CENTRAL FALLS — Celebrating Central Falls’ birthday is as easy as 1-2-3. Getting there was the hard part.
“Founders Day,” commemorating the city’s 123rd birthday, was celebrated at City Hall on Saturday morning. While many have bestowed Central Falls as “the Comeback City” for its ability to emerge from bankruptcy and a corruption scandal and while the future does look bright for the square-mile city, it was necessary on Saturday to take a look back at where Central Falls has come from before peering down the road where it’s going.
Mayor James A. Diossa said the city had its share of hard times, but perhaps none were more challenging than the fraud and corruption scandals in 2010 and the bankruptcy of 2011. He said “that was the hardest,” describing those two instances as “two black eyes” on Central Falls.
“That really hurt us. But now, the average resident might say the city has gotten better and cleaner,” Diossa said.
At one point in the early 1900s, Central Falls was one of the wealthiest cities per capita in the country, and Diossa said “we were an economic engine for the state.” But after some lean years financially, the mayor says that what the city may lack in that level of financial wealth, it more than makes up for in a richness of cultural diversity.
“That’s what makes Central Falls important and stand out … I have a lot to appreciate in the city,” the mayor said.
Centuries before the city went through the throes of bankruptcy, Central Falls faced its share of trials and tribulations. When the uncultivated “North Woods of Providence” became sparsely populated in the 1730s, they were divided into different towns and what is now Central Falls was originally a piece of the 73-square-mile Smithfield in the 18th century.
In the 19th century, as today’s Central Falls became a major player in the cotton yarn, webbing, woolens, and horse cloth industries, it broke away from Smithfield and became a part of Lincoln.
“As areas become more populated, they need more government structure. At this point, the area is growing incredibly quickly,” said C. Morgan Grefe, executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
The mills expanded with bridges crossing through the air and over the streets as employees went to and from work. “This was an exceptionally busy place,” Grefe, a Central Falls native, said. “When Central Falls is beginning, Central Street (not Broad or Dexter streets) is the main thoroughfare of Central Falls.”
But in the 1880s, the largely agrarian Lincoln felt there were too many public safety resources dedicated to this single urban square mile, and after a voter referendum, Central Falls became its own city in 1895.
Central Falls in the early 1900s was one of the wealthiest cities per capita in the country. It was a hub of manufacturing, Grefe said, and people were moving from all over the world to live and work here “because this is where the jobs were.”
As the United States became a nation of immigrants, so too did Central Falls become an immigrant city. By the 1920s, it was the most densely populated city in the country, bustling with a melting pot of Irish, Polish, Portuguese, and Syrian immigrants.
“Everyone was welcome and every good idea was given an opportunity,” Grefe said. “This city has an extraordinary past as well as an extraordinary future … It is a city that is being reborn and remade in front of us.”
Diossa said the city’s evolution continues in the emphasis on creating more green space, transforming blighted properties or vacant lots into public spaces for recreation. He cited Veterans Park, a new fitness park, and the Neighborhood Health Station that is under construction on Broad Street.
But Diossa was also excited about another piece of Central Falls’ future: a new Rhode Island College building on Dexter Street that will focus on urban education and development.
“I didn’t think something of that magnitude could be achieved,” Diossa said. “We’ll not only see classrooms with students and professors, but workforce development, innovation happening right on the streets of Central Falls.”
Ward 5 City Councilor and former Mayor Thomas Lazieh recalled during his tenure as mayor when the city celebrated its 100th birthday with a parade, fireworks, and community festival. While Saturday’s celebration was a much more muted affair, with cake and a PowerPoint presentation, the message remained the same.
And before dining on a slice of chocolate birthday cake, Diossa remarked about the need to ensure the history of Central Falls is never forgotten.
“As we continue paving a path forward, we don’t forget those who helped build our city,” the mayor said.
Follow the Author, Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette
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