Retaining Whilden was wise decision

I was a huge fan of Jimmy Ruberto through his tenure as mayor of Pittsfield. He was a breath of fresh air and he cared about the arts and his city. I was disappointed when he left. And when Mayor Dan Bianchi was elected, I feared much of what had been left undone in the Ruberto administration would remain undone.

I was also afraid that some of the very good things, like Ruberto’s commitment to downtown — especially the arts — would be downplayed. We heard again and again that Bianchi was committed to “the neighborhoods,” and I worried that things like the emergence of Barrington Stage Company and other arts projects would be lost in the transition.

When he was elected, Bianchi assured us of his continued commitment to the arts. Nothing could have spoken louder than his support for Pittsfield’s arts czar, Megan Whilden. Bianchi seems to understand that if you have a good person, it really doesn’t matter if he or she worked for the “other guy.” That’s unusual in politics and it speaks to the difference between all-important policy and the more common brand of good old boys politics where you give your nephew and your friend’s son jobs.

When you find someone like Megan Whilden, you keep her. Let’s just look at her record. She founded Third Thursdays, the free downtown cultural festival that has attracted tens of thousands of visitors each year for the past five years. It was through her tremendous dedication and efforts that downtown Pittsfield became the first state-designated cultural district west of Boston. She started an email newsletter, Cultural Pittsfield This Week, that has promoted hundreds of events and is regularly read by thousands of readers. She has paid attention to artists, related businesses and cultural events and has elevated the arts in Pittsfield to such a degree that when people think of the city, they often think arts rather than drugs, muggings and convenience store robberies.

Unlike the ugly in-fighting and mess that accompanied a similar effort in Lenox, Whilden quietly and effectively created an attractive website, Plus, there are all special events like the WordXWord Festival, The Pittsfield City Jazz Festival, the 10×10 On North Winter Arts Festival, The Discover Tyler Street Fest and the new First Friday Artswalks. She was also responsible for bringing back the Pittsfield Ethnic Fair.

But wait, there’s even more. Whilden led or partnered on four community book projects including “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee; “The Things They Carried,” a novel about the Vietnam War by Tim O’Brien; “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury; and “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. This year, she will try to get the city to read “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville. The whole idea of this is to encourage everyone to read, think, debate and create.

What I really like about Megan Whilden is her commitment to her job and to her bosses.

As for Dan Bianchi, congratulations on helping set the way for the triumph of policy over good old boy, down and dirty politics. I hope that I never have to write another column on this.

On another subject, let’s consider the case of the scenic railway. I am surprised that the Housatonic Railroad Co. has denied the not-for-profit Berkshire Scenic Railway the right to continue to lease their tracks so this wonderful activity in the Berkshires can continue.

Let’s face it: It’s the tourists that make the Berkshires viable. If we didn’t have them, we couldn’t argue that prisons and nuclear plants should be kept out. Housatonic Railroad officials, citing their safety concerns over the Berkshire Scenic operation — charges that the nonprofit rejects — have indicated there will be no renewed agreement that would bring back the popular railway excursions.

I hope people will let them know how they feel about this.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 5/5/12

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