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North Adams according to Norbert: A native reflects on his hometown’s changing fortunes

Norbert Miller.
Josh Landes
Norbert Miller.

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey visited Greylock Works in North Adams last week for her first stop in Berkshire County after being sworn in earlier this month. She last visited the property in 2016 as Attorney General when it was in the process of being transformed from a former mill building into a mixed-space use facility with restaurants, offices, and businesses. Greylock Works employee Norbert Miller, a lifelong North Adams resident with deep ties to the building, was hard at work on the day of Healey’s return. Miller spoke with WAMC about watching both the building and city transform over the decades, and how he sees the story of North Adams continuing into the future.

MILLER: I am the janitor, would be the best definition. But I do whatever I'm told. I've been here since they've been fixing up the building. I got my first step, my first start, I was sitting on the riverbank across the street, and they had come over and they were looking across the street at this building. And we were talking, and I told him that I had mowed grass for Cariddi’s, the people who had owned this building previously. And so, I got a grass mowing job, and got my foot in the door.

WAMC: That's amazing. So, what's it been like watching this place come together from that abandoned building into what it is now?

It's been outstanding. It's like, I come over every day and I'm amazed every day with what's been done. I had worked here when this was an operating factory in 1972 and it was Consolidated Aluminum. I was in the fabrication department of the building. I was only 17. So, I didn't work that long. Because I told them I was only 17. So, they said, well, thank you for being so honest, come back when you turn 18. So, I did, and they hired me back. But it was it was a pretty good job.

So, are you a native North Adams guy?

Yes, I am. I live right across the street. It's almost like having an office. [laughs]

So let me ask you this- I mean, that you're talking about when this was fully industrial back in the 70s. You know, over the last few decades, North Adams has had its fortunes rise and fall and- Where do you see things now from this perspective you've had?

I see it common together with MASS MoCA and with all the other buildings like Greylock Works and the one up the street, I can't think of the name of it.

Norad Mill?

Norad Mill, and the bed and breakfasts that are starting to come around, and, just need more restaurants. But it's going to be it's going to be a whole different thing, because it's going to be middle class and up. Whereas with factory workers, it's middle class and down, so, but, it's coming around.

So, how old are you now and tell us about what your life is like outside of work?

I'm widowed. I'm 68. And I just do the normal things that people do who own houses and take care of yards and get through life.

So, what was it like preparing for the governor's visit today? You know, obviously, when people from Eastern Mass, high up in government come, people tend to, you know, put a little polish on. Tell us about what that was like.

I just did my normal cleaning, and I do 100% all the time. So, it was 100% for the governor too. She is the third governor I've met. I've met Jane Swift. I was in Stop and Shop one night, late, shopping. And she was in there too. And it was- We were on a level playing field, buying food. And I've met Deval Patrick, and now I've met this governor here.

You were talking a moment ago about how North Adams is changing and the kind of economy it's building and how a lot of the investments are aimed at a different class than what you represent and what the history of the city has been. Any thoughts on that? Do you feel like you have a place in this community as it continues to change?

I'm kind of not worried about having a place because I'm old enough where I can just sit and just watch all this stuff go by. North Adams is going to be a service-oriented economy. It’s for extra money. If the extra money ever dries up, then North Adams will be in trouble.

Is there anything about North Adams you'd want to communicate to the wider world? Because, clearly you love this place, you've been here for a long time, you're here today, and you look, you know, for everyone who can't see you, you're smiling and proud and happy and, you know, what's something you want people to know about this community?

It's a very good place to live. It's got good schools. There's not really a lot to do as far as going to parties and stuff but there's a little town stuff. They have a first Friday in North Adams. They’ll be having in February a WinterFest, and that's usually a good thing and it takes up all on Main Street- Ice sculptures and food. And there's a lot of little things like that.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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