Places to Avoid in New England

There's still some summer left and folks from hot climes think about cooling off in New England. Leaving aside the fact that New England humidity is often a rude surprise, the region has lots of charming places to visit: Vermont, Acadia National Park, Newport, Cape Cod, the White Mountains, the Berkshires, the Maine coast from York to Bethel... Those wanting an urban experience will find Boston a cultural and historical gem (and foodie paradise), Providence full of pleasant surprises, and Portland , ME and Burlington, VT the kind of places that spark the question, "Why wasn't I told about this place?"

Lawrence: New England's worst. But it has competition
The key to a good trip is knowing also where not to go. In truth, there simply aren't that many "nice" American cities and New England has the dishonor of sporting some real cesspools. Connecticut, for instance, has some of the poorest cities in the country, even though its per capita income is among the highest. As a public service, here are places you should avoid at all cost:

1. Lawrence, MA: If you wanted to update Dante's Inferno, Lawrence would be the ticket. It's a played out mill town that's become a dumping ground for social problems. Too poor to live in an urban ghetto? Try Lawrence. Last or near the bottom in every negative category imaginable.

2. Bangor, ME: Motorcycle gangs, fast food, and desperate people spending what they don't have in a faux-glitz casino. Bangor, once a lumber town, has always been rough, but the modern city exudes bad vibes.

3. New Haven, CT: Yale is there and it has amazing museums, but do not get lost here. Think gangbangers and crime ranging from petty (breaking into cars) to murder. For the record, New Haven pizza is America's most overrated.

4. Springfield, MA: On a warm day the stench of the Connecticut River's Bondi's Island waste treatment facility will force you to close the car windows. And that's one of the city's better features. The gateway to the postindustrial nightmare of Holyoke, Springfield has very little to recommend it, except the Basketball Hall of Fame. Luckily, that's just off the interstate, though you can see/smell Bondi's from there.

5. Central Falls/Pawtucket, RI: No jobs, decaying factories, dead downtowns... Central Falls was recently voted the worst town in America. That's not true, but not even Rhode Islanders find charm within the joined towns of Central Falls and Pawtucket. McCoy Stadium­, which opened in 1942, is one of minor league baseball's oldest venues. Not much else has been updated in Pawtucket either.

6. Lewiston, ME: A city that has become a dumping ground for refugees–especially Somalians–but this place was a pit long before they got there and they've actually made the town better. It's Holyoke with a colder climate.

7. St. Albans, VT: Here's a handle you don't want: the heroin capital of Vermont. The only other thing for which it's known is a Walmart frequented by bargain-hunting Quebecois. This saint should be desanctified.

8. Worcester, MA: The Detroit of Massachusetts–that is, a blue-collar tomb of crumbling red brick, rotting triple deckers, crime, and truly scary-looking street walkers. There are some nice parts to Worcester, but unless you know the city well and can negotiate traffic through its incomprehensible "squares" (which never have that shape), you'll never find them and neither will your GPS.

9. Brockton, MA & Bridgeport, CT: Even if these cities were not crime-ridden there would no reason to vist them. Does anything at all come to mind when you think of these places? I didn't think so.

10. Manchester, NH: Back in the day, Manchester was the world's largest industrial city. That day was the turn of the 20th century. Buildings of the former Amoskeag textile firm still line the riverbank, but Manchester is the poster child of New England deinstrialization. It has a nice minor league ballpark and enterprising city leaders. Some day it might turn around, but that day's not here yet.


Springfield's Losing Bet

Downtown Atlantic City. See any prosperity?
 Springfield, Massachusetts–a city as high on anyone's vacation agenda as, say, Detroit. Like Detroit it's a postindustrial hellhole–a dumping ground for recent immigrants and poor folks because of its vacant housing stock. It's been in decline since the machine tool industry collapsed in the 1960s. Ask Western Massachusetts locals to describe it and you'll get gang warfare, drugs, racial tension, substandard schools, and slums. It has its charms–the Basketball Hall of Fame, a decent art museum, a few colleges–but few rational people spend more time there than they must. If Springfield were a dog, it would have been put down.

It's hardly a surprise that Springfield lobbied long and hard to secure one of the three casino licenses approved by Massachusetts legislators. City officials such as Mayor Domenic Sarno speak boldly of casinos as economic engines to revitalize the city, though it's just public posturing. In truth, Springfield is grasping at straws. Casinos are the latest desperate grab, after an inner city mall and a new Basketball Hall of Fame failed to make a dent, and no minor league baseball team wanted to relocate there. I'm not sure anything can revitalize Springfield, but the only bet I'll ever make there is that casinos are not the answer. The city will try–assuming Bay State voters don't repeal the casino enabling law in November–but casinos are the worst idea yet for trying to deter Springfield from its an inexorable slide to become Botany Bay without the view.

First, casinos are going to cost a bundle: improved access to the site, water main upgrades, tax abatements, costly demolition projects, utilities of all sorts…. The city has no money; hence it will have to bleed schools and social services to get it. Expect the city's grim social statistics to get even worse in the short run. It will be sold as short-term leveraging to secure a glittery future. Sure–said the man down to his last thou as he doubled down for a last spin on the roulette wheel.

Casinos are destined to flop in Springfield for reasons that go beyond investment or the morality of gambling. They will flop because Springfield is Springfield. If you're a high-stakes gambler, do you have to go there to drop your cash? Why would you? Why wouldn't you jet off to Vegas, which at least has warm weather and other attractions? Or down to Florida where you can also catch some races and loll on the beach? If you want to stay close to home, why not venture down the Mass Pike to Boston, which will also have a casino? Springfield has all the lack of charm of Atlantic City, sans the ocean.

Speaking of Atlantic City, is nobody paying attention to what's happening there? Jersey casinos are folding faster than a man holding a pairless poker hand. Observers taking off their rose-colored glasses might notice that nearly four decades of legalized Atlantic City gambling made no dent in alleviating the city's squalor. Most gamblers don't even leave the hotel lobby for the Boardwalk, let alone frequent downtown merchants. Several casinos have express bus routes that literally go under parts of the city, lest gamblers be forced to gaze upon the city's urban wreckage. If Atlantic City, with its access to Philadelphia and New York City can't turn the corner through casinos, explain how Springfield can.

It's certainly not that gambling would be unique. The casino bus left the station a long time ago. Thirty-five states now have casinos, a list that includes neighboring Connecticut and New York. I'm at a loss (wordplay intended) to understand why someone from Hartford (27 miles to the south) would come to Springfield instead of driving another 10 miles to Foxwoods, an established casino in a considerably more pleasant location. Or why an Albany poker player wouldn't head for the sylvan delights of Saratoga. Who's going to fuel the gambling jet in Springfield? Locals? In a city whose median income is six grand below the state average?

I could go on, but my money's on the following: a casino opens, costs Springfield a bundle, exacerbates already bad social statistics, struggles, and in 5-6 years folds it tent. Springfield has it backward. You need to make people want to come by cleaning up Dodge City, not adding to gun play. Want to know what casinos will mean to the city? Take a trip to Detroit. Not comparable you say? Try Bangor, Maine. It has a casino and if it gets more grim than Bangor, I don't want to know about it.


Rod MacDonald: Protest with a Wink, a Smile (and some anger)

Later That Night
Blue Flute Music 107

Every few years the mainstream media drives a lame stallion out of the stable to see if he'll gallop. All of a sudden there will be a spate of articles on the disappearance of protest music and every explanation except the right ones will be trotted out to tell us why there is no Dylan, Ochs, or Seeger in our midst. I think it was Holly Near who incredulously responded to a journalist's question of where all the idealists have gone by remarking, "You must be hanging around with the wrong people." Anyone who doubts Near's wisdom should check out Ron Olesko's excellent piece on David Rovics in SingOut! 55:4 (Spring 2014). Or maybe listen to Holly's music instead of asking her stupid questions.

There are some big differences between now and protest music's heyday in the 1960s. Unwilling draftees don't staff American wars for one; the civil rights movement battles for justice more in courts than on the streets for two. Plus, as folks like the late Utah Phillips observed, liberal uses of humor and irony go down better with post-Baby Boomers. And let's not forget that performers draw upon personal as well as public events for creative inspiration and that they need to make a living. Need I remind you that one of folk music's greatest gifts is capturing the universal human condition, not just the evening news.

A young musician looking to strike a balance between righteous anger, bemused irony, and just plain old good songwriting should check out folk vet Rod MacDonald. Later That Night is Rod's fourteenth album and it finds him in well-tuned wit, voice, and melody. He takes down religion's nasty social uses on "Hole in the Bible" and gives the same treatment to the G.O.P. on his hysterical calypso/reggae/folk mash-up "Young Republicans in Love." If you wonder if humor can change things, check out MacDonald's six-minute narrative ballad, "White Flour," which recounts the 2007 tale of how clowns took down the Ku Klux Klan in Knoxville, Tennessee. MacDonald is no shrinking violet. Although it's quite different musically from Cheryl Wheeler's rap "If It Were Up to Me," MacDonald's "Joe Public" similarly refuses to excuse working-class louts who cite all manner of excuse and imagined enemies to explain why they act and vote against their own interests. That's not to say that he's unsympathetic. Every union hall in American ought to be playing his "Last American Worker," the best pro-worker song I've heard in over a decade. MacDonald names the real enemies, including banks, Wall Street, global capitalism, the health care industry, and greedy shareholders. His refrain, "He's the last American worker/And they've got him dead in their sights/They've taken away everything that he worked for/Somebody turn out the lights."  

But if you think everything is angst and gloom, it's not. "That's Why You Play the Game" is a series of vignettes of those who were declared down for the count and got up for a few more rounds–"That's why you play the game/Because you never ever know/What you can't do till you do your best/Till you put yourself to the test/And win or lose or show/You stood tall just the same/My little darling/That's why we play the game." Optimism also shines through on songs like "Raven," with its catchy guitar lick in the vein of "Here Comes the Sun," and the bluegrass-influenced "To My Dearest One." Even more impressively, MacDonald makes us hopeful when he takes on a tough subject such as mental illness ("We're All One").  

Sometimes MacDonald gets out of synch. "Big Time Record Contract" is an anachronism in the age of downloads that pay musicians a fraction of a penny; and "Don't Come Knocking" has a fun soul/blues groove, but the subject matter is a tired old sex joke. But call these two the defects in an otherwise sparkling gem. And the next time someone asks you where good protest music has gone, make that person listen to this CD.
Rob Weir