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Why West Warwick?

May 24, 2010

WE are focusing this week on the town of West Warwick as part of our latest One Square Mile series.   All week on Morning Edition, we are featuring stories by our award-winning reporters on the town’s history, economy, politics and culture. So why West Warwick? It is a fair question, which I will address in a moment. But first, a word about the idea behind One Square Mile (OSM): this is our effort to deliver intensive local reporting — to dig deep into one, small part of Rhode Island – as a way to better understand the whole state. Our first OSM series, which aired in the spring of 2009, focused on Central Falls, which we picked because of its large immigrant population, as well as the controversy surrounding the Wyatt Detention Center, which gave the town a certain notoriety, including front page coverage by the New York Times. As it turned out, Central Falls is exactly one square mile, and so the concept was born. Since then, we have produced an OSM series on Newport (last fall), and now, it’s West Warwick.
So why West Warwick? We felt that by shining a spot light on this former mill town we might be able to better understand something about the economic struggles facing many towns and cities across this state – and indeed, across the entire country. In many ways, West Warwick is unexceptional; it’s a small, Rhode Island town (population: 32,000), struggling in a bad economy, having a difficult time with its transition to a new economy. Most of the mills are gone, lured away long ago by cheaper labor elsewhere. The town’s main street in the village of Arctic was once a bustling hive of commercial activity, but thanks to the construction of the malls along Rt. 2, it is struggling. Luke Peterson, assistant to West Warwick’s town manager, describes the impact of the malls on the downtown “as a great sucking sound [that] pulled all the businesses away.” Economic challenges, including the need to revitalize a downtown, attract new business, and counter the effects of urban planning and suburbanization that gutted so many American cities in the middle of the last century, are themes that many cities and towns are struggling with to various degrees. “West Warwick is a bellweather for Rhode Island and the whole country,” says Peterson. “We’re basically a rust-belt city, but on a small town scale. And if we are successful with what we do here, you will be able to see if it can be successful in Providence, Detroit and Flint, Michigan.”
So we began with this basic and important economic story, and then we discovered some of what is unique and interesting about West Warwick. Despite the decline of the mill industry, the town is still home to Riverpoint Lace, the country’s oldest, continually operating mill. We also got to know interesting people of some renown, including former House Speaker William Murphy, who knows the town like the inside of his pocket – and who took WRNI’s Scott Mackay on a three-hour tour to prove it; and author Ann Hood, who grew up in the town’s Italian neighborhood, and spoke movingly about it to Morning Edition host Bob Seay. (Scott’s interview with William Murphy will air Wednesday; Bob’s interview with Ann Hood will air Thursday. )
And finally, the kind people of West Warwick were good enough to give a carpet-bagging news director a real Rhode Island fast food lesson. During one of my visits to the town, I stopped into to Mike Ferrucci’s New York System for a quick bite. I eyed the piles of deliciousness on the grill, and ordered a hot dog. “A what?” the woman behind the counter demanded. “A hot dog,” I said. “With ketchup and mustard, please.” A man standing ahead of me turned around and asked, “You’re not from Rhode Island, are you?”  It was a humbling experience.    I never imagined that ordering a hot dog would mark me as an alien, but it did.   On the other hand, I was taught the difference between a hot dog and a weiner (you don’t want to know, but it has something to do with the red dye), and so I am more worldly now. I was also asked if I wanted my weiner “all the way,” which sounded indecent and made me blush, but it turned out to be delicious.
Stay tuned, and thanks for listening.
Anthony Brooks
News Director

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 24, 2010 6:14 pm

    I grew up in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, and always said “hot dog.” No one I went to school with would have requested a weiner, so maybe that’s endemic to West Warwick! 🙂
    Nice post.

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