Great Barrington has best Berkshires has to offer

Posted November 23, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

So which town is the best in the Berkshires? Despite anything that the Smithsonian Magazine may have to say on the subject, it is an important question because if we can establish the best model, we might just all aspire to it.

So here goes: Great Barrington is the best of the lot. Part of it is just plain luck. Sometimes things happen. While Great Barrington was once a mess, it no longer is. Of course mistakes have been made. Someone recently wrote that while the town once had a road running through it, we now have a road with a town around it.

There was a period when there were too many drugs in the town. We still have too many drugs in town but the situation does seem better. District Attorney David Capeless and the state police Drug Task Force have made a tremendous difference.

The town police department needed some changes and, while still a work in progress, it is coming along. Thanks to Berkshires Health Systems under Dave Phelps, Great Barrington boasts a wonderful little hospital that keeps getting named to “Best Of” lists. It has a lot of great restaurants and coffee shops. It has the Triplex Cinema. It has Bard College at Simon’s Rock. It has great public schools under Superintendent Peter Dillon, despite the anti-education crowd who consider themselves liberals until it’s time to pay up.

It has the Rudolph Steiner people who are committed to their style of education. It has Lake Mansfield and civic leaders to keep it pristine. It has good bagels. It has Guido’s. It used to have the best Friendly’s in the world, sadly now gone.

Then there is Lenox which is a little more artsy than Great Barrington. As the gateway to Tanglewood, Lenox has lots of inns, Shakespeare & Company and a wonderful public library. It has other arts venues, it has the Mount where Edith Wharton once lived, and wonderful restaurants like Haven and Zinc and many others that are going to be correctly angry about not being included. It also has Guido’s. It has Matt Tannenbaum’s bookstore, the best in the Berkshires. But, it is a summer place and therefore doesn’t reach Great Barrington’s heights.

Stockbridge is a fine town but there really isn’t much there. It does have the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Bowl and the Red Lion Inn, the vortex of the Berkshires, but it reminds me a little of the western movie sets where you just see the fronts of the buildings. It has the Norman Rockwell Museum, a great institution honored at the White House, and a fabulous little museum, Chesterwood, where you can see how the Lincoln Memorial came to be.

Then there are the Egremonts. Good schools and some other great stuff. But not competitive except as very good place for second homers and people who appreciate the quality of life, relatively low taxes and breathing good air.

Much the same can be said for little Alford.

Pittsfield has a long way to go. It’s a beautiful city. It has the Colonial Theatre. It has a fine museum. But it has way too many drugs and too much crime.

Lee is cool. It is a place where people can afford to live and has a thriving middle class. It used to have Kentucky Fried Chicken to take to Tanglewood but that’s been gone for years.

North Adams has enormous potential. I like it. It has MCLA and Mass MoCA. It has an involved electorate.

Adams hosts the WAMC tower.

The hill towns are very nice.

So, one has to conclude that our various villages, town and cities each offer specialties and have distinctive characters. Of course, our governments make us gnash our teeth but hey, that’s just human nature. Power corrupts.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 11/21/15

At 20, Great Barrington’s Triplex earns two thumbs up

Posted November 16, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

So it has been 20 years since the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington got started. It really is a terrific story. So many of us are grateful for this wonderful venue, including a lot of people from Columbia County and Connecticut who come to see a film, eat and shop.

There really are hometown heroes in Great Barrington and my nomination for this year goes to Richard Stanley. With his partner, the late Joe Wasserman, Stanley built the movie theater that precipitated so many changes in the town that is now lauded as the best small town in America.

When we got to Great Barrington in 1970, Railroad Street was a mess. Buildings were vacant. Dingy bars drew a clientele that was very far removed from today’s hipsters. Then one night, the old Taconic Lumberyard suffered a terrible fire.

The sirens blared through the night and Roselle and I went down to what is affectionately called the Pig’s Lane that leads down to Great Barrington. We watched this enormous fire that devastated the lumberyard.

To put it mildly, the whole area was not particularly inviting even before the fire. Then Richard Stanley who owned the Barrington House decided to apply for a series of state grants suggested by former banker Hank Ervin.

It took a lot of work and sweat equity but the Chamber of Commerce and a Simon’s Rock business manager named Mike Hoag landed the grant, which was awarded to correct urban blight. Hard to imagine that Great Barrington once had urban blight but it did and a parking lot rose from the ashes.

The phone and electric companies had to be convinced to bury their stuff and town counsel Ed McCormick got it all done. You really have to hand it to Richard Stanley — he knows how to smell out who’s got power.

So now we had a parking lot. At the far side were some buildings that Stanley and his partner bought. They couldn’t figure out what to put there but the idea of a movie theater took shape.

At the suggestion of Abby Schroeder, Stanley and Wasserman went to Hoyts movie chain, which agreed to run the theaters. At the beginning, Hoyts played big box office movies. That annoyed many of the local literati and their friends who wanted more artsy movies.

So the pair went back to Hoyts and said that they wanted to take back the management of the theaters. Hoyts agreed, warning Richard that when you played art films people bought less popcorn and soda. In the movie business, the concessions are what pay the bills.

Stanley admits that he’s never been able to figure out how to get people to buy the soda and popcorn. About 10 years into their movie business, Kelley Vickery came along and asked Stanley and his legendary theater manager, John Valente, to let them use a small theater in the middle of the week for the Berkshire International Film Festival.

That yearly event is now a staple and part of what makes Great Barrington so great. It doesn’t stop there. Stanley has always been extraordinarily generous to groups like CATA, Multicultural BRIDGE and even in a small way to WAMC.

Of course, there will always be people who argue that the Triplex was a boondoggle. I disagree — I think that the theater has made the town. When each movie empties out you can hear the departing patrons discussing where to go for dinner.

Richard Stanley is a great businessman. He balances making money with paying back to the community. As a result, he makes a lot of money. He is a success and part of that success comes from the fact that he keeps on giving to the rest of us. We should have more like him.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 11/14/15

Plenty of Halloween fun to be had in 2 hour span

Posted November 9, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

OK, now that the fire and hail stones have quieted down, let’s review the Halloween issues in Great Barrington, the Disneyland of the aforementioned holiday.

I don’t know how it happened but Hollenbeck Avenue on the Hill in Great Barrington has become the go-to neighborhood for candy and celebration. It’s a lot of fun and it’s wonderful to see the kids all dressed up, properly accompanied by their parents.

The children range in age from a few weeks old to teens from Simon’s Rock around the corner. We gave out about 500 pieces of candy. Everyone was respectful and nice and if they forgot to say thank you, their parents reminded them. It was terrific.

Roselle got a mechanical witch and a mechanical skeleton who, when you pushed the button, danced to music coming out of the machines. The kids, particularly the younger ones, couldn’t have cared less about the candy but stood transfixed in front of the mechanical dancers. They loved to push the buttons themselves. Priceless. Roselle wore a beautiful mask and I was issued a wig with devil’s horns.

Before Halloween came and went, a great, courageous and sensible neighbor from up the street wrote a letter to our neighborhood listserv questioning why Great Barrington, seemingly alone, allocated two and a half hours to the trick-or-treat crowd while every other town set aside a good deal less time.

Hey, it’s cold out there. When you have that many kids climbing up your steps you have to stay outside and shiver. Your hands freeze as if you were in the Klondike. As the great Parkinson instructed us, anything expands to the time allocated to it.

I opined over the radio that I thought my neighbor had a point and shortly thereafter, the trouble began. People began writing to the listserv as if those of us who felt two and a half hours were too long were the collective Grinches who stole Halloween. Manners disappeared, claws were sharpened, and accusations were hurled.

The gist of the accusations was that we were out of line and we were stealing Halloween. There are a few parents who believe that they know more about parenting than anyone else. They suggested that those of us who wished to could close our doors and turn out our lights. At 7:30, that’s exactly what we did, beating the town hours by a half an hour.

Hey, all my neighbor did was ask a question that made a lot of sense to many of us. No one wanted NO Halloween, so for those who turned a simple question into a major self-serving show of, “You people want to kill Halloween,” I say, “Whoa, that ain’t right.” You’ve really got to suppress all that anger.

Hey, look, we all have to get along. We all have to appreciate other points of view. As my mom used to say, “There’s no reason to take a tone.”

The question of whether or not to have a hotel on Bridge Street continues to percolate.

Some people are very upset but there are many of us who don’t think the whole thing is such a bad idea. We are a tourist town; we need a first rate hotel; Jane Iredale would never let anyone put up anything that was unattractive; the owners of the new hotel have shown every consideration for compromise with their critics.

On the other hand, there are some troubling aspects to the whole plan. Clearly preservation efforts and rules have been ignored; traffic already is bad on the street; it’s unclear what protections River Walk and our river would have.

So, let us be vigilant and monitor developments. If this is going to happen, we need to get things right this time.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 11/7/15

Great Barrington leaders should heed lighting complaints

Posted November 2, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

Things are heating up in Great Barrington. This time, the battle is between those charged with running the government and just about everyone else and the fight is a humdinger.

This seems to demonstrate some of the dangers of a town manager form of government. To be sure, most of the folks in the battle over the way the Main Street of Great Barrington looks are nice. I am a huge fan of Selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton and even Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin (even though she doesn’t answer my phone calls).

The best small town in America now looks like the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. The problem is that both the merchants and we regular people who live here or visit just hate what we see so far.

The early warnings of the merchants, many of whom don’t vote, were ignored. Now we are left with those giant traffic light poles. They are just plain frightening. What was once quaint and beautiful Main Street is now simply offensive.

Great Barrington is a tourist town. I love that. We are protected from bad things because of our tourism and the growing arts scene. Now we look like the big city that most of our tourists are trying to get away from.

The horrible new traffic light holders seem to come right out of the Department of Defense budget. We were told that we had to have them by the state which gave us the money, as in, “We took the deal.”

In fact, there were those who thought that taking the state money was a terrible idea. It turns out that they were right. In response to the terrible outcry about the way the town looks, I suspect that the powers that be are taking a look at the citizen anger and figuring that they had better do something to calm the potential political revolution down.

They are now telling us that we can make some changes “down the road,” all the while arguing the validity of their positions out of the other side of their mouths. Town Manager Tabakin says that citizen complaints are “not unreasonable” but my friend (I hope) Sean Stanton says that the new overhead “cobra” lights are all about pedestrian safety.

Some, like Chip Elitzer, argue that lighting can come from the third source of lighting in the town, the decorative, old time lamp posts. Tabakin counters that those decorative lights don’t throw off the same amount of light as the larger cobra overhead lights, which are more protective of those crossing the streets.

From where I’m sitting, downtown Great Barrington is not a crime-filled city but a gentle, beautiful, bucolic place. The town has an extraordinary well turned out police force, complete with a chief, sergeants and lots of patrol cars that we are asked to provide at every town meeting.

My bet is that when we are told that some time in the future the ugly poles can be removed, there is a prediction and/or a hope on the part of the powers that be that all of this will be like a passing shower that will soon be gone if everyone can just be persuaded to wait for that time in the future when beauty in our town will be restored. I am extremely wary of their promises.

We do have a town manager form of government. I am for it. I always have been. I am worried, however, that the five member Selectboard and its powerful chair are inclined to let the managers have their way. That is a mistake.

But, to go back to a political Selectboard like the ones we used to have would be an even bigger error. Nope, we have to count on the current board to exercise independent judgment and to represent all of us. Clearly, in this case, that didn’t happen.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 10/31/15

Spencertown, NY, diner has got breakfast nailed

Posted October 26, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

Readers of this column will know that the Chartocks care deeply about places to go for breakfast. Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day. The older you get, the more true the previous statement is because even looking at food means that you will gain weight. So don’t eat after 5 p.m.

In the hunt for great breakfast places, I have searched for the best of the best and I think I may just have found it. For years on our rides over to Chatham to see my honorary sister, Judy Grunberg, we have passed one of the most interesting edifices in the Berkshires.

It’s a very small diner that looks like it couldn’t hold more than a few people. It turns out that the diner is the dream of Spencertown, N.Y., resident Dan Rundell, a practicing mason who has a real thing for diners.

Hey, some people have a thing for cars and others for fish but in Dan’s case, it’s diners. So when he saw a decrepit diner somewhere in Connecticut, he hauled it to Spencertown, gutted it from top to bottom and as much as humanly possible, returned it to its original state.

It took 12 years but when all was said and done, Dan’s Diner was fabulous. It has a curved oak ceiling that is emboldened with hand-painted gold leaf. The floors are what Dan calls “subway tile.” It’s got frosted windows and much more. But most of all, the food is as good as you will find anywhere.

Roselle and I watched transfixed as Sean, the cook of the day, broke eggs in one hand. I ordered the three egg omelet, bacon, peppers and onions. It came with hash brown potatoes that are just beautiful to behold and, of course, to eat.

That omelet was the kind of thing you’ll remember when you are passing from the world. As I watched, the chef prepared egg sandwiches on the largest hard rolls I have ever seen. I watched as people sitting down the row from me had pancakes that begged to be eaten. Ditto the French toast.

Everything is priced incredibly reasonably. The French toast, for example is $2.95 for one slice, $3.95 for two slices and $4.95 for three slices. For $6.95 you can get the “Hot Mess — peppers, onions, ham, cheddar, and home fries scrambled into two eggs served with toast.” Or, how about the “French Toast Sandwich” consisting of “two eggs with choice cheese and meat between two slices of Texas style French toast”?

Breakfast is served all day but they also serve great lunches. What I truly loved about the place was the mixture of customers. There were hunters and, to the right of us, people in upscale togs were talking about the Emma Willard School. No matter who you are, you’ll fit in. I recommend without reservation that you go.

On yet another subject, the town of Great Barrington is about to engage in yet another brouhaha over the construction of a pretty big hotel and conference center on Bridge Street where the old Searles School now sits vacant.

Some folks are already pretty upset about the dimensions and proposed look of the thing. Since the Berkshires rely on a tourist economy, I have no problems with the hotel. In fact, anything that is good for Jane Iredale, who has done so much for our town, is good with me.

She’s been frustrated by potential buyers backing out of her sale of the Searles property. She has really tried to make it nice for everyone. For my final opinion, I want to see what the thing will look like.

Obviously, it couldn’t look worse than what the town and state have come up with in the Main Street reconstruction plan. The problem for the folks who want to construct the hotel is that the Main Street mess has everyone so riled up that mobilization against the hotel is a foregone conclusion. Stay tuned.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 10/24/15

Presidential, House speaker races rife with drama

Posted October 19, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

So, the presidential race is closing fast. It is quite clear that the Republicans fear Hillary Clinton more than any other potential candidate.

They have been doing their best to decimate her and at least one of their leaders, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, really blew it when he publicly declared that the war on Hillary was intended to lower her popularity.

He actually took credit for damaging her, perhaps thinking that fellow Republicans would thank him for that. Well, it backfired and blew up in his face and while he was expected to be the new speaker, he’s now out of the race.

The Republicans continue to act like Slim Pickens riding the bomb down in Dr. Strangelove with their attacks on people of color and women. The whole problem is that a small segment of the Republicans in the House has been calling the tune because their committed voters are the ones who show up in the primaries.

The more moderate Republicans who know better are scared to death that if they show any compassion or willingness to compromise, they will be primaried and might lose their precious seats. Eric Cantor, the former majority leader, is a good example of what can happen when you offer compromises. There’s always someone more conservative than you. He got his butt kicked when virtually no one expected that to happen.

Things have been made worse by the evil gerrymander that put the 50 or so uber-conservatives into the House. They don’t seem to give a hoot about what’s right, all they care about it their political careers. Their views on issues like climate control prove that their congressional seats are more important to them than the very existence of humanity.

In the meantime, the Democratic debate is over and the philosophically middle of the road press like the New York Times was quick to declare Hillary Clinton the winner. I watched and I have to say, I thought Hillary was great but I don’t think she won anything.

I thought Bernie Sanders was extraordinary and while his position on guns is not to my liking, his positions on just about everything else were inspirational. When he talks about “too big to fail” banks or a living wage or an improved health care system, he makes great sense.

People have been counting Bernie out for many years. They said that since he is a declared socialist from Vermont who is Jewish and speaks with a Brooklyn accent, he couldn’t possibly be city councilman or mayor or congressman or U.S. senator.

Well, “they” were wrong. That’s because people in this country know truth when they hear it. Also, we are on the “precipice of disgust.” They don’t want more of the same-old-same-old. They are looking for bold leadership. They want someone who comes along and says, “I can make a big difference.”

That’s why we got Ronald Reagan for president. While I am unprepared to say whether Bernie Sanders can be president, I am also not prepared to suggest that he can’t win. He has too much history defying the odds.

Of course, there is the looming presence of Vice President Joe Biden. I think that if Hillary gets herself into big trouble, Biden is in. If that doesn’t happen, Biden stays out.

On the face of it, this looks like a good Democratic year assuming that any of the Republican presidential hopefuls gets the nomination. In dumbed down America, a television personality like Donald Trump might be their best hope but it is important to remember that Trump and his big mouth are always at risk.

He has a lot of history and you had better bet that there are journalists out there looking for the stinkos that will get him in trouble. Such enterprise will certainly turn something up. It’s all getting interesting.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 10/16/15

Makeover dilutes Great Barrington’s charm

Posted October 13, 2015 by alanchartock
Categories: Uncategorized

Well, pretty much as I predicted, all hell has broken loose in Great Barrington over the government-financed reconstruction of Main Street.

What, according to Smithsonian Magazine, was formerly the best small town in America has been transformed by the Great Barrington Committee on Non-Aesthetic Behavior. All of a sudden, our quaint little town has become a mixture of phoo-phoo, make believe, “quaint town” look and the entrance to the Holland Tunnel with giant gleaming stainless steel traffic lights hanging down the street as far as the eye can see.

Those who support the new look have blamed the citizenry for not paying attention during the planning process while the citizenry itself is saying, “Hey, we elected our government officials to use their brains to make intelligent, well thought through decisions on our behalf.”

All I know is that my little town is looking like cow manure. It’s just awful. Social media is filled with invective about the new look. People are piling on and are genuinely angry. These are not the usual wags who are just natural born haters. These are rich people, not so rich people and everyone in between.

There is such a thing as objective reality. The new look is just plain ugly and silly. The distance between the sidewalks and the street where you park your car is simply unacceptable. My pet peeve is the removal of the third lane so that we can make a right turn up to the hospital on Taconic Avenue. That is potentially life threatening. To the pro-new look people who say that we should have spoken up earlier, I refer them to my remarks about this very dangerous situation in print in this very space.

I believe that I am a rather pragmatic progressive type. When the right wing crowd goes after “big government” to save themselves a few dollars, I am always disbelieving that these fat cats are so greedy that they don’t want kids in preschool or the poor to receive decent health care.

But there is always another side. In this case it appears that in order for the town to take the “free money,” they had to agree to the state proscriptions. For example, in the case of the giant Holland Tunnel overhanging light poles, the all-knowing government has demanded that the poles must be able to withstand hurricane force winds. Fine, but that doesn’t mean they have to be ugly.

Great Barrington is a gateway to the Berkshires. To get up to tony Williamstown, you might have to go through Great Barrington. We simply can’t allow the Williamstown elite to be laughing down their noses at us. That just wouldn’t do.

The reaction of the citizenry is so great that in order to fix the situation, they might have to take down the overhanging poles at great expense to the town. Great Barrington is great for a lot of things, including its tax rate.

This is the town that just voted not to support a desperately needed renovation of its high school. Now some of that very crowd is yelling about the new look. It will be interesting to see whether they would be willing to spend tax dollars to make Great Barrington whole again.

The lovely Roselle is absolutely furious about the new look. She has come up with a slogan to organize around: “Too much chrome for our home.” She is also concerned about Railroad Street, the Greenwich Village of Great Barrington, which has thus far gone unspoiled but she suspects that with the town’s bad track record, they will screw that up, too.

OK, so here’s the point. One of the most sagacious of all trite sayings is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is one hell of a mess. The anger out there is palpable and when people are angry, strange things can happen.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 10/10/15


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