The Gateway City of Pittsfield, my hometown, was in the news again this year. The decades-long battle to clean the Housatonic River of pcbs left behind by General Electric has taken a new twist with an administration in Washington unconcerned about cleaning up the environment. Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the turnpike, ground has been broken on GE’s new global headquarters, a major coup for Boston.
Such is the challenge facing the state’s Gateway Cities. Communities like Pittsfield and Lowell, where I live now, still need to shed their reputations as old industrial mill cities while finding their place in the global economy. It can be done, but it takes a long view, hard work, and smart investment.
Beginning in 2007, I led a team of researchers from MassINC (Institute for a New Commonwealth) and the Brookings Institution in assessing the economic prospects facing 11 Massachusetts cities like Pittsfield, which shared a struggle to rebuild and align their economies to compete for investment and jobs. But rather than leave it at that, our team wanted to put forward some ideas for how old mill cities could contribute again to the state’s economy by serving as regional hubs of economic growth. We hoped our findings would change current conditions. We did not expect that our research would launch a movement, one that’s extremely important for Massachusetts and the nation today.
Unexpected back then was the sticking power of the Gateway brand. The report became a rallying cry for the original 11 cities to work together on a shared agenda and to forge a new partnership with the state. The Massachusetts legislature responded by creating a caucus and a definition for a Gateway municipality in state law. The state’s investment agency, Mass Development, steered resources into the cities through a new targeted investment fund and created a fellows program to support local planning and economic development. Boston’s Federal Reserve Bank established a Working Cities Challenge grant program to support cross-sector collaboration. And Massinc continues to lead the way through its Innovation Institute, which publishes research, shapes policy, and convenes leaders to build capacity in this work.
If you visit me in Lowell, you will find the full expression of what it means to be a Gateway City. It’s where newcomers and urban pioneers like me come together to help revitalize a community. My neighborhood is a diverse mix of middle- and working-class families doing the things that families do to raise kids and enjoy life. Most of my neighbors immigrated to the United States, many escaping unbelievable hardships. They are proud of their heritage and also proud to be making Massachusetts home. They are great neighbors, sharing with us the celebrations of their families through good Cambodian food, smiles, and kindness (and in the winter, team snow-shoveling efforts!). It’s the kind of neighborhood that’s good for our nation — diverse, integrated, hardworking — in a city that’s leveraged its industrial heritage with a major university to take a leadership role in technology, arts, and culture.
Many of us don’t see the connections to the world being forged by Gateway Cities. Walk down main street in Lawrence and you experience the sights and sounds of a thriving Latino small-business community and a remarkable revitalization of historic old mills. Worcester’s universities, biotech, and medical centers have a global reach that brings ideas and dollars to the largest of the Gateways. New Bedford is positioning itself on the cutting edge of sustainable energy. Each Gateway City — there are now 26 officially designated — is working hard to find its niche and offer new opportunities to workers and business.
Pittsfield is a smaller city now. Its population has shrunk by almost 30 percent since the 1970s, when I was in high school. There is talk of consolidating schools and districts as the Berkshires lose young people and those who stay grow older. But Pittsfield is making its mark in the creative economy. Its affordability, quality of life, and abundant nature are attracting newcomers who bring talent and ideas that often challenge the status quo — and that’s a good thing.
Ten years is not long enough to reverse conditions that were decades in the making. But America benefits when cities like the Gateways become relevant again, helping to create new opportunities and meet new global challenges.