When new governor Charlie Baker appointed a 175-member transition team that failed to include a single member from Berkshire, Franklin, or Hampshire counties, the irritation out west was predictable. Our regional media declared that we had been “slighted” or “snubbed.” Many suspected political payback, noting that western voters clearly preferred North Adams native Martha Coakley. But as a resident of the Berkshires, I have a different idea about the oversight: It’s not that Baker and his advisers wanted to punish us. It’s that they don’t believe we actually exist.
And, really, who can blame them? Check out the website of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. It offers traffic cams on the Mass. Pike that begin in Boston, at Exit 24, and end in Sturbridge, at Exit 9. Everything west of Sturbridge — there’s about 80 more miles until the New York border — is off the radar. It’s as if, in the eyes of Beacon Hill, the Pike passes Interstate 84 and plunges into a black hole, relieved only by the occasional Dunkin’ Donuts or shuttered factory until, eventually, it hits California.
For the last eight years, we have had an unusual situation in this state: Our last governor, Deval Patrick, owns a summer home in Richmond (that’s a town in Berkshire County, by the way). So he understood that yes, Virginia, Massachusetts extends beyond Worcester. Even beyond Springfield! We got accustomed to Patrick including us in his vision for the state as a whole (and doing his part to improve our Internet service).
Now we have a new governor, and naturally we’re all a little nervous that it’s back to business as usual. Will anyone remember us when it comes to distributing government grants? Or will our civic lives mimic the phone call I just had where, despite using my nicest voice, I could not persuade a receptionist in the Boston area that my town, Great Barrington, really exists in her state?
It’s easy to assume there’s some big-city myopia at work. Berkshire County, after all, accounts for fewer than 2 percent of the Commonwealth’s residents. But Dukes County (a.k.a. Martha’s Vineyard) has even fewer year-round residents, and everybody’s heard of it.
No, I’ve concluded the problem isn’t that we are too small or too far away — it’s that we don’t really embrace our Massachusetts identity.
We aren’t hapless orphans. We are wayward children. We have forsworn our capital city in favor of another city — a city with which, it seems safe to say, Boston has long had some issues.
I speak, of course, of New York.
Since I moved to Great Barrington from Arlington almost four years ago, I have been continually aware of how very un-Massachusetts-like my town is. I can get The Boston Globe . My network television comes out of Albany, and Yankees hats outnumber Red Sox caps. For every one transplant from Brookline, you’ll meet 10 from Brooklyn. And when locals here talk about going to “the city” for lunch or a medical appointment, they are not referring to the Hub.
How did things get this bad? It’s probably due in part to transportation. Although the southern part of Berkshire County is equidistant from New York and Boston, it’s long been easier to get here from New York. Thanks to all the Gilded Age tycoons who built summer homes here in the late 19th century, trains ran to towns like Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and Lenox. But prior to the opening of the Mass. Pike in 1957, there was no easy way at all to get here from the Boston area.
So this region became “known” among New Yorkers in a way it simply didn’t among Bostonians.
Even today, public-transit options reflect this tradition. I can get to Times Square by bus in a little over three hours. Finding my way to Back Bay by bus would be an all-day endeavor, featuring a festive layover in Pittsfield.
But the governor gig comes with a car and driver, right, Charlie? So here’s an easy way to recover from the transition-team debacle and help east and west connect: Start making some trips out west on the Pike. Your recent one to Mass MoCA was a good start. Come a few more times and you’ll discover an incredible resort area with uncrowded swimming holes, good skiing, fantastic restaurants, and world-class music, theater, and dance. You don’t even have to cross a bridge to get here.
And while you’re in the area, Mr. Governor, post a video or two to YouTube. Prove to the world there’s no dark abyss west of Sturbridge on the Pike.