Guest columnist Harriet Diamond: How Cottage St. lost its vibe

Markus Jones, director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks  the One Cottage street building.

Markus Jones, director of development and strategic operations at Riverside Industries, talks the One Cottage street building. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

One Cottage Street in Easthampton.

One Cottage Street in Easthampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By HARRIET DIAMOND

Published: 06-13-2024 7:19 PM

 

I am writing as a member of the Cottage Street Tenants’ Association of Eastampton. We formed this group in response to sudden unreasonable rent increases of 25-125% for studio spaces. Riverside Industries owns the building at One Cottage Street and has rented studio space to artists, artisans and small businesses for decades. Their main mission is to serve the intellectually disabled as a social service agency.

When I first came to Cottage Street Studios in 1986, I found my way through a labyrinth of halls and stairways to Riverside’s cafe for a cup of coffee. The clients were taking orders, cooking and serving food — lots of them under supervision. A group of artists, Silas Kopf and Bill Hewitt prominent among them, were sitting with the clients and bantering back and forth. It was a happy group, discussing a nearing trip to a Red Sox game initiated and organized by the artists.

I couldn’t quite believe the happy camaraderie, but it was real.

Over the years I witnessed an astounding collaboration between the artists, Riverside clients and the Riverside administration. For instance, Denise Herzog, who ran a successful ceramics business, became a part of the Riverside staff working with clients. A good many artists hired clients to help in their studios.

The Riverside staff often walked groups of clients up and down the halls, stopping into our studios for visits and a chat about art. We thrived with one another. Open studios and an annual auction brought in art lovers and spread the news about Riverside Industries’ mission and the unique and burgeoning art culture in Easthampton.

But slowly the organic collaboration between our arts community and Riverside Industries has begun to erode. Now the cafe is a sterile replica of itself. Where are the Riverside clients? I can go weeks without hearing or seeing any of them. Moving through the building, it is all closed office doors. There is a grand pickup junction in the parking lot for the clients who are transported to work off the site. We hardly see them anymore.

We are all losing something life-affirming. Yes, the halls are cleaner and we have new windows. The building is quiet. But the unique nature of community integration that is so important for the intellectually disabled has been lost. And we artists have lost the sense that we are a valued part of the whole, not only a source of revenue.

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From a humming hub of social services and artist-inspired events, Riverside Industries is fast becoming its own isolated fiefdom apart from the arts.

Please, let’s explore together how to protect the integrated/collaborative model that generated spontaneously at Cottage Street It’s not only about the rent. It’s about what can work for Riverside Industries, their clients and the city of Easthampton, too.

It will take listening, creativity and compromise. But isn’t that how all beautiful things are made? We ask that the town, the artists and Riverside Industries sit down and talk about next steps. There is a sustainable, collaborative and integrated way forward.

Harriet Diamond has a studio at One Cottage Street in Easthampton. She lives in Northampton.