Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In a Fall River Window

In a Fall River Window, 2010

I had a morning free during my trip to Providence last week, so I decided to drive over to Fall River, about a half hour down the road into Massachusetts. I’ve been driving through Fall River for thirty years, but have never stopped there before for so much as a soft drink or to fill the gas tank.

Fall River’s one of those small, hardscrabble New England cities that peaked in the late 1800s when its mills were running full tilt. Nowadays some of the mills are outlet malls or, failing that, too, someone’s trying to rebirth them as business incubators. They line the highway like giant gray stone shoe boxes, mostly empty and quiet where textile machinery once whirred and thumped.

These days Fall River is a place you mostly drive through on the way to and from somewhere else. City fathers try to draw some of those drivers off the road to see a collection of WWII warships down under the Braga Bridge on the Taunton River. But I suspect the audience for that kind of attraction is dying out. The interstate highway cuts right through the middle of town, a bit of brutal federally planned routing I’ve seen once before in Richmond, Virginia, and which you couldn’t get away with any more because it so destroys the lifeblood of the urban neighborhoods it displaces. It’s said the path of the highway runs right over the site of the old Fall River city hall. Perhaps that’s why city fathers were able to cajole the feds into funding a modernistic city hall built atop the interstate highway, creating a similarly brutalist gateway to Southeast Massachusetts.

Something like half of the people in Fall River identify with Portuguese heritage. It’s said to be the hub of a regional population of Portuguese descendants numbering upwards of two million. You see a lot of cars with decals touting the Azores.

I’m sure there must be others. But for most people, Fall River’s most famous resident was axe murderer Lizzie Borden. There’s even a Lizzie Borden B&B Museum , my kind of place to visit if I’d only been there later in the day when it was open.

Triple Decker, 2010

I was there early in the morning. Women and old men took their walks in Kennedy Park, speaking dialects I didn’t understand. Children held their father’s hands as they walked to school. I’m not sure where the fathers work. Unemployment is high hereabouts.

I was drawn first to a corner of the park where two worn out basketball backboards framed a nearly completed nuclear power plant just across the river. Afterwards I parked the car and walked around the neighborhood, cautious of peeking too closely into the lives of residents since I was so obviously an outsider.

Clean Energy on the Way, 2010

I came across the shuttered St. Louis Parish School, built in 1905 and abandoned long enough for most of its windows to have been broken. The picture at the top, In a Fall River Window, was taken from the street next to the school.

On this particular morning I was neatly cleaned and casually dressed. But the rental car I was driving looked every bit like an unmarked police car. I’ve come to believe it’s pretty thoughtless to take pictures in an economically depressed area without taking the time to get to know and become familiar to residents. I didn’t have that kind of time, and could tell that the combination of the car and a stranger (me) with a camera was making people I encountered uncomfortable. So I thought it best to move on.

Braga Bridge, 2010


  1. Lovely... I loath over head power and phone lines ruining a good scene, but the "Triple Decker" photo has them cris-crossing and looking so artistic that they practically make the shot...

  2. You would like the movie THE TOWN Chris
    Very hard-scabble..

  3. Mom's originally from southeast Mass. which was still thriving when she left home to join the Navy in 1944. She took a trip with her sister a few years back to visit and came away disappointed. It was her first time back home in over 40 years and the changes she saw were not pleasant. They say you can't go home and, returning to VB twice a year gives me a small sense of that but I wonder what a 40 year absence would be like.

  4. Some nice images here. There's a really cool old diner in FW, Al Mac's Diner, that exudes the '50's. It's an interesting town and you describe it well. For me, it's the gateway to the wonderful peninsula that holds Tiverton and Little Compton.

  5. These photos really set a mood. Wonderful!