Gateway City #6: Fall River

FALL RIVER, strikingly outlined against the sky on a long steep hill crest across Mount Hope Bay, looks both larger than it is and very foreign.
- Massachusetts; a guide to its places and people, written and compiled by the Federal writers' project of the WPA (1937).

This post is part of an ongoing series where I visit each of the 11 original Gateway Cities  and record my thoughts on their community, economy, and civic culture. Fall River – apparently “The Scholarship City” – is where I’m headed next.

There are some people who insist that NYC has gone soft. Popularity made it lose that hard edge it had in the 70s and 80s. You just can’t get the liveliness and the authenticity in the new cleaned-up version, according to this theory.

The thought that always occurs to me when I visit Fall River is that if you miss the grit of the New York of decades past, you can find a bit of it here. If New York has undergone a “renaissance” (which depends on your perspective) then consider Fall River definitively un-renaissanced, in ways good and bad.

To be fair, I have never been to New York City, so the “NYC is soft” theory is right for all I know. I am, however, a bit skeptical of people’s distant memories, which tend to come wrapped in nostalgia. When people say eighties New York was lively they might mean “exciting, but scary, but I forgot about the scary.”

Fall River is very lively, without a doubt. In that liveliness is the contradiction that people sense in the bygone era of New York: it’s joyful yet also hopeless, invigorating yet draining, chaotic, but logical in its own manner.

Fall River as a city makes basically no sense and as such it’s the furthest logical extension of the Gateway Cities that I’ve visited so far.

A Century of Searching

The city’s history is dominated in every way by the boom and bust of the textile industry. The city was founded around mills developed by Boston and Providence magnates, going through a boom period from 1870-1920. Here’s an extended excerpt from a 1903 history of the city:

Fall River easily leads all other manufacturing centres of America in the extent of its cotton manufacture. It has more than one-seventh of all the cotton spindles in the United States. It has more than any state in the Union except Massachusetts, nearly as many as all the Southern states combined, and more than twice as many as any other city in America. Every working day more than fourteen hundred miles of cloth are made. If all the mills could be run upon one and the same piece of cloth no express train could travel fast enough to carry away the product from the looms, for more than two miles of cloth are made every working minute.

You might guess, correctly, that this is no longer the case. The city population peaked in 1920, and the total number of residents is still some 30,000 below what it was before the Great Depression.

Fall River is still searching for an economic purpose in a post-textile age, and in that search it looks like so many other places across the country that are economically dislocated. Fall River has more poverty and crime than Massachusetts as a whole. It’s had a long history of dysfunctional and corrupt politics that colors everything to this day: the city’s youngest ever mayor was recently elected after a recall election of a previous mayor over a garbage collection program, and has run into some cronyism charges of his own. I don’t know enough to make any judgments about particular local politicians, but I do know that in a political system this brittle there are strong disincentives to working together and creating the type of leadership the area needs.

A shaky political system and a century’s worth of economic disappointment couple easily with resentment at the outside world, creating the same type of pessimistic resignation that I’ve observed in other Gateway Cities. The city’s motto, probably unintentionally, reflects this: it’s as close to a literal shrug as you can get in a few words: “We’ll Try.” We’ll Try. Seriously. It’s right there on their seal at the top of this page.

The Economic Trajectory of Fall River

Things are not all bad in Fall River. What I was trying to get across in my initial NYC comparison is that there is a real energy to places that are down on their luck that is legitimately exciting. Redevelopment has its good sides, but people from Boston constantly complain that no good dive bars exist in their city anymore and they’re not all wrong.

Fall River Map
City of Fall River, Mass. 1877.
Source: Library of Congress

Fall River has a diverse immigrant community including most prominently people from Portugal and Cape Verde. I am a serious devotee of Portuguese pastries, and one of the few places you can get an authentic Pastel de Nata outside of Europe is in Fall River. This to me is one and the same as the dive bar effect: if rents were a bit more expensive, that weird coffee place I went to get pastries, where obscure Portuguese folk festivals crackled through a 90s era TV, would lose out to Starbucks, and there’d be a good deal less charm on the block.

I am hugely sympathetic to the problems of Fall River. It’s the type of place where incremental change seems possible while big change remains elusive. To be a leader there is immensely difficult when there is no obvious solution that can take the place of a million cotton spindles. I am actually being too kind: there is simply no solution that will replace the type of economic activity in the excerpt above. So the city is left struggling for answers with no resources to pursue them. Do they woo a big company, prostrating themselves to earn low-skill and low-wage jobs? Do they go all in on a casino or real estate boondoggle?

In other words, can Fall River afford not to pursue wishful thinking economic development? The answer given the need for jobs can hardly be no, but any strategy of that type will play out as it has in countless other places.

It’s not entirely fair to lay the culture of wishful thinking at the feet of Fall River local leadership. It’s a pretty endemic trait to many parts of Massachusetts, including many that have far more resources. The only reason I judged other cities, like its neighbor New Bedford, less harshly is because the latter has been slightly more successful on its path.

So a fair question would be what a good, positive strategy could realistically look like in Fall River. I don’t even close to know the answer. Fall River has a lot of the hopelessness of the struggling places in Massachusetts, with few of the assets that make Massachusetts so prosperous. Unless the people looking for the grittier alternative to glitzy New York are ready to put their money where there mouth is, it’s going to be difficult.