Overburdened: Central Falls, RI

    As I develop this project and continue to visit more cities in bankruptcy to speak with the people who live there, I am touched by the sheer weight of burden and the levity in small moments of daily life used to get by.  Meals shared amongst neighbors, extended family day care (and night care for shift workers) where cousins take care of one another, religious halls with nightly events all help to make ends meet, and make life a little less heavy. 

    While in New England on assignment last month, I was able to spend a day in Central Falls, RI. A city of about 19,000 just north of Providence, it is both the smallest and most densely populated city in Rhode Island. It also has the distinction of being one of a couple dozen in the US to file for bankruptcy. 

    Central Falls’ economy began to decline in the 1970s with the departure of manufacturers, particularly in the textile sector where 11 plants closed between 1997 throught 2007.  Financial straits of the city government of Central Falls have worsened in the past decade as the state cut money to cities and towns and pensions and pensioner health insurance for city employees have accumulated to the extent that the city government has been in receivership since it declared insolvency in May 2010. On August 1, 2011 Central Falls filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 9, Title 11 of the United States Code. It made the filing as it grappled with an $80 million unfunded pension and retiree health benefit liability that is over five times its annual budget of $17 million. The state receiver has since cut the pensions of its retirees by up to 55%. 

    Adding to these difficulties, the Mayor was accused in 2010 of rampant fraud and corruption including no-bid contracts and kickbacks from a high school friend, who was granted almost $2,000,000 in overpriced property boarding fees. Crime has also steadily increased in step with city’s economic decline. It was crowned cocaine capital of New England by Rolling Stone magazine in 1986. 

    A recent US District Court ruling that the city’s school department is in fact not a part of the city should clear the way for the city to possibly come out of bankruptcy. Even so, the economic challenges to this small community aren’t likely to change anytime soon. 

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