Stacia Roberge is 28. She lives in Berlin, put her money where her mouth is and opened a business. That’s gumption.
Ms. Roberge owns Rumorz Boutique, a women’s clothing store on Main Street. She opened May 17, 2008; the country has been in recession since December, 2007. Ms. Roberge said the store has had challenges, but they are still open. Just today I saw someone carting their things out of a space on Main Street, “STORE CLOSING” written on the windows. Berlin’s Main Street is a hardscrabble place, with empty storefronts and burned out buildings. What would convince her to do such a thing?
Berlin. There is no better explanation for what holds people here. Its residents have a loyalty to the area that doesn’t die. Ms. Roberge, who went to UNH and lived in Virginia for a while, is one who came home. She retained the loyalty, and she came back.
And why shouldn’t she come back? Ms. Roberge points to all the things Berlin has, and it seems everyone should want to live here. It’s beautiful, it’s inexpensive, it is a great community. It is a historic community on a beautiful river. Why would anyone want to leave?
But those things aren’t what Berlin is known for. It’s known for its stink, its grime, its outdated thinking and its fires. What a way to view a city.
Berlin does not stink. There is no odor here. I haven’t been working here near long enough to remember when it did, but Ms. Roberge has. She grew up here, and she remembers the mill. It forged her work ethic, but it didn’t melt her spirit. The rest of the state thinks of stinky Berlin, she said, but that’s flat wrong. Berlin is an affordable place to live with a view of New Hampshire’s Presidential range. It is a place with houses normal people can afford. It is a city with one of the most beautiful downtowns anywhere, except for the empty storefronts and burned buildings. It is a place with potential.
Ms. Roberge used to be one of the staffers for the Main Street Project, but now she’s engulfed in her business. While there she thought of a marketing plan for the city: send out scent-free car fresheners labeled “Berlin, New Hampshire,” with a link to a website describing the city. She said people thought she was crazy. I thought she was a genius.
Every night I drive home from work I drive over the Notch. I drive to Glen, where I can’t afford a house and where there are more Massachusetts plates than New Hampshire (in both Summer and Winter). In Glen and further south I talk to people about Berlin and they look at me like I drive to a third world country every day. They tell me about how bad it stinks and how bad the fires are up there. They tell me about how backwards the people are and about how bad the drug problem is. In some ways it’s like me telling the residents of Berlin about Berlin (which I do every week). They don’t know. They know nothing. I’m in Berlin every week, talking to people, photographing people, getting to know the city, its residents, its business owners, its police officers and its firefighters. It is so much more than it appears to be, and it isn’t the things people think it is.
I admit I have compared Berlin to Dresden, Germany, after the firebombing. It is hard to drive through the city and see so many burned buildings. When I first started there was a string of fires over the weekends, and I would get depressed as I drove in up on Monday mornings. But the burned buildings are the misrepresenting headlines, not the facts of the story. They are a momentary tremor in a peaceful city working to find its place in the 21st century. Unfortunately the city doesn’t do enough to combat those headlines. They don’t do enough to project the real story.
A number of times in city council meetings I’ve heard councilors complain that Concord doesn’t pay any attention to this part of the state. But this part of the state has to shake Concord and elsewhere out of this foggy misrepresentation. Berlin can’t wait for people to change their minds — it has to make them change their minds. It has to get the message downstate: “Berlin – beautiful, historic, affordable, odorless.”
Why? Why does Berlin have to do this? Because Rumorz won’t survive. Because Teabird’s Cafe won’t survive. Gill’s Flowers won’t survive. Morin’s Shoe Store won’t survive. Because nowhere and nothing will survive if the city doesn’t show the state and the region it has something to offer.
The opportunity is in the fact that Ms. Roberge is right. Berlin has something to offer. It doesn’t stink. It is inexpensive. It has lots of property waiting for homeowners. It is beautiful. But Ms. Roberge doesn’t need to know that. I don’t need to know that. Chances are you don’t need to know it either. The world needs to know it, and Berlin needs the world to know it now.
Berlin 2.0 is just an ad campaign away.