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When I tell people where I live, there is almost always a pregnant pause and a deceptively straightforward question: "Central Falls?" (H.C. Williams/flickr)

It was 11 p.m. on the kind of steamy July evening when — even on a work night, even inside a climate-controlled apartment — summertime exhilaration overpowers, and an aimless drive must be taken. So I headed to CVS with no real purpose.

I was in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where I live with my husband. It is the poorest city in the state. When I fell in online-love with our converted mill apartment — full of 1830 brick factory character, cheaper than apartments in Providence — I was ensconced in a Manhattan office, and my husband was halfway to the ocean state for his surgical residency. I pictured Volvos, organic bakeries, and L.L. Bean totes.

“Central Falls: Small But Special” read the modest sign that welcomed us months later. The median income for a household in the city is $22,628. Our neighbors were to be a Storage America facility, a pet shop apparently open only late at night, and a ramshackle hotdog restaurant with no fewer than seven glowing “We’re Open!” signs — answering with desperate enthusiasm a question beside the point.

(yrpopqueen/flickr)

(yrpopqueen/flickr)

We signed on the dotted line — the original ceilings and slate counter tops were irresistible — and soon found out that though only one square-mile, the city is notorious for prostitution, drugs, and burglary. And for financial corruption and woe as well: Central Falls filed for receivership and then bankruptcy, and its mayor was ousted — events covered by the national media as harbingers of widespread economic disaster.

People who know the city simply could not put it, and us, together. When my husband told his attending physician where we had landed, he said, “That’s where our patients live, our free clinic patients.”

Over the three years we’ve lived there, whenever we have to give our address — at the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, the bank — there is almost always a pregnant pause and a deceptively straightforward question: “Central Falls?”

I assuage the discomfort: “We’re renting in a converted mill,” I say. “On the outskirts of town.”

When I applied for a card at the Providence Public Library, the librarian accepted my form with a smile — but it vanished quickly. “You didn’t tell me you were from Central Falls,” she said in a disappointed tone — a confession I should have made upon arrival, apparently. “Are you really? I’m not sure we can give you a card. The town hasn’t been paying its dues.” She sighed. “We’ve had to turn away so many school kids.”

But before I could argue, she whispered a question, more statement than inquiry. “You must have a job?” I told her I worked at Brown University. “Just use your office address,” she instructed quickly. “We’ll put you down as a visiting professor.”

I left heavy with novels and guilt. Why should I be helped of all people, when I didn’t really need it? Why should I be considered separate from the town in which I lived? Why didn’t the stereotypes and barriers apply to me? What if I weren’t white, educated, employed? Would the librarian have asked the follow-up questions, looked for ways to get me around the system?

There are real and insidious problems in disadvantaged communities that extend well beyond classism and racism, and they need to be addressed on all levels — spiritual, familial, educational, societal, governmental.

But in the discussion about solutions, we must recognize that for some, there are no positive stereotypes at the ready … we must admit that many of us are continuously and inexorably aided by positive stereotypes…

But in the discussion about solutions, we must recognize that for some, there are no positive stereotypes at the ready. For some, there is nothing to replace the negative stereotypes that stick to them. And we must admit that many of us are continuously and inexorably aided by positive stereotypes, no matter what our situation or place. And we must ask ourselves: Where would we be without them?

When I arrived at CVS that night, the parking lot was empty. Post-workout, I was less-than-coiffed: my T-shirt was dirty, and my shorts were torn. I wandered aimlessly through the aisles, eventually deciding I was there for club soda. I noticed I was being followed by the cashier, a black man in his mid-thirties. “Can I help you?” he finally asked — sternly, I thought, self-conscious of my dress, the hour, and the area’s prostitution problem.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said in the sweetest voice I could conjure. “Silly me, I’ve just forgotten to get a few things for my husband,” I said, conscious of every word. “One of those crazy days at work. Sorry I’m wandering around so much.”

“I was just seeing if you needed help,” he said, smiling. “And to tell you to be safe out there tonight,” he called out, nodding toward a cop car, its blue-and-red lights flashing through the window. “Someone like you deserves to be safe.”

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  • Justin Chase

    Wicked great post: insightful and interesting. Nice job!

  • jana7

    having moved from Somerville, MA to North Adams, MA, I could relate to a lot of this, and although our teeny city has problems with poverty and teen pregnancy and drugs, it’s not in quite as bad shape. We now have a mayor who is embracing the arts in our community and we’ve seen some positive change. We love it here, and once folks visit, they totally understand why we moved here.

  • CambridgeKidsCalendr

    Turning away the Central Falls kids from the library is just so appalling and heart breaking.

    • http://www.lindamerrill.com/ Linda Merrill

      Agree. While there may be unpaid dues, it’s hard to fathom how the Providence Library system could turn away school children. Bureaucracy at its finest.

  • Shannon

    Great piece. I had similar experiences when I — an upper middle-class white woman — lived in Detroit for a year. Then, and now, I always wait to hear what assumptions people make before explaining, sort of as a social experiment. First, they usually assume I mean I lived near Detroit — in one of the more affluent suburbs. When I clarify that I lived in the southwest portion of the city, they’re usually bemused. When I finally explain that I was there to do a year of volunteer work, it finally seems to make sense.

    • Jake S

      Just be lucky you can live in the ghetto as “a social experiment”, most people don’t have that option. This is people’s lives were talking about, not research experiments.

  • Colleen Haggerty

    This town sounds great makes me want to check it out. I am always looking for small town America to check out.

    • midtempo

      Huh? Central Falls, small town America?

  • Ben

    This article makes me wonder if the educated, employed, wealthy segments of society have a duty, or responsibility in their choice of where they live? My guess is that the author, having learned something about her adopted home, is now living on the east side of Providence, along with her own people. The trend in the US is for the rich and privileged to get more rich and acquire more privilege and to segregate themselves from the rest.

  • Jake S

    Aw you’re a white person living in a poor neighborhood! You deserve a pat on the back! Except you don’t. This is just like a longer-lasting form of slum tourism.

    • steve lb

      if that’s what you get out of this article, you’re a fool.

      • Kate C

        I agree with Steve, Jake. You are missing the author’s point and her genuine discomfort with the privileges she enjoys that others don’t. Would you rather she had offered some pat solution or excuse? I admire the writer’s honesty and the way the piece leaves the questions there to think about, rather than posing answers.

        • Jake S

          I’d rather she not bother writing this article. Many people live in poor areas, there really isn’t anything unique about her situation. I’ve read/heard a bunch of these “I lived in the ghetto when I didn’t need to” stories, and they are all the same. I’d love to hear the opposite: “I lived in a gated community when I’d spent my life in the ghetto”. That would be something different and interesting to read.

          • Rob B

            Perhaps you should not bother to read this article. It is not required to be a unique situation to evoke interest and discussion around fundamental issues within todays society. Yes, you are missing the point.

          • DrakeQ

            Rob B Jake S
            • 10 days ago

            Perhaps you should not bother to read this article. It is not required to be a unique situation to evoke interest and discussion around fundamental issues within todays society. Yes, you are missing the point.

    • DrakeQ

      It’s not a black town. I grew up in C Falls and have a few things to say about this post. First, you assume that she could easily live somewhere else. Medical residents don’t make a lot (I’m one too) and have almost 200K of debt on average from medical school–and residency pays about $8/hour for six years if you divide out the hours. Providence is expensive. Second, she doesn’t seem at all like she’s bragging or feels so proud of herself. Third, honestly, I am so happy people who actually work hard and pay taxes are moving to the town. I know the development she lives in (one of the few mills) and it’s also one of the few that pays taxes to the town. A lot of people in the town, including a lot of my friends, make money under the table and get around the system and don’t pay taxes. Others are genuinely poor. But almost no one pays taxes. You can look it up. The people who do pay taxes have to pay so much it’s almost insane. So you can insult it or call it whatever you want, but the truth is, it is a form of charity, even though I bet the author would be too nice to call it that and is too intellectual to call it that, but that is what it is. Would you live in a town where there’s tons of crime and theft and where you see people driving BMWs and having to pay tons of taxes? I bet not. Most people who “make it out” of C falls never look back. I honestly thank god not everyone is like that.

      • Jake S

        “Would you live in a town where there’s tons of crime and theft and where you see people driving BMWs and having to pay tons of taxes?” I do. In my neighborhood, the people with the BMWs are probably drug dealers. However, there are a lot of great, nice people who do not commit crimes. I’m not saying people who have money shouldn’t live in poor areas, I’m just saying they are not in a unique situation.

        • DrakeQ

          Aw, so now we see what you’re so worked up about. You basically wish you wrote this or had the brain to cause you’re in the same situation, except you’ve done absolutely nothing to add to the conversation and you’ve made not one interesting or noteworthy observation except sexist/white racist/assumptions about the writer. Yeah, a lot of people are in non-unique situations who write. The point of writing is that you take an interesting angle or draw it to light, which she did according to like 400 people/social media likes. See David Pilch’s post, his is the best and sums it up. Good luck with your posting under articles career. It’s clearly going well for you.

        • DrakeQ

          And while you’re at it, what are your observations? Some people are nice, some people arent? Super deep, man.

    • JakeStains

      What, like you, Jake Stains, except you’re a richy living in a rich town (Beverly, MA) much?

    • JakeStains

      Work on getting a job. Being rich and unemployed doesn’t count. http://www.linkedin.com/pub/jacob-stains/32/469/988

  • Jake S

    What I’m getting from this article and most of the comments is “Watch as the urban white man/woman enters the dark, mysterious, exotic world of the poor black man. Will she survive in this savage place?” Kinda sad.

    • Wrongbuddy

      Actually, incorrect. I live near central falls and it is mostly white. Clearly, you are racist and read poor to equal black. Oops!

      • Jake S

        You’re right, I shouldn’t have brought race into it, that was a mistake. Still, I stand by my point, but augment it to: “Watch as the urban white man/woman enters the dark, mysterious, exotic world of the poor person. Will she survive in this savage place?” Many news and radio outlets have covered stories like this, and it is getting pretty old. I think This American Life had a very similar story not too long ago. If people want to learn about life in poor areas, we should talk to the actual poor people who are stuck there, not the well-off people that live there for a life experiment or to be alternative.

        • acerplatanoides

          Jake, I am seeing your responses here and I am left to ask you what good the spin you are putting on other peoples words is doing for the poor folks of Central Falls?

        • DrakeQ

          How do you know she is well-off? I bet you she/her husband are not, not now, anyway. Do you know medical school puts people in 200K of debt on average? Not to mention medical residency, which lasts up to 8-9 years, pays very little? And Providence is expensive? And why do you assume she grew up not poor? She may very well have and have other debts. I am a medical resident and know too well what it’s like for people to assume because I’m a doctor that I am rich. It’s not true, not even when you are out of residency. BUT the great thing about this post is that it EXACTLY proves what I see as her point: no matter what the circumstance, when people see white/blonde/someone who presents themselves well, they assume rich. And they assume power. And they unfairly give them more rewards (or in your case, more crap/difficulty). it is fascinating. It is like she made her point through you–wow!

          • Jake S

            Did you read the article? She moved from a nice place in NY to the apartment not because it was cheap, but because it looked like a cool place to live. Nothing wrong with that. She was saying that she doesn’t “fit in” in the neighborhood and she felt bad about it. Read the article.

          • DrakeQ

            Did you read it? Where did she say she lives in a nice place in NY? Or did you just decide that because she is white/blond.

          • DrakeQ

            Also, actually, she used word “cheaper” than Providence.

        • DrakeQ

          Meanwhile it’s driving you crazy that the more you post, the more likes the piece gets, whereas your comments at most get 2 likes. Oops.

    • aakaks

      the “black man,” huh? must be pretty damn exotic for you to have never even gone there yourself. so i am going to go ahead and extrapolate that “Jake” is an over educated white guy wracked with the guilt over the privilege he assumes is afforded to him by his pigment count. maybe you should check out royal fried chicken at lunch time and then come back and more accurately feign your righteous indignation.

      • Jake S

        I went to college, and I am white, so I might be an “overeducated white guy”. However, like the author of this story, I also lived in a poor neighborhood for a while. Unlike the author, I didn’t feel I was participating in some Margaret Mead-like anthropological experiment that had to be written about. It’s just where I live. Yes, the crime right is higher, yes someone was shot outside my apartment (although similar violence – including murder – takes place in my hometown in the suburbs), yes you see specialty stores such as latin grocers that you wouldn’t see in other parts of town. But is it really all that much different from living where – as the author would say – you would “expect” I would live? Not really. There are nice people, just like in the suburbs. There’s a sense of community pride, just like in the suburbs (maybe even more so). There are families, there are school kids, and there are good restaurants…just like in the suburbs. There’s also crime and some bad apples, just like there is in the suburbs.

        • DrakeQ

          Dude, admit it, you’re clearly from your posts not capable of writing like this. Sorry. Stop trying to start your writing career based off posts. It’s getting really sad. I see that you have like hundreds on this site alone. Clearly very well-employed.

  • lukas Zokni

    Watch out everyone this lady is out on safari in the “urban jungle” she may bag herself an EGO. She sounds like a scientist conducting a field study for a NOVA documentary,” Look at the poor sods as they can’t even get a library, but hey, I still can because I work at brown and that makes me better than the rest of them”

    Please Lady take your overachieving husband and go back to Newton, MA (or the whatever the equivalent of Newton is in RI) What was the purpose of your article? Guess what absolutely NOTHING!!!!.

    • Hannahg

      Talk about ego! What is the point of this post? The author clearly feels guilty and like she should help, not entitled (unlike you clearly do).

      • Jake S

        How is she helping? Moving into the ghetto when you don’t have to live in the ghetto isn’t helping anything.

        • Hannahg

          How do you know she doesn’t need to? Do you know what residents make? Next to nothing. Do you know what average med school debt is? About 250K.

          • Jake S

            The article made it pretty clear that she didn’t move there because of expenses.

          • DrakeQ

            Actually, you’re deeaaad wrong. The only thing she says about it either way is that the apartment was “cheaper than Providence.” And Providence really isn’t very expensive.

        • Holly B. Anderson

          Aside from the assumption she doesn’t need affordable housing, which is not shown to be true, your statement is also wrong. Moving in means more money to the community (in the form of whatever spending she and her husband do as well as whatever taxes they pay) and citizens who can be looked to as another example of what hard work looks like (which for some people is missing from their lives). And those are only two benefits I could think of in about 2 seconds after reading your post.

          • Jake S

            I’m not criticizing her living there at all, I also live in a poorer neighborhood. My complaint is with the smugness of the article.

    • Raymoone

      Also, this poster is sexist. She is clearly accomplished and all Lukas wants to talk about is her husband’s job.

      • lukas Zokni

        I did refer to the fact that she works at Brown (I am pretty sure she wsa an overachiever as well) so my point was that she and her husband are clearly a well to do power couple.. I never stated that she was “unacomplished’ or a “hitch to her husbands job” .
        The reality is that she can move out anytime, whereas her neighbors cannot exercise that option, which brings me to the pointlessness of her article.

        • Hannahg

          That she can move on is a big assumption, a, and b, doesn’t at all make it pointless; it’s the very point of the piece (otherness), from what I read.

    • DrakeQ

      Someone didn’t pass 8th grade comprehension. She didn’t say anywhere that she feels better than other, but instead at every turn that people treat her like she is better–perception is her point. Maybe she is–I grew up in C Falls and honestly, there are so many crooks it’s not even funny. But yes, people there are a product of their environment.

    • DrakeQ

      Also, I love that you use “overachieving” as a pejorative. This is exactly the attitude I see. You assume she grew up wealthy. Probably not, most doctors didn’t. She and her husband must have worked hard to get where they are. Now they live in a town they either need to because of finances or because they want to because they like it. Either way, they’re seen as better than that town by nearly everyone they talk to and meet. That I think is the point. And you helped her make it. You made so many assumptions about her just based on her looks, etc., for better or for worse.

    • lawabidingcitizen

      Close, she grew up in Concord, MA

  • lepurr

    I can understand the resentment some may have over what might seem like the observations of a “slum tourist”. But if educating people to the realities of poverty is the best way to gain change for the poorest in this country perhaps more people should take slum tours. I see no harm here. At least she took the time to notice, care and write about it, when she could have just packed up and left without a word. And shame on Providence library!

    • Jake S

      Maybe we should listen to the people that actually have to live in the slums rather than the slum tourists.

      • DrakeQ

        Do something about these poor people you supposedly care about rather than posting angry posts from your basement. I am curious as to what kind of life you’ve had to make you so angry/bitter/pointless as a human.

        • Jake S

          I’m not bitter, and I have also lived in a poorer neighborhood for a while. I participate in a lot of community work, cleaning parks, helping at schools, and donating food. I just don’t feel the need to write an article on NPR about how great it is that I chose to live here.

          • DrakeQ

            Haha, yeah right, man. You feel the need to brag about your volunteer work. All those lucky black/poor people who have you to volunteer! She didn’t brag about her community involvement like you did or ask for praise, she basically said why do I get special treatment and why do the rules not apply to me even though I live in a poor town? You clearly have a middle school reading level. Congrats, though, on finally being able to do what the author never did: brag about being the white savior in your poor town. Basically, you’re bitter that you’re this great volunteer who doesn’t get any praise or have anything venue but comment sections to write about it. Poor dude.

          • DrakeQ

            correction: any venue in which to brag about your volunteer work. If we give you praise for having nothing interesting to say and for being the white savior, will you stop posting?

  • Deirdre Murphy

    I live in Dorchester and am an educated, middle-class, middle-aged white woman. When I tell people I live in Dorchester I get a similar reaction that you have. Some people quickly qualify with “Oh, but I live in the (mostly white) Cedar Grove, Savin Hill etc, section. Or they avoid it altogether by just using Boston. SMH (shake my head)

  • joanna

    Reading the comments, I am struck more than anything by the hostile tone of a couple of the commenters. There are so many interesting points to take off on from this article, I wonder why, Jake, you especially, are so hostile to the writer’s experience, and am also curious about your own life choices and circumstances. The fact, also that you make the (false) assumption that the poor people in Central Falls are black is also rather telling about your own biases.

  • DrakeQ

    From the almost 200 likes, most I think get the article. But I think a few (or maybe one) don’t, and this is how I read it. I am African-American (actually a minority in C Falls) and grew up there. What I get from the author’s great piece is exactly what happens not just in this town but elsewhere, and it’s funny, ’cause the negative poster taps right into it but then misses the point. I am guessing that from what the author said she’s living there not just out of choice, but also because as we know medical residents (I’m also one) basically make nothing. Beyond that, who knows how she or her husband grew up–college debt, life debt, who knows? It’s funny that ironically some in this piece assume that she is wealthy and privileged just because she is white/blonde/speaks well/whatever–JUST like others did toward her (which she clearly feels conflicted about). Why? Should we give the seemingly well-educated, even the financially less well-off educated, get a pass even when looking like they’re up to no good late at night (like she said, in torn shorts, etc.)? In other words, she’s living in the town for 5-6 years (medical residency-length), is not probably well-off (or maybe would live in East Side of P), and is at times behaving like a criminal or seeming like a criminal but is at every turn being treated better than the average Central Falls resident. She is not proud of it, she seems to be questioning that. And I do too. At the same time, I think in some ways it makes sense. People like her don’t tend to commit crime, let’s face it.

    • DrakeQ

      Edit: People like her don’t tend to commit crimeS, let’s face it.

  • DavidPilch

    Clearly some people are reading their own issues and
    prejudices into the piece. At NO time does the author purport to speak in ANY
    way for the poor living in her town. She is not conducting an experiment or
    taking a slum tour (honestly whoever suggested that is frankly repulsive). She
    and her husband chose to live there (and maybe still do). She clearly supports Central
    Falls and is writing simply as an observant resident of the town for the rest
    of us who likely will never live there or similar place. She is treated special
    for no other reason than the way she looks, speaks, etc. while others who live
    blocks away receive the opposite treatment (and on the opposite end of the spectrum, also because of what she has accomplished and how she looks, alone, posters under this piece assume that she has never faced adversity, financial or otherwise)–it seems we have on concept of white: privileged. Of course this concept is not new
    but I applaud her for bringing a fresh avenue to a subject that desperately needs
    continued attention. The deep divisions of class and privilege that perpetuate
    one another do great harm to achieving equal access to education, social mobility
    and the basic pursuit of happiness. Let’s join in positive conversation and
    suggestions for solutions to these issues. Let’s stop the juvenile posts that
    don’t address real issues. What is the point of this piece? To take another and fresh look at one of the biggest issues in our country.

  • SnarkyEyeCanB

    Duuuhhhhh……………

  • derpderp125

    Serious tip for CF: if you are male, especially a white male with short hair, wear a slightly baggy pair of dress pants and a tucked in dress shirt – in other words, dress clothes that look slightly sloppy. Everyone will assume you are in law enforcement and will give you a wide berth – not even joking. People seriously cannot conceive of someone dressed in business casual being in the area.

  • RMantel

    I
    think it’s a great piece. The author’s point as I see it is this
    (though she’s asking questions more than anything): if you don’t fit the
    stereotype of your neighborhood, people will go away out of their way
    to confirm that you are in fact somehow different than it. And that is
    the author’s case is probably to a degree true. But this I think is her
    point: there are a lot of people in the town who also don’t fit the
    negative stereotypes, and THEY don’t have the positive stereotypes that
    she can so easily fall back on. Really great point.

  • RMantel

    I
    think it’s a great piece. The author’s point as I see it is this
    (though she’s asking questions more than anything): if you don’t fit the
    stereotype of your neighborhood, people will go away out of their way
    to confirm that you are in fact somehow different than it. And that is
    the author’s case is probably to a degree true. But this I think is her
    point: there are a lot of people in the town who also don’t fit the
    negative stereotypes, and THEY don’t have the positive stereotypes that
    she can so easily fall back on.

  • http://cognoscenti.wbur.org/ Frannie Carr

    Hi all — This area is meant to be a place for discussion and debate. While we encourage you to engage one another and our writers, please keep the tone of your comment(s) civil. Our general policy is to remove comments that contain swears, threats or abusive language. Here’s a link to more info about our community discussion guidelines. http://www.wbur.org/community/rules
    — Frannie, editor/producer of Cog

  • SMHinCF

    I am from Central Falls and currently teach in Central Falls. My parents are immigrants who worked in the very factory complex the author lives in until they were let go in 1988 when the company decided to move down south. The problem as I see it and why I find articles like this offensive is that I’ve worked with so many “liberal”, “granola” “ivy league” “hipster” or whatever you want to label people but they share common traits. In their quest to wipe away their privilege or “give back” or whatever it is they just seem to be missing a huge piece of understanding. For one you do not live in CF. Your address may be CF but you chose to live her and have the privileged of choice in the matter and to what elements you want to immerse yourself in. Two, you are writing what everyone in the “hood” already knows and has lived with their whole lives. It’s insulting that this is news or an epiphany. In fact I imagine a part of you even enjoys the experience of being sterotyped or else you wouldn’t have wanted to share it in such a way. Your aided by positive stereo types…no kidding. 3 Noone in the hood wants to live in the hood! So when people with options choose too it is insulting. It is like when I see all the “granola” or “hipster” stypes riding around on their bikes or taking the bus with a car in the driveway. Everyone in the hood is trying to get off their bikes and off the bus! It’s almost like flaunting your privilege but people are so ignorant to it that situations like the one the author is writing about is actually something to write about. I thankfully no longer live in CF and am proud to say that I made it out. It made me who I am and it will never leave me. But your damn sure I am not raising my kids there just like this author wouldn’t if they care about there children. There no shame is saying the truth. My parents came here so we could have a better life. They would be rolling in their grave in I said I still live there. And it’s that sort of stuff that some people just don’t understand. SMH….. #stopbeingaculturevulture

  • arusticat

    I would like to hear some feedback on the book “Nickeled and Dimed” – the author writes about her experiment living on minimum wage. I had the same reaction to the book that many of you have to this article – that it was patronizing and dishonest.

    But this writer doesn’t pretend – she talks about how she remains privileged – the library clerk who smooths her way for taking out books – the CVS worker who notes that she is the kind of person who deserves to be safe.

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