Great Barrington: Mind(ing) the Gap
Chronogram Magazine — January 1, 2023
By Hannah Van Sickle
The purest form of democracy is alive and well in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Each May, taxpayers come together at Monument Mountain Regional High School—or the parking lot there, as has been the case this past few years—to convene in an open meeting and vote on the town warrant (a full listing, furnished in advance, of each agenda item up for discussion), right down to the last proposed penny to be spent from the town coffers. It’s a tradition spanning three centuries, one hinging on the right of every registered voter to attend, speak, and vote on the issues integral to the community at large. It’s a powerful means of understanding the townspeople’s commitment to their community.
“The people who live in Great Barrington are very involved in what goes on [here],” says Paul Joffe, adding, “and this has an effect on the town” where, in his estimation, people are friendly and polite. Joffe is the brains (and hands) behind the Flying Church and its eponymous coffee shop, which is adjacent to the building. The church was constructed in 1845 by the Methodists before Joffe renovated the venerable building as a mixed-use commercial space in 2014.
For a community where many full-time residents were already struggling to make ends meet, the pandemic created a crucible of sorts—as evidenced by an ongoing housing crisis and a shortage of service industry workers (a pair of chicken-and-egg problems). While uncertainty prevails, so does the collective spirit to press on. Together, many hands are making light(er) work, ensuring often-marginalized populations have the opportunity to thrive here alongside the restaurants, shops, and businesses valued visitors continue to crave.
Many Voices, One Vision
In a town boasting dozens of nonprofits, a handful remain committed to being inclusive of those who might not otherwise feel they fit….
“…I’ve come to see the good, the bad, and the ugly [in town],” Josh Irwin says. The owner of Cantina 229 in nearby New Marlborough and Mooncloud in Great Barrington has had a front-row seat to the growing gap between those who flock to the bucolic hills for fun and relaxation versus those who call the Berkshires home.
His most recent passion project, to create workforce housing, is a shining example. In what turned out to be a long and auspicious chain of events, Irwin’s idea—to purchase the 13-bedroom Windflower Inn, located in neighboring South Egremont, for service worker housing—was ultimately executed by Construct, the leading nonprofit provider of affordable housing and supportive services to residents of the southern Berkshires. The plan is to begin welcoming lodgers (via applications from employers) to the property, as soon as January.
“[This past year] was very difficult for many in our service area, and our waiting lists grew exponentially,” says Construct Development Director Leigh Davis, citing over 200 individuals currently awaiting housing. While Construct has grown over five decades to meet the needs of more than 600 families per year, it is not tackling the problem alone.