I live in the Blackstone Valley. We are part of the National Park system — what’s called a “National Historic Corridor.” Our quaint little towns and beautiful (slightly polluted) river has historic importance.
In this valley was born the American Industrial revolution. Right around the corner. That’s where they built the first mills, using the power of the Blackstone River. Then they built a canal system and a railroad to carry those home-made American goods to markets around the world. Unfortunately, they also poisoned the river and it’s taken half a century to get it almost clean, but that was the price of industrialization. We should be doing better now. Are we?
My town has not accepted the new century. It never entirely accepted the last one either. It was dragged along, unwillingly through the mid-1950s. After that, the town dug its heels in and said “Hell no, we won’t go.” They weren’t kidding.
A World War I artillery pieces sits next to our Civil War memorial and just a few feet from the World War II bronze and stone grouping. Vietnam never made it, nor any war since. It’s all guns and churches. At various times of the year, there are events on the common, often called “the green.” The grass doesn’t care. It just hangs around, being lawn-like.
We have book sales, rummage sales and cake sales which usually coincide with a holiday. We have a Christmas Parade, our local version of First Night, but so early in December it always feels odd and out-of-place. I have no idea why they don’t hold it closer to the holidays. And there are porkettas and pancake breakfasts. All to raise money for something. We used to have great local fireworks on the high school’s athletic field, but one year, we ran out of money and that was the end. Other towns still have fireworks. We can see bits of them over the tops of our trees.
I miss the fireworks so we watch the Boston display on television every year.
Other towns complain about Main Street being destroyed by big chains like Walmart. We do not complain. We don’t have a Walmart although we do have a CVS — for which for sacrificed a great ice cream shop. Well, we didn’t sacrifice it. The people who ran the ice cream shop sold to CVS and used the money to open a brand new place in another town, but I digress.
If you want to buy anything beyond hardware, lumber, groceries, medication or fast food, you’ll need to go elsewhere. If you want a decent meal, you will have to go to another town. If you want to see a movie, go bowling, see a play, hear a concert … well, you know, Boston’s not too far and Worcester is just up the road. You can get to Providence in about 45 minutes — not counting parking. Depending on traffic. Whatever you want, you probably won’t find it here.
We do have a beautiful if underfunded public library. It’s in an old, elegant building that has somehow managed to remain alive despite having its budget repeatedly cut until it can barely keep the doors open to maintain membership in the public library system. And progress is encroaching, despite all resistance.
After 20 years of arguing about it — after allocating millions of dollars to upgrade the old high school and having those funds vanish without a trace and with no explanation and no upgrades — our little town was told by the Commonwealth we had to build a proper High School or lose accreditation. Lack of accreditation would have made it tricky for graduates to get into college. So we built a new high school and our taxes almost tripled. The town has been so fiscally
swindled mismanaged for so long no one can remember it any other way.
There is a myth surrounding small towns. We’ve seen the movie — starring Tom Hanks or someone like him. There’s a supporting cast of caring local citizens. Cue up “The Andy Griffith” theme. In the movies (and on television) everyone has the best interests of the town at heart. Really, underneath it all.
Not! Here it’s all about nepotism, threats, bullying, and a committment to making life unbearable for anyone who gets in the way. They are not particularly concerned with the best interests of the town except insofar as it advances their own business and financial interests. They take what they want, refuse to answer to anyone, hire relatives and personal friends, give out contracts to their buddies and live the good life. It’s worked well for them. They always win.
What can you do? It’s a small town and you can’t spend your life fighting.
Town meetings end in fistfights and horrific verbal brawls creating enough bad feeling to last into the next decade. I opposed the new High School. Not because we didn’t need one. We definitely needed a new high school but I was still waiting for an explanation of where the millions of dollars to upgrade the old high school went. Eventually, overcoming all objections, they built it anyway and the explanation never came.
They asked Garry to run for town council when we first moved here. He was easily recognized from all his years on television, so despite being (then but not now) the only non-white resident, fame beat out prejudice. Garry declined the honor, explaining to me it would destroy our lives. We’d have mobs in the driveway throwing rocks at our windows. I didn’t understand until years later when I worked for a local paper covering debates preceding town council elections.
Good grief! The level of personal vindictiveness and venom was a wonder to behold. Where were the good guys? Each candidate was worse than the other, ranging from merely venal, through clueless, to possibly psychotic.
It was closer to Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery” than Andy Griffith. And yet, I do love the valley. True, I try very hard to not even think about why they do what they do and how they do it. The less I know, the happier I am. If my town were unique, it would be encouraging on some level, but all the towns around here are pretty bad. This town may take top prize for most blatantly bad government, but the other towns are close behind. They have better manners in public … but small towns are not like the movies. Really. Not.
So — life goes on. White picket fences and green lawns. Big shade trees, lots of room for children to play. Safe streets, plenty of open space. Only two traffic lights in town, one of which is probably redundant. It’s ever so pretty. Just … don’t get too involved. Things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Think Chevy Chase in “Funny Farm.” Yeah, that works.