Sewing the “Threads” of Discourse in Fall River: Where is “our” Howard Beale?

Thread of Democracy

Words can have a profound effect on people and a community, for good or ill. Every morning I pour myself a cup of coffee and head to the recliner, where I grab my laptop and click on the Herald News website for today’s news.  As an article grabs my attention and I finish reading it, I continue on to the comments section.  The thread reads as both entertaining and alarming.  The comments start off on topic, but some rapidly deteriorate in substance as they go off the subject and begin to take on a more passive-aggressive tone, one of apathy.  While some comments are
entertaining in nature, even on the humorous side, they also serve as a strong indicator on how people feel about the state of things in our city.

“This city is doomed”, “Who cares?”, “The same get re-elected again and again”, and “Same old, same old” are words often repeated in this forum style, but it’s not just here where you can hear the winds of discontent.  Words such as these are also spoken in bars, living rooms and street corners.  Sadly, they go no further than the environment they are uttered in.  This passive-aggressive rhetoric is not only carried on over to the news article threads on the Herald website, but also on Facebook pages or other social media outlets.  Reading these threads and words give the impression that the citizens are “mad as hell”, but they’re appeasement shows in absence of action.

Times like this I often think of the scene in the 1976 movie “Network”, where anchorman Howard Beale walks onto the set at the start of his newscast soaked in pajamas and raincoat screaming into the camera for the people to shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”, where you then see people opening their windows and screaming Beale’s words during a thunderstorm.  The result is people begin to take back control of their lives.  I believe this is what needs to happen in Fall River.  No one has to tell you how bad things have gotten here, as we all know that just by looking around us. Venting our frustrations doesn’t help much unless we do something, so what do we do about it?

The first step is to get angry and the anger is already in place.  Anger, if properly focused, channeled and discussed, can do some damage to the status quo, which has been crippling this city for decades.  This can be used in the form of constructive criticism, but the problem is that some people misconstrue some criticism for being negative.  It’s true that being too negative can disparage people from taking your words seriously, but when used in a constructive manner with clarity it can allow your thoughts and ideas to be heard and debated with sincerity.   People should feel angry hearing words about Fall River that are not in a good light, but their anger gets misplaced with pride and misdirected toward the messenger.  The truth can be hard to hear at times through constructive criticism, but it needs to be recognized in order to properly see things in their context.

Then there  are the pockets of isolationism within the city.  Too many groups and people talk amongst themselves and don’t take a proactive stance by reaching out to others, or just sit on their hands waiting for others to reach out to them.  Strength, self-reliance and unity are found in numbers.  If we all can reach out, get together and engage in civil discourse and follow through on its beliefs and ideas, it would be a mighty weapon to wield in fighting the current problems facing Fall River.  We have seen this recently with the LNG issue, which was a long hard-fought battle to prevent Hess from setting up a LNG tank and port here in Fall River.  If the people in the city got together on an issue like that, stayed with it and have their cause succeed, can you imagine what we can do with the rest of Fall River’s problems?

I ask myself where in Fall River is “our” Howard Beale, but I think Beale is in each and every one of us that writes a comment or letter in the paper or vocalizes their opinion that they’re not happy with things Fall River.  With that said, we just need to get together and take action.  Steps have been taken in the right direction with neighborhood associations helping to improve their respective areas and progressive ideas by leaders of various degrees, but more needs to be done.  Big things usually start off in small places.  The status quo of Fall River must change as the words of Howard Beale are more relevant today than ever before.  The window has opened and your words spoken, now what say you?

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The Condemned of Fall River

My coffee grows cold as I sit here in Café Arpeggio scribbling notes in my Moleskine while also frantically writing down the morning’s photo excursion in my journal.  The culture of the typical coffeehouse can have a great influence on writing as you’re all revved up on caffeine with jazz or adult contemporary playing on the PA feeding the pen.  Though in downtown Fall River, where I am now writing this, the culture outside the shop has a different flavor than inside.

Periodically, I’ll take a minute to sip on some of that cold coffee and gander out the window to do some people watching.  The people I observe on just the other side of the glass are not of your usual city commerce.  They meander more than walk without a destination or purpose, occasionally bumping into an acquaintance codling that perpetual cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in their hands.  Some sit on benches while others just stand around smoking, all with the appearance that they are waiting for something to happen.  Intermittent among the gathering are the well dressed and business-like.  You could not have asked for a more diverse group of people within eyesight of my table, but it all makes sense when you consider what is across the street: a brand spanking new courthouse.

Within this small radius you have two distinctly different stereotypes that function together: one group is waiting for their case while the other is waiting to take their case, but my attention is on the former.  As I watch them for a while, I do not see the buttress of the city’s problems that give Fall River the bad name it has.  I see people that never had a chance to make it or succeed, the Wander-Lost.  I see people trying to make it day to day with what little they have.  I see people residing in a culture that inhibits them from that quality of life that has been denied by the decline of opportunity going on for decades now within the city.  What I see are a people that are condemned.

They are condemned to exist in Fall River due to lack of prosperity and hope.  Those that have some resources to leave the confines of the city have escaped while the remaining 89,000 languish trying to make ends meet.  The city to the “have-nots” is like a prison, but it’s a prison without walls, fences or bars, and the warden is poverty and unemployment.  For most, Providence and New Bedford are the furthest they get away from here without viable means of transportation of their own, in which the trip there acts more like a furlough or a pass out of the confines of the institution.

For six months now I have been photographing and writing about Fall River in a year-long project as a statement of the city and its people, and it has opened my eyes to things I have kept shut out of my consciousness.  Walking the streets I’ll overhear snippets of conversation that makes you stop and think of the psyche of the Fall Riverite.  One particular outing I walked past a downtrodden couple when one said to the other excitedly, “Oooh!  Is the soup kitchen open today?”  This is what they look forward to?  Is this the best that the city can offer to the underprivileged?

"The Condemned"

Condemned

The Condemned could wait for the next CVS, Rite Aid or Dunkin Donuts to open for hopes of employment, which every few months one pops up somewhere, but are they means to build a stable life on?  One day doing laundry, I caught part of a conversation between an employee and one of the patrons where the employee said, “Oh, I have three jobs.  This isn’t the only one I have.”  The patron responded by asking why.  “Because they are no full time jobs being offered in Fall River!  It’d be nice to have just one to have benefits”, replied the employee with diligence.  America is suppose to be the land of opportunity, but here in the bubble of Fall River, that dream is non-existent in the reality of the city’s present state.

The culture that’s been created within the city has people also being on the defensive in near paranoia over the thought of being watched.  One cannot take photographs in the city without arousing suspicion from others, which is a normal response pending the situation, but in Fall River it goes further than just suspicion.   While taking photos one morning I was approached by one of Fall River’s denizens accusing me of being a private investigator.  When I replied to him that I wasn’t and said I was a freelance photographer and writer, his response was an unconvincing “Well, there you go…”, and lumbered back where he came from.  Has it reached a point that Fall River is paralyzed with anxiety, fear and inhibition over its own misfortune?  Is there any resolve?

I’ve often heard of Fall River being described as like a black hole, a spiraling vortex where nothing can get out and anything that has left gets sucked back in.  My own experience gives this description some credence as I have left the city I thought for good twice, only to return “home” for reasons that are my own.  I’ve been asking myself as of late if I too am condemned to live my life here in a dying city.  The thought of it terrifies me at times, but what is more alarming is how I and others think of Fall River in such a way.  All this “fear and loathing” of Fall River as Hunter Thompson would have aptly put it could be put to rest if prosperity and employment return.  Then we wouldn’t feel as though we’re condemned as we would still be here, but of our own choosing. Free of the prison.  Free of the vortex.  Free to live.