Fall River: Phoenix Rising?
The “P” word has long haunted Fall River. “People come to the city, see the Braga Bridge and waterfront, the historic buildings, and say, ‘Hey, this place looks like a mini-San Francisco—this place has so much potential!’” says Patrick Norton, executive director of Narrows Center for the Arts. “And we have been hearing this word ‘potential’ for, let’s see, I’m 59, so, for about 58 years. But I can say, because I grew up here and stayed, that I know Fall River is now moving forward, sort of in spite of itself. We’ve had five or six really bad mayors and, obviously, one guy last year went to jail.”
One cause for optimism is the new South Coast Rail station slated to open downtown later this year, enabling direct public transit from southeastern Massachusetts to Boston for the first time since the 1950s. Other major infrastructure changes are also under way—like the demolition of Route 79 that will open access to 15 re-developable acres along the appealing Taunton River waterfront. “This whole area’s going to explode,” says former city councilor and attorney Dave Dennis, who has been part of the planning effort. “In my opinion, that will be the new downtown, the new center of Fall River.”
Add to that a percolating arts-and-culture scene—more than 100 artists live or work in the city, with many more working in the region—coalescing around tourism-focused groups like Creative Arts Network (founded by Dennis) and newer organizations like Viva Fall River and the Fall River Arts and Culture Coalition (FRACC). For leaders of this once-thriving textile hub—a place otherwise known for the nineteenth-century Lizzie Borden ax-murders trial, more recent political scandals, and poverty—these promising changes are way overdue. “People in Fall River have been working hard,” says Norton, “and right now, a lot of what we’ve been talking about for about 30 years is finally happening.”
So, what does this city of 94,000 people, poised for a renaissance, offer? From monuments, naval vessels, and Portuguese-American culture to historic house museums and rehabbed mills, Fall River is a patchwork of un-obvious treasures—rewarding precisely because it hasn’t been dolled up for sightseers. “It’s the only city in America whose city hall straddles an interstate highway (I-95),” Viva Fall River’s executive director Patti Rego says. “I don’t know why they did that, but it’s ours, and ours alone. There’s a real authenticity here. Fall River is a good place to be pleasantly surprised.”
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