PITTSFIELD — On the map, this high-rise piece of Pittsfield, home to the Powell and Hamilton families, is inked in red.
“Dangerous”, reads a label.
The danger isn’t crime, including the arson attack that destroyed the home at Robbins Avenue and Division Street, next to where Courtney R. Hamilton is raising four children.
The danger isn’t all the people running in and out of drug houses, some of whom drive recklessly through this neighborhood and hit children, prompting parents to shout “Car!” to children playing outside.
The old card, prepared by a federal government agency in 1936, protected people who did not live here. He shaped these once-refined blocks of the circular avenue into a target of sorts, advising bankers where not to invest. It marked three red areas in Pittsfield, as well as sprawling areas in yellow designated as “definitely in decline”.
Nearly a century later, it’s clear that decades of intentional divestment have rubbed this place raw.
A new report, “Redlining in Pittsfield: A Case Study,” is set to lay bare the decades-long bad deal inflicted on West Side residents, practices that have hindered homeownership and deprived black families the ability to create wealth. Around its red areas, the 1936 map of the Homeowners Loan Corp. colored the other streets of Pittsfield green and blue, labeling them “Best” and “Still Desirable”.
Today, the West Side has some of the lowest homeownership rates in the city, as well as lower life expectancies and incomes.
Roderick Powell, 44, responded this week to someone who knocked on his door at 22-24 Robbins Ave. and studied a copy of the 1936 map. His family’s house is near the center of the Red Zone. Powell, who works in construction, was asked: ‘If we say ‘difficult to get a loan’, does that speak to you?
“My father was on a police salary. And my mother worked for the city. And for a very long time, in the 80s, they couldn’t get our house,” he said.
These parents, Walter J. Powell and Sabrina Powell, eventually purchased the house on Robbins Avenue. Her father, who now lives in North Carolina, had worked as a cop in North Adams and Pittsfield. His son still wonders why it took his father so long to become a landlord.
“When my younger sister went to college, that’s when my dad got to buy his first house,” Powell said. Land records show his father took out a mortgage in 2006 and then modified the loan in 2008 when he owed $71,255.
Roderick Powell said he hadn’t attempted to buy a house, but had known over the years that the men he worked with in the trades seemed capable of getting mortgages.
“It’s crazy. When I was in the workers’ union, I worked with white people who were young and had houses, you know what I’m saying? Guys who worked at gas stations and who were able to buy houses.
Now Powell, who is raising two young sons, Chance and Bentlee, sees his future elsewhere. A brother may remain tied to the Robbins Avenue family property, but he is considering moving, possibly to North Carolina.
“I’m going to get my family out of here. I think there is a better chance of being able to do better in life if we get out of this area. Pittsfield is dying,” he said.
From Powell’s porch, the view to the south is more open these days, after the fire took over the house at 11 Robbins Ave., next to where Courtney Hamilton, 45, lives at 31 Division St. Across Robbins Ave a destroyed house recently fell.
Hamilton bought the land that housed the burned building and fenced it off to create a safer place for children to play.
The Hamilton family has a long history here. This includes owning homes – and losing them.
The house Courtney bought in 2007 from Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity had once belonged to her grandparents, Rodney and Shirley Hamilton. Courtney celebrated her first birthday here 44 years ago.
Today, she is the Hamilton carrying on the tradition – and an exception, as a black owner. She said her family lost the home before they could buy it, for $60,000, property records show, via Habitat.
“I have been here for 14 years, I own the house. I think I have another six years until it’s fully paid off,” she said.
“I would like to see more people owning, more African Americans, owning property and having chances,” she said during a visit to her front porch, as she braided her hair.
Researchers associated with the local chapter of the NAACP have determined that black residents of Pittsfield own homes at less than half the rate of the city as a whole. The disparity has widened over the past half-century.
If homeownership could increase among West Side residents, Hamilton is asked, how would this neighborhood change?
“I think that would be amazing,” she said. But it sounds a bit like a dream.
“It is what it is, you know,” Hamilton said.
A few blocks north, at 28-30 Daniels Ave., the West Side Legends group is rehabilitating a home that will be sold to a local buyer. The project offers, one house at a time, a solution to a century of neglect by financial institutions.
Thomas Moody was inside the house on Thursday, continuing work to dismantle it down to its frame, before a full rebuild. He has been building for years in the neighborhood – and has seen obstacles to improvement.
“Everything you try to do on the West Side is blocked,” Moody said. “Most people rent on the West Side.”
What’s holding the neighborhood back? we ask him.
“They have to let you build more. They just need to open it. Maybe it’s just a lack of money in Pittsfield,” he said.
Moody sees the West Side Legends project as a way for families who haven’t owned a home to build capital. “They can enter these houses for decent money. And if they’re fed up, they can go out and [sell and] make $15,000 on their own house, then cross the street, or wherever they want to go, and buy a bigger house.
Separately, a few programs showed their love for the West Side. Mayor Linda Tyer’s administration has demolished derelict properties. The city has also introduced forgivable home improvement loans.
When applying for Habitat years ago, Hamilton penned a letter explaining what it would mean to return the property to his family — and to be able to raise his children here. When the property was renovated, she requested that her old floors be retained, as nicks and scrapes are part of Hamilton’s history.
“And now I have four kids here, and this is my home,” she said.
From her front porch, Hamilton is a neighborhood watch for one woman.
Two nearby homes are destinations for drug activity, she said.
“I take pictures, and I write the license plates, and I send everything to the cops. And 14 years later, it’s still a crack house, you know, it’s been 14 years,” said Hamilton said, “Yesterday I found a needle. The neighborhood isn’t the best.”
Both of her grandmothers, Shirley Hamilton and Barbara Hanger, were known to talk when things bothered them. That has not changed in this family.
” I’m fed up ; I’m going crazy,” said Hamilton, who works as a sexual and reproductive health counselor for Tapestry Health. “I contacted the city council, you know, people in my neighborhood, but nothing is done.”
“I put up a ‘Children at Play’ sign and someone stole it. We’ve seen at least four kids get hit by cars here. It’s not enough for three neighbors to make improvements. We have need a lot of people to make improvements,” she said.
Hamilton is determined to stay, but may want a different life for her children, who are 10, 12, 18 and 20. A girl attends North Carolina A&T State University.
“I don’t want her to come back here. I don’t want to leave this house to him. How many shootings or how many murders have there been this year? And it’s not even summer yet?
She remembers another West Side. “When I was growing up, you know, we could ride bikes around the block. We played outside. We were just outside playing when we were kids. I had no worries in the world.
“And now I always tell my kids, ‘Be careful. Don’t play horses. There might be needles here. No, you can’t go to the park because I’m not there to check the slides for see if there are any needles,” she said.
“I think the drugs definitely took over. And it’s not that there weren’t drugs back then, but it’s taken care of and it’s getting so bad. Most people just want to get the hell out of here.