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Documenting History

11/09/2011

After teaching at MCLA for 32 years, sociology professor Dr. Maynard Seider has spent his retirement working on his first documentary, "Farewell to Factory Towns?" The video chronicles North Adams' struggle to build a viable economy after its major economic base disappeared, and asks if art is the answer.

The documentary focuses on what happened to North Adams after the Sprague Electric Company, a presence in the City for more than 50 years, moved its operations, leaving thousands of workers unemployed.

An extension of the coursework Seider (pictured above, on the left, working on the documentary) taught at the College, the documentary had its genesis in his classroom.

While Seider began work on the documentary several years ago, the idea for the piece was conceived decades earlier, during a class on "The Social History of North Adams" that he taught in the 1980s. Originally an examination of the depression in North Adams, the course went from being a study of the City's industrial history to its transition from an old mill town to a community striving to build an economic base in the arts.

In 1995, Seider wrote a play called "The Sprague Years," which MCLA students performed for area school children. "And it was kind of like they were watching actors play their parents and grandparents because so many people worked at Sprague over the years," he said.

The play ends with its characters standing outside the factory's closed gates, wondering what the future will hold. "In a sense, the documentary is a continuation of that. It looks at the history of Massachusetts Museum on Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) and raises the question, can art save North Adams, and what are the other options out there?" Seider said.

He also was inspired to make the documentary after seeing filmmaker Nancy Kelly's PBS work about North Adams, "Downside Up."

"From my perspective, there's a lot that I didn't like about the film in the way it portrayed North Adams' history. It was kind of like nothing really good ever happened in this community until MASS MoCA came along, and that MoCA gave everyone a new lease on life, kids will learn arts, there will be hope again in this community and life will be good.

"I began to work with students on North Adams's social history, and with media students who would go out and do their own short documentaries on the transition of North Adams," Seider continued. "Rather than just being critical of someone else's work, I thought I would see if I could do something that I could feel comfortable with."

While the documentary is a case study of North Adams, Seider compares similar situations that other former manufacturing cities across the country share with the City. North Adams, he said, has much in common not only with other former mill towns in New England, but larger cities such as Detroit, Mich., and Buffalo, N.Y.

A collaborative effort by present and former members of the MCLA community, Seider got his start in making the documentary from English/communications professor Dr.Michael Birch and from Peter Gentile, MCLA's television studio manager. Paul Marino '88 helped him get started with editing the piece, and Zeke Meginski '10 of Springfield, Mass., who majored in English/communications with a focus on broadcast media, has helped over the past 18 months with some finer editing work as the documentary nears completion.

"In a way, after being at the College for so many years, and feeling very connected to the campus and the community, I guess it's something I'd like to leave there, as part of that history," Seider said.

He expects to complete the video in early 2012. To view a trailer on Seider's documentary, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brUgOwfzkeA&feature=share .