The Threadbare Identity: Sporting a Lie on Fall River

Experiencing a bus ride photographing Fall River can be something of an eye opener to say the least.  The things you see and hear on any given bus route that you would never witness driving in your own car are quite unique to our “fair” city.  For example, someone screaming on the cellphone about that “SOB didn’t leave $20 on the dresser for cigarettes!”, or overhearing a barely audible drug deal going on in the back of the bus are commonplace here, but they are also telling signs of loss as well.  The dependent riders of our local mass transit are not what one would say “the pillars of society” or like those users of trains or buses in big cities like New York or Chicago, but more unfortunate victims of residing in a city on the brink.  Unemployed or underemployed, car-less or just trying to save money from escalating gas prices, they ride the bus day in and day out.  Some go clear across town, while others need a ride for a few blocks to carry groceries.  Regardless of destination and purpose, they are examples of the times.

On one particular ride, one of the passengers was a man just right of middle aged.  As I looked him over head to toe, there was something peculiar about the way he dressed.  His shoes were ratty with gaping holes near the soles and his Levi jeans had the distinction of not being washed in sometime, but his jacket and hat were something of a contradiction.  He was donning a spanking new Boston Red Sox baseball cap and a New England Patriots winter jacket.  While some find this a strange combination of attire, this is a common sight not only on the buses of Fall River, but on the streets as well.

Observing this man on the bus made me wonder if he and others like him are creating an image for themselves for the purpose of masking their stature in society for some sense of “identity”.  This had made me think of one night at the Belmont club some years ago when a former acquaintance of mine was doing his best to win over the attention of a woman by touting his Irish heritage.  The woman seemed somewhat interested in what he was saying about himself, but unbeknownst to her the truth of the matter was that he was only part Irish and mostly Polish.  I found it appalling that he was burying his Polish lineage and embellishing his Irish one to “improve” himself and his chances (he ultimately struck out).  This whole dwelling on creating and/or fabricating identities to feel accepted to one’s peers or society for gain or appearance strangely segued to Fall River’s own Mayor Flanagan, a man searching for an identity for Fall River.

Listening to Flanagan’s rhetoric as of late, I can’t help but sense the “taste” of them a bit on the sweet side.  His painting of Fall River as “the greatest city in Massachusetts” from one of his latest speeches cannot be any further from the truth as it is more in line as the worst city in the Commonwealth as the current unemployment numbers and the declining population rates indicate.    One could argue that Fall River is the “greatest city in the state” as it’s a matter of opinion and  it could be a great place to live as it once was years ago, but taking a good long hard look at our city today says otherwise.  Fall River’s identity is more like the drinking, fighting kind of town that local barflies boast about when they are out of town and tell others they are from Fall River, which gets a cautious “Oh” in response.

The sugarcoating of “Greater Fall River” (a misnomer if there ever was one) does not help matters nor is it addressing the important issues at hand.  Where are the solutions coming from Flanagan to get Fall River to live up to that lofty title?  All we hear now are cuts in education that is
the cornerstone of turning the ‘Scholarship City’ around for its future and press conferences in banning brownies.  The similarities between Flanagan touting the state of the city in his speeches and that man wearing the Patriots jacket on the bus are striking.  Both appear to be covering a truth with the difference being that they’re of different proportions.  One is on a personal level while the other affects a city.  Issuing exaggerations of the city to the public to boost its identity is not good politics as we citizens can see through the threadbare of this fabrication, and so can prospective business owners looking to set up shop somewhere.

Unlike a single person wearing a Patriots jacket for some belonging or lying about himself to improve his chances with a lady, where those misconceptions are harmful only to those that produce it, a political leader issuing statements that are deliberately misleading is of something more serious.  As Mark Twain stated, “…the spoken lie is of no consequence, and it is not worthwhile to go around fussing about it and trying to make believe that it is an important matter.  The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairness that afflict the peoples – that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.”  Or to put it in more contemporary terms John McCain’s, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig”, from 2007 in describing Hillary Clinton’s revamped healthcare plan.  Though Fall River is not on the national stage, nor ostensibly on Beacon Hill’s radar, it cannot afford the threadbare lies spoken by its leaders.  As the adage goes, “only the truth will set you free”, and Fall River needs to see and accept its truth in order to move forward…or we’ll all be wearing Patriots jackets.

Artfully Curtailing the Celebration of Leisure

Growing up in Fall River in the 70’s and 80’s, I’ve always been told that this is a proud city with the flair for celebration.  This was true of the many Portuguese feasts and parades that descended on the streets during the summer and to a much lesser extent, small neighborhood gatherings drinking Schlitz and listening to Pablo Cruise on a Saturday night.  Fall River even celebrated America with a 4 day extravaganza every August until its demise last year.  Though today, from my observations photographingaround the city, some other sort of celebrating is going on.  A celebration neither joyous nor of pride…it’s a celebration of leisure.

This “leisure”, caused by the economic downturn and our own failings, grows with willing and unwilling participants every day.   Evidence of this celebration appears in theform of losing scratch tickets thrown around like confetti on the sidewalks and streets.  Other signs of leisure found inthe streets are the plethora of empty plastic nip bottles of Jack Daniels and Leroux’s nestled along the curbing. These can be found not far from the aforementioned scratch tickets.   There is also the public scattering of DunkinDonuts Styrofoam cups contributed by the Leisurely as they wait around with no employment prospects, discarding that perpetual cup of coffee for another.

The careless disposal of these ingredients of leisure has gotten so bad that the city council has sponsored a resolution to increase fines of illegal dumping and littering, but it does not cure the root of the problem: unemployment.  There must be a way or means to curtail this trend and get “those of leisure” employed so the city streets are clean again and relieve the pressure on the absentee street cleaners.  One way to reverse this is to fulfill an idea that’s already been in place with that of the arts overlay district.

An arts district?  We have one of those?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  Fall River technically does have an arts district which has been in place for the last few years, but has never been utilized.  The district, which lies in the heart of downtown, was designed to bring in the arts and business to resurrect the area, but looking at South Main Street on a Friday night with not a soul to be seen, this never emerged.  Those images of the Old West keep resurging into my consciousness in waves more than I care for.
What would an arts district do?  For one, it would bring in artisans to occupy the empty storefronts downtown and convert them into studios and galleries. This in turn would lure small businesses to locate there and hire the Leisurely, as they would discard their cups of coffee in the wastebasket of their employer.  Gainful employment would also eliminate going to the convenience store and buying those losing tickets of fortune.  What about the nips?  That too, would be greatly reduced as the wages earned from working would be used to spend on liquid embellishments that would not be as easily portable as the inconspicuous nip bottle tucked in one’s jacket or bag.

Why an arts district?  Why not a casino?  God no!  There would be way too much leisure and celebrating going on.  Can you imagine what a Saturday morning would look like?  The city would resemble that of an apocalyptic wasteland.  I shudder at the thought.

So why hasn’t our leaders done anything with what they created?  I’ve been scratching my head on that one for some time and found no
answer, but if they are perplexed on a course of action, I can offer a few suggestions on behalf of the artistic community and as a concerned citizen of Fall River to them…

One: Ask.  Seek the artistic community for their input on developing the district.  This has never happened and I cannot understand why this was never implemented.  If you’re to create something like this for artists, wouldn’t you ask artists for their experience and knowledge?  Sounds like a logical step to me.
Two: Back off, as in stop overtaxing small businesses so they can succeed and prosper in Fall River. As Evan Lurie, owner and director of the Evan Lurie Fine Art Gallery in Carmel, Indiana states, “To make an arts district successful, you need restaurants, boutiques and night life, too…multiple things for people to enjoy.”  Implemented, this would revive an inactive downtown with life and commerce not seen in decades.

Three: Destroy what you built, with the subject being that monstrosity of a court house.   Turn that building into an arts center and gallery!  The building’s design gives the impression of being one, so why not?  This would also alleviate the zombie-like atmosphere of those “willing”
participants of leisure, as they await their fate while meandering the streets with their chosen fix.

Fourth: Change with vision.  Far too long has Ken Fiola of the Fall River Office of Economic Development floundered in getting the city back
on track with jobs and recovery, and now we’re seeing his results with a declining population, escalating unemployment and crime rates, a litter problem running amok and buildings falling apart.  It’s time for new blood to be in charge.  Are we listening Mr Fiola?

I’m not saying that the arts district is the only solution to the blight of Fall River, but it is a cornerstone that can be built upon and help develop the city’s potential of being a great place to live and work.  The message is clear and the time to act is now.  With a little openness and the will to change, Fall River can rise again from the ashes of the disposed cigarettes left on its streets with a new identity and an arts district as part of its driving force.  The streets would be clean, people would be employed and a new celebration would surface.  One that all can participate and enjoy…except for the street cleaners and Ken Fiola, who’ll be celebrating leisure.