On a freezing cold evening last February, the planning board of Central Falls, Rhode Island, convenes its monthly meeting. On the agenda for tonight: devise a long-term strategic development plan for the city.
“Imagine we have a whole lot of money,” Stephen Larrick ’11, the city’s director of planning and economic development, tells the board. “I encourage you to think big.”One member suggests new benches in the parks. Another wonders about putting signs on public garbage cans reading, “This is your space. Keep it clean.” Someone asks, “How about repaving a city-owned parking lot?”
No, this isn’t the fictional, sunny Parks and Recreation town of Pawnee, Indiana. Central Falls is a down-and-out former mill town located just north of Providence with an unemployment rate of 10 percent. A third of Central Falls’s 19,000 residents now live below the poverty line. In 2011 the city, long mismanaged, went bankrupt. As part of the court settlement, the budget was set for the next five years, all of it dedicated to basic services and repaying creditors. This year, when officials wanted to replace the trash cans in its main park, there was no money in the budget. The city raised it using a crowdsourcing website.
No wonder the planning board isn’t coming up with the kind of visionary ideas that Larrick is after. It’s difficult to think big when you’re living through years of diminishing expectations.
Still, Larrick is undaunted. He and two other alums, city clerk Sonia Rodrigues Grace ’98 and chief attorney Matt Jerzyk ’99 are holding fast to their dream of turning the city’s fortunes around. Central Falls, they say, is poised for a revival.
Once Rhode Island’s hub of textile manufacturing, Central Falls fronts the former mills’ original power source, the Blackstone River, which runs along the city’s eastern and northern borders. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the mills drew workers from Québec, Scotland, Ireland, Poland, Syria, Portugal, and the farms of New England. By the mid and late twentieth century, as manufacturing waned, jobs grew scarcer and people moved away. Some factories in Central Falls recruited skilled loom fixers from Colombia. Immigrants arrived from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico. Housing was cheap and abundant.
Today, Central Falls is 60 percent Hispanic, 26 percent white, and 10 percent African American, with the remainder a mix of ethnicities. In addition to the 19,000 documented residents, the city probably houses 5,000 undocumented immigrants who aren’t counted in the census.
A combination of economic decline, entrenched poverty, and government mismanagement has stunted Central Falls’s growth over the last few decades. The public schools ran out of money in the early 1990s, when the state took over their management. Central Falls made national headlines in 2010, when its superintendent fired every teacher at the city’s low-performing high school. Two years later, the mayor, Charles Moreau, was convicted of federal corruption for handing out lucrative contracts to one of his friends. At the time, the city was running $80 million in unfunded pension liabilities. Its total annual budget was only about $20 million.
Hope for reform has arisen as a result of the election in 2012 of a new mayor, James Diossa, the first Hispanic to hold the post. Only twenty-seven years old when he took office, he has promised reform, openness, and accountability. Larrick, Jerzyk, and Grace have all emerged as key members of his team.
According to Mike Ritz, executive director of Leadership Rhode Island, a training program that has worked with city hall, Central Falls has already changed dramatically. A city government run by a handful of insiders has been replaced by one with a new openness and much greater civic involvement. “It’s people working together rather than against each other,” he says. As a model, he points to the Davis Square neighborhood in Somerville, Massachusetts, a community that had also lost its manufacturing base and spiraled into decline. Beginning in the 1980s, civic leaders committed to a renewal plan, and Davis Square is now a thriving commercial and arts center where apartments sell in the millions. “When people come together,” Ritz says, “they can overcome major obstacles.”
Several weeks after the planning board meeting, Larrick and I climb a rusty metal staircase inside an eighteen-foot-high stone clock tower in Jenks Park. Central Falls officials like to say that Jenks is their Central Park. Perhaps it had a certain grace a century ago when it was built, but today it’s in need of repair. Its playground has become shabby, and its fountain no longer works. The tower, which until recently was unsafe to climb, is now open only for special tours.
Larrick is a soft-spoken, genial policy wonk who’s partial to sweaters and tweed blazers. He grew up in northern Massachusetts and at Brown concentrated in urban studies and political philosophy. His first job out of college was interning at the Central Falls city hall.
The city filed for bankruptcy soon after he started. It was a chaotic time, when massive budget cuts forced the layoffs of dozens of employees. Somewhat to his surprise, the passionate and committed Larrick was asked to stay on as city planner. He was a fresh face in a government full of people who’d worked there for decades. In addition to permitting and zoning issues, Larrick’s job would also include responsibility for strategic planning and economic development. At the age of twenty-two, he decided to take the job. “It’s been trial by fire,” he says. “I’m getting an education by doing.”
At the top of the tower, you can see for miles in every direction. It’s a view that Larrick believes could help draw tourists to Central Falls. Jenks Park could be spruced up, he says, the fountains repaired so that water flows through them again. There is a hulking rock in the park that children could climb. Families might come to picnic along the Blackstone River.
In fact, as Larrick gestures east to the Blackstone River, he says that the waterfront is the city’s best hope. Over the last several years, a developer has converted two buildings, one an abandoned factory, into luxury loft apartments. All seventy-two lofts are now rented. Larrick thinks several adjacent structures could be converted into more apartments, or into offices for fledgling businesses and work-live spaces for artists. He wants a café along the river or, at least, an ice cream parlor, as well as a place to rent paddle boats or kayaks.
In the late 1700s, Central Falls was the location of one of the country’s earliest water-powered chocolate factories, the William Wheat Chocolate Mill. The area was known as Chocolateville. Larrick is working with the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council on a project to build a chocolate museum. Before the 2008 recession hit, the Mars candy company had expressed interest in helping to fund the $30 million initiative. When that fell through, the city set up a little park, where the mill once stood, called Chocolate Mill Overlook. The view isn’t much, though the city has tried to enliven things by stringing Christmas lights along the arches of a bridge just downriver. The river banks are still overgrown with trees and bushes.
This is the dream, anyway. In the meantime, there is the problem of what to do about the Jenks Park garbage. When children and families flock to the park during the summer, the plastic garbage cans quickly overflow or fall over. Larrick found a website called Citizinvestor that lets municipalities appeal to the public to fund projects—essentially a Kickstarter for local governments. The plan Larrick posted called for $10,000 to purchase new trash bins designed at the Steel Yard, a nonprofit community of sculptors and artists in Providence (cofounded by Clay Rockefeller ’03). It worked. The new garbage cans, installed last year, not only control the trash problem, they’re also works of art.
Larrick calls this “Government 2.0”—relying on the Internet for cheaper, more efficient ways of carrying out government business. It’s an ideal medium to connect residents to their elected officials, Larrick says. He wants to overhaul the city’s website so that it offers more than rudimentary information about city services and a welcome letter from the mayor. Residents will be able to pay parking tickets, apply for business permits, and look up their property taxes—all features that many cities have had online for years.
Larrick loves his job. Working on behalf of Central Falls’s impoverished population, he says, is part of what he considers his commitment to social justice. He thinks the city is making huge strides. “There’s been a positive arc,” Larrick says. “That’s probably what’s kept me from having a mental breakdown.”
Matt Jerzyk is a big guy with an outgoing, affable personality belied by his constant checking of his phone. (Since our interview, he’s lost thirty-five pounds.) He traces the beginning of his career to the night before Commencement, when he and a group of friends went to a party on Wickenden Street. Down the block he could see local police making arrests at a gas station. Because it was Commencement weekend, Jerzyk was taking photos of everything that night. But when he snapped a picture of the police, they overreacted. He was arrested and spent the night before graduation in a jail cell.
His lawyer, a friend of a friend, turned out to be future Providence mayor and U.S. Congressman David Cicilline ’83. After the charges were dismissed a year later, Jerzyk and Cicilline went out for a celebratory lunch. Cicilline told Jerzyk that Providence’s police department needed major reforms. Human Rights Watch had recently called it one of the worst police forces in the country. Cicilline said he planned to run for mayor and asked Jerzyk, who now had an inkling of the problem, to join his campaign.
After Cicilline’s victory, Jerzyk earned his law degree at the Roger Williams University School of Law and served Cicilline’s successor, Angel Taveras, as senior counsel and, later, deputy city solicitor. Jerzyk then started advising Central Falls shortly after it fell into bankruptcy and advised Diossa, then a councilman, on the court settlement between the city and its creditors. After Diossa became mayor, he appointed Jerzyk city solicitor. He is part-time—all the city can afford—and also serves as legal counsel to the Rhode Island Speaker of the House.
During this time, Jerzyk also campaigned for many local women and Hispanics. He’s dedicated, he says, to making “the government look a little less like me and more like the people it represents.” His work with Central Falls, he says, is a continuation of that commitment. Once Hispanics and women are in office, the next step is to help govern. He is also one of the founders of rifuture.org, a politically progressive blog about the state.
In early 2014, the Central Falls city council asked Jerzyk to vet an application by a businessman to open an establishment there. Normally, Central Falls welcomes any new commercial enterprise with open arms, but this one was different. A Connecticut man with no previous ties to the city, Michael Karow, wanted to open a massage parlor. His chosen location had earlier housed one called Simple Pleasures Spa, which had been long suspected of being a front for prostitution, but no formal charges had ever been brought. When a fire broke out there in 2013, authorities found drug paraphernalia and people living there illegally. The city council revoked the Simple Pleasures license.
Now the council feared that Karow’s massage parlor, the Palm Tree Day Spa, would be more of the same, especially after his permit application stated that he wanted to keep the spa open until midnight. How many Central Falls residents were going to want a massage at that hour?
On March 10, the City Council met to vote on Palm Tree’s permit request. “I’m curious why you want to be open at that late an hour on Saturday and Sunday,” City Council president Bob Ferri asked Karow.
“I am anticipating growing the business,” Karow replied.
Jerzyk had already relayed his assessment to the council: there were no legal grounds for denying Karow’s application. All the council could do was restrict the hours the parlor stayed open.
A short time after Palm Tree opened, an ad appeared on a classified-ad website, backpage.com, illustrated with stock photos of dolled-up Asian women with “Beyond the Expectation” written on them. A video showed Asian women dressed in skimpy outfits. When asked about the ad, Karow said that Palm Tree was being unfairly maligned because of what happened in the previous massage parlor and that his business hasn’t been cited for any problems by the city. He wouldn’t comment as to whether he posted the ad, but he subsequently said, “The whole point of the ad is to get people to come. You put up a good-looking lady.”
When Central Falls’s government idealists imagine attracting new businesses to the city, the Palm Tree Day Spa is not what they have in mind. But for now at least, as long as businesses operate within the law, they can’t afford to turn any of them away.
A lot of good things happened in Central Falls last spring and summer. A developer broke ground on ninety new loft apartments in an old mill. The city got a $100,000 grant to beautify a main thoroughfare, Roosevelt Avenue. There’s now a snazzy new sign designed to be placed at the city’s border that will read “Welcome to Central Falls.”
Most importantly, the city secured $1.3 million in state and federal grants to improve its parks and open spaces. Central Falls has less open space per capita than anywhere else in the state. A new park with a walking track and tennis courts will be built on an abandoned lot beside a housing project. Jenks Park will get a much-needed facelift. And the city will take a major step toward redeveloping the waterfront by putting up a playground and picnic area along the river. “Let’s shout it from the rooftops,” Mayor Diossa says in his budget address in May. “Central Falls is the comeback city.”
None of these achievements will rid the city of poverty or turn Central Falls into a boomtown. They are small steps in the right direction—a huge improvement over the government fraud and mismanagement of the past—but for Sonia Grace they couldn’t be more important. While Larrick and Jerzyk live elsewhere, Central Falls is her home. She’s raising five children there with her husband, Tim, who works for a construction company.
Grace’s parents moved to the United States from Portugal when she was fifteen. They lived in Providence before moving to Central Falls, where they found a Cape Verdean community that suited them. Grace could have moved virtually anywhere when she graduated from Brown, but she chose to return to Central Falls. “I like what Central Falls has to offer,” she says. Fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, she has developed deep ties to the community.
Grace serves on the school board. After Diossa was elected, he asked her to be his chief of staff. And when he decided to shake up day-to-day operations, he appointed Grace as city clerk. She replaced a woman who’d been in the job for more than forty years. “We’ll ask, ‘Why do we do it this way?’” she says. “The answer typically is, ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way.’”
Grace is unflaggingly optimistic. She doesn’t see her job as finding fault with the past but as “moving forward.” Central Falls cannot be defined by the bankruptcy or by past government corruption, she insists.
“To sit around and find fault is a waste of our time,” she says. “We are better off understanding where we are and moving forward.”
Lawrence Goodman is the BAM’s senior writer.
Read how a dozen alumni are changing education in Fall River here.