PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Valerie Hamilton doesn't like what her neighborhood has become. She is now asking the city to build a youth center on the West Side.
Hamilton remembers growing up on the West Side and spending time at the former Mason hall, which was a youth center. There were dances and classes and role models for youth like her to look up to. But, that building is now demolished.
"It just rotted from the inside out," Hamilton said.
And with that, she felt her community rotted out, too. Those role models have all left and now she counts the murders. Hamilton said she is now afraid to drive down her own street. Every so often the police tape off sections of the West Side because of another murder and she has to worry about her loved ones.
"This is a Pittsfield problem, it is not a West Side problem," Hamilton said.
But Hamilton isn't one to just tell the story of days gone by.
When the city faced a drug problem in the 1980s, she started the Youth Initiative Project -- a summer basketball league on the West Side. A decade later she ended that. With shootings in the last five years, she had brought it back to life.
"I'm just one person trying to do the same thing for these kids," Hamilton said.
That program has grown to serve some 40 local children every year. She has social workers, coaches, and other trained professionals. She's been able to get grant funding to support it.
She said she essentially has a youth center, she's just missing the building.
Hamilton is now proposing building a youth center at 169-181 Dewey Ave. The location is currently planned to be the Westside Riverway Park. The city has spent the last two years acquiring property on Dewey Avenue, tearing down blighted homes, and remediation soil. A large section is now fenced off and in the spring work on the park is hoped to start. Hamilton said she wants to use the property for a youth center.
"They already tore down all the houses down," Hamilton said.
Jerome Edgerton can envision it. He pictures it as a positive place to help children lead a healthier lifestyle. He said there would be tutoring, college admission classes, test preparation, culinary, resume writing, financial workshops, music, fitness, and dance classes. He is envisioning sports teams. And he believes that it would have a significant impact on lowering the crime rates.
"If we as a community invest back to all aspects of Pittsfield and not just the same section, you will start to see change, actual change in lifestyle," Edgerton said.
A community center on the West Side is hardly a new concept. It has been talked about for at least 15 years. Groups would get together, gain momentum, start putting together plans and finances, and then it would flounder.
A community center on the West Side was even a debated point during the last mayoral election when then incumbent Daniel Bianchi attacked and then challenged now Mayor Linda Tyer for her support of it. Bianchi said the center did not have a business plan or funding source and was "unrealistic."
He accused her of pandering for votes and estimated a $5 million cost to build a new center -- one he didn't believe was feasible for the city to bear. Tyer, at the time, refuted that claim saying Bianchi just hadn't made it a priority.
Now two years into her term, Tyer has not made any proposals to the City Council regarding a youth center nor made any public statements about it.
Tyer did, however, voice during the election the idea of moving the Riverway Park project along, and it has moved forward -- though Hamilton says a youth center is a much larger priority for her.
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo submitted the petition for a youth center to the City Council on Tuesday. She is looking for the council's Community and Economic Development subcommittee to consider options.
"It is time to have the two conversations and come together," Mazzeo said. "It is the conversation that is getting started and that is the key."
The Riverway project may be too far along at this point for those particular Dewey Avenue lots to be the site of a youth center. But, the conversation brings energy behind the effort yet another.
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