I got to have a long conversation with councilor Tim Cayer yesterday about what it is that makes Berlin a remarkable place. I, like him, was astounded to find a pocket of small town America so perfectly preserved; a city with a feeling lost a half century ago in most places. The allure of a “dying mill town” may seem hard for some people to grasp, but I can’t get enough of it. It has something most of America has lost.
It’s hard to define “quality of life.” Does that mean outdoor recreation opportunities? Sure. Does it mean clean air, water, trees and mountains? Yep. Does it mean beautiful views and panoramic vistas? I guess. But none of those are the real root of what quality of life really means.
I lived in Portland, Maine, for three years while going to school at University of Southern Maine, and there wasn’t a single business person there who knew my name. Why? Because in a city, even one so small as Portland, you are but a face in the crowd. I’ve worked in North Conway, N.H., for six and a half years, as a climbing guide and at International Mountain Equipment, one of the stores on Main Street. I might be able to go into the local coffee shop and find a couple people who know my name, but even there the flood of people anesthetize people to individuals.
Not in Berlin. I’ve only been working in the city for four months, and already I know people, and people know me. When I go to Rumorz Boutique or Morin Shoe Store, or even just walk down Main Street, people wave and say hello. Not because I’m the reporter for the local paper, but because that is what community is around here. At Tex Mex, where I eat most Mondays, I watch Greg Dobbin and Kelly Leclerc greet their customers, usually by name.
This is a place where people still have time to say hello and listen to what you have to say. They aren’t so busy as to push you aside for the next best thing. That slower pace is something lost in many places; some people are looking for cities where it has been preserved.
I have heard this from a number of people who left Berlin and came back. Community isn’t a commodity to be valued lightly. The connection between people in Berlin is strong, built in the years when the city was isolated from the rest of the state. As urbanization has crept up the U.S. Route 16 and I-93 corridors, it has largely left Berlin alone.
What it is worth? That depends.
I worked on a small town ambulance for a while. On day we were sitting at the station when the tone went off.
“Their is a 10-55 in front of Tim Woods’ house,” the dispatcher shouted, sounding red faced and out of breath.
The paramedic on looked at me, his expression blank.
“Any idea where that is?” he asked.
He was from out of town.
Does anyone know where the Bass factory building is in Berlin? Or the Converse factory? Wait, those are the same building?
Excuse me, I’m from out of town.
That sense of history, that sense of place, is missing in many cities. Portsmouth and Portland have lost much of their blue collar heritage. People forget that Commercial Street in Portland’s Old Port was called Commercial Street because of all the shipping that occurred there, not because of all the shops. Berlin residents haven’t forgotten those parts of their heritage. The community still has that which has been lost so many other places.
To the paramedic sitting next to me that day, the description of where the accident was proved the town we was a backwater. To others, though, it reminds them of a nostalgic time most communities have lost. That is worth something. The city has something there that residents can’t let fade. It may be hard to see what a depressed city offers, when most of the time is spent trying to combat the depression, but it offers something special.
Quality of life — what an elusive phrase. Like the supreme court said in reference to pornography: I know it when I see it. I see it in Berlin.