opened on a 13 acre factory complex that had fallen victim to deindustrialization. In fact, the entire City of North Adams had fallen on hard times after the former owner of the complex, Sprague Electric, closed its doors in 1990. What was left was a city with a declining population, pervasive unemployment, growing poverty, and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the state. MASS MoCA was an ambitious redevelopment project that was years in the making, and involved massive amounts of state and private investment focused a city in rapid decline, and one in endanger of losing its city status. So it shouldn't be surprising that the opening of MASS MoCA was met with both optimism and hope. Indeed, an innovative feature of the museum is its economic and commercial development component. To offset operating costs and encourage job growth some of the buildings in the factory complex were renovated and leased out to all types of businesses, including restaurants, photography studios, graphic design firms, and law offices. Since its opening, MASS MoCA has become a museum of international acclaim and boasts an annual attendance of 120,000, ranking it among the most visited contemporary art museums in the United States. In addition, during the early-to-mid 2000s performing ventures for music, dance, film, and theatre were added, as was the Center for Creative Community Development, a national research and policy organization operated by nearby Williams College.

Yet from MASS MoCA’s parking lots, dilapidated but occupied multi-family housing structures remain readily apparent. While parts of the Center Business District show signs of improvement, the overall built environs of the city have not changed much. This begs the question as to how effective MASS MoCA has been at revitalizing North Adams in a holistic and inclusive fashion.

With the recently released U.S. Census and American Community Survey (ACS) data we can examine a few trends that may shed some light on this question. In 2000 the population of North Adams was 14,681, down from 16,797 in 1990, and representing a decrease of 2,116, or a percent change of 12.6. To put this in perspective, the percent change between 1980 and 1990 was -7.7. By 2010 the city’s population was 13,941, a decrease of 710 people, or a percent change of five. Thus, while the city’s population continued to decrease in the decade since MASS MoCA opened its doors, that decrease had slowed by over half.  If we look at changes in per capita income, modest increases are apparent. Specifically, in 2000 the per capita income was $27,601. By 2010 is had grown to $29,675 – an increase of $2,074 (adjusting for inflation). The poverty rate had also decreased: in 2000 that rate was 18.2 percent; by 2010 it was 13.3, or about five percent less. Perhaps the most positive sign is that despite the 2008 housing crisis and ensuing economic melt down, the city’s vacancy rate had only increased by two percent (from 11 percent in 2000 to 13.4 percent in 2010). Other cities -- large and small -- have fared far worse.

All of these changes are essentially positive -- or at least moving in the right direction. But they are also very modest. If Mass MoCA had brought the boom expected, the city’s population should have increased; per capita income increased a good deal more; and poverty decreasing at a greater rate. What this implies is that while MASS MoCA has certainly benefited the city and the surrounding region, it has not necessarily benefited all the citizens of North Adams. This is a problem endemic to most large-scale redevelopment initiatives which assume that by increasing the incoming cash flow, the end result will be the all-to-well accepted Reaganomic trickle down effect. But successes like Mass MoCA only trickle down so far. Nonetheless, looking backwards on Mass MoCA, we surely can not say that it has hurt the city. And yet, while its multi-use innovations and dedication to new art are state-of-the-art, its commitment to North Adams as a whole is rather limited. In fact, the damage caused by previous deindustrialization remains shamefully present. Perhaps now that Mass MoCA has become such a great success, the organization can devote more attention to improving the sustainability and economic health of the entire city. We can only hope.

Deirdre Oakley is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University and the Editor of Social Shutter. She can be contacted at

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