I've been on vacation in Massachusetts this week, mostly helping around my mother's house with an occasional side trip. I wish I'd brought my cord that connects the camera to my computer because I took some nice pictures of the Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston yesterday. The trip over went through a combination of old colonial towns -- Lancaster, for example -- with fine old architecture and tree-lined streets, then through some of the old mill towns of New England.
It was a study in contrasts and a lesson in opportunities. Leominster, the birthplace of the plastics industry in this country, is doing quite well. Its downtown, even, is bustling. Fitchburg, my hometown, is not. I haven't even bothered to take a look at the downtown because I know what I'll find.
My city was a hell of a city in its day. Many of the factories -- the old Simonds Saw and Steel, for example -- sprung up to build the tools necessary to help the railroads push west through the granite mountains of the Berkshires and beyond. The paper mills along the Nashua River operated 24/7, providing jobs to the immigrants who moved here -- the Finns, the Italians, the French Canadians, the Greeks -- when I was a kid. They polluted the river, fouled the air, and built a country.
We went to school just down the street. The city had fine old neighborhood schools, then. There were more than a half-dozen fire stations, all built on a granite bedrock. The color of my city was brick red -- mile after mile of brick factories followed the river from west to east as it made its way to the Merrimack River, and then on to the Atlantic Ocean.
We had enclaves -- Greek Town, and Cleghorn for the French Canadians, for example -- and yet we never thought twice as kids about the other kids we went to school with, from other cultures. If there was a poster child for "melting pot," Fitchburg was it... helped along in part by the owner of one of the paper mills -- George Wallace was his name -- who actually lived in the city, gave a rip about it, and paid for a library, a civic center (The Boston Bruins practiced there. It's where I met Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson.), even a planetarium. He's gone, now, and most of his philanthropic legacy is dying.
The city is down to about 39,000 people now. There are a few little factories still running, but not many. The city has a new mayor, Lisa Wong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She's quite a success story overseeing a city that is decidedly not. She's got a city council that's made up of some of the people I grew up with -- the kids that sat at the back of the class and threw spitballs. Now they throw them at her. These are the types of people who rail against "elitism," because -- they figure -- there's no nobility in intelligence.
The mayor has got herself a $5 million deficit and every day I've been here, the local paper (which used to be a fine publication but now is poorly written and has fallen into the hyper-local trap) has another front-page story to document the decline. Yesterday the library announced it will now open only three days a week -- all in the middle of the week.
The library, of course, was the place where we all went to write our term papers, but it also served as the meeting place for kids too shy to ask girls out on dates. The library was a "safe" zone where you could have a date without calling it one.
On Tuesday, the story was that the fire department would remove at least one truck from service and lay off more firefighters. The Senior Center is going to cut hours and staff and close an additional day. My mother is concerned that the city is going to add a trash fee. Meals on Wheels is cutting its service.
The thing is: this is still a hell of a city. People -- some people -- still look out for each other. It's still a place that still has -- by accident, perhaps -- something that my suburb in Minnesota hasn't gotten, despite years of trying everything to get it: a sense of community.
My mother, who's 85, needs someone to mow her lawn this summer. She mentioned it to the check-out lady at the grocery store yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, the phone rang. It was the "check-out lady" with a recommendation for a college kid who might like to have the job.
If that doesn't work out, the mailman -- who still brings the mail to the door -- might be able to help. He helped find the last person to have the job (who has now moved out of the city). He knows someone who knows someone because he's from a family who's been here for years.
I stopped to talk to the guy next door the other day. We'd never met before but he's the brother of a guy with whom I went to high school. He was on the basketball team. I was the sportswriter for the high school newspaper. My first big "scoop" in the business was the report that the basketball coach had ordered him to cut his hair. Hey, this was 1971; being ordered to cut your hair was a big deal. The neighbor roared with laughter when I told him that story; it's still a big deal in his mother's house, he said. She's still mad at the coach, apparently. Fitchburg knows how to keep a grudge.
As I chatted with the neighbor, cars driving by honked and their driver waved. The neighbor waved back. It's still that kind of city.
As we were driving over to the botanical gardens yesterday, we drove over a bridge that was being repaired in a nearby city that also is crumbling. "We're building a bridge in Afghanistan," my mother said. "We've got a lot of stuff we need doing right here." She's right. There's a war going on in the hometowns of America and the hometowns of America are losing, and nowhere near enough people seem interested.
Someone should give a damn about Fitchburg. Someone should care that its kids don't have a library, that the public transportation system -- once a vibrant street railway -- is gone, that the senior center is cutting hours, that the fire department -- the very definition of a basic service -- is being gutted, that teachers are being laid off in the few schools that are left, that roads are crumbling, that the newspaper stinks (a fascinating online paper exists, however), that the radio station (we used to have two) is just a satellite service, that Meals on Wheels won't be checking on the old folks as often.
Back when I did a talk show on the old WFGL, the mayor in town commented, "I don't know what Collins' problem is with me." He never figured it out. He, too, was a politician who twiddled while his city died, aided and abetted by a city council too ignorant or stubborn to go down any road but the one it was already on.