When Hurricane Irene touched down in Central Falls, RI, last summer, it snapped sunflower stalks and made sand whirls of street silt. An OPEN sign glared out of the Columbia Market, with its owner, Geovamny Hernandez, braced inside the canary-yellow mini-mart. During the tempest, he manned his meat slicer beside two-for-one honeybuns next to papaya-filled pastries, until water entered the windows and forced him to close.
When Irene flooded the bodega’s shabby basement, Geovamny, a 23-year-old career merchant, lost $4,000 in revenue. After three days of lost power, he poured 50 gallons of spoiled milk down the drain, squandered all his perishable inventory, and paid $1,200 to fix two adjacent waist-high coolers that were blownout in the storm. For Geovamny, the scene showcased two all-too familiar aspects of life in Central Falls: as a small business owner, the state of economic fragility; and as a resident, a sense of government ineptitude.
“They didn’t do anything. They only collect the trees, los arboles, nothing else,” he said, complaining that city workers and National Grid neglected his electrical woes, and exacerbated losses. Irene’s blackout resulted in a bonus week of summer vacation for Central Falls students, but the tepid response to fixing damage was no surprise for Geovamny: “It takes four of them to fix one pothole.”
Average household income in Central Falls is half the national average ($28,000 for a family of four), with one in three falling below the poverty level, and the unemployment rate stagnates in double-digits. Since 2010, city finances have been under the control of a state-appointed receiver, the elected mayor has held a meager “advisory status,” and most city services have been outsourced or closed.
Central Falls’s library required a $10,000 bailout by the Alec Baldwin Foundation just to stay open five days a week with limited hours. These hard-pressed times are felt arcoss this small town’s spectrum, including at the Columbia Market, where Geovamny says it best: “There are too many people in too close an area.”
Central Falls is the most crowded city in the country, a pint-sized 1.3 square miles housing 19,000 people (over sixty percent of whom are Hispanic).As of August 1, it is also bankrupt. Geovamn’y bodega is a microcosm of Central Falls itself—multi-ethnic, perplexingly dense, and trying to stay afloat in a post-recession Rhode Island economy, that is corrosively recovering.
Central Falls was established in 1731 and achieved the colloquial name of “Chocolateville,” after the 200-square-foot fudge factory built by the Jencks family. When the Jencks family ceased production around 1806, the colonial town lost its sweet-tooth title, shifting to a blue-collar existence as a bumbling mill town. After chocolate, Central Falls turned to textiles in the 19th century, followed by glass and hammers in the 20th.
But economic strife has been Central Falls’s calling card recently. Within its bite-sized geography lies outsized economic erosion. The schools, which have been paid for and controlled by state officials since 1991, are still losing 5.6 million a year, despite a declining number of students. In addition, the city is facing annual budget shortfalls of $5-6 million, despite trimming its staff 40 percent this year. “The ability to pay here is maxed out,” Receiver Robert Flanders, the man appointed by Governor Chafee to steer the city out of danger, announced after the bankruptcy filing.
The most recent source of paralysis has been Central Fall’s pension re-negotiations, which threaten to collapse thiepost-industrial city. An $80 million deficit in its pension fund, which covers just 143 retirees is the most acute pension crisis in the country. Not only were cutbacks considered for current police and firefighters, but already retired public workers were asked to give back up to 50 percent of their benefit checks.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Flanders and Chafee declared “a new beginning for the city,” celebrating a tentative agreement reached on a collective bargaining deal with seven-figure concessions. But whether this revised contract and recent austerity can sustain the city remains to be seen. Until further details of the plan are released in winter, it’s dubious to assume it’s not still endangered. One scenario, that remains on the table is to merge Central Falls with its neighbors, Pawtucket and Lincoln, effectively melting Chocolateville out of existence.
Players of the bankruptcy proceedings are like names on a playbill for much of Central Falls, interacting in exclusivity away from daily life. At the Columbia Market, their conflict plays out in the newspapers bought and sold, but scarcely read about the bodega. “I am certain that whatever the coming steps in this process may be,” Chafee was printed as saying, “be it a merger, shared services or any other options that are on the table, the unique spirit of Central Falls will endure.”
What’s enduring inside the bodega are glistening pecan pound cakes and other products that seem like permanent fixtures on its walls: canned meats and pickled produce; oddities without expiration dates, like Pennsylvania Dutch Egg Noodles and aluminum boxes of “Pulpo en Aceite de Oliva” (Octopus in Olive Oil).
The Columbia Market is housed at a mid-point between the city’s two main thoroughfares. Depressed multi-family units surround it, but so do pristine suburban-looking houses with neatly trimmed bushes, gated fences, and Red Sox banners hanging above the porch way. Central Falls is not entirely drowning nor is it recovering, but simply surviving, like the business pulse of the bodega.
Geovamny repeats a mantra of time-old industriousness—“chopping, chopping, chopping”—to keep him going throughout the workday. Profits are slow-rolling and a $100 surplus accounts for a solid day. This incremental pace of supply-and-demand, netting him $1 on average per customer, fetches Geovamny a lower-middle-class income. It has allowed him to invest in some real estate in his native Dominican Republic, and he fares better than many customers, who pay with food stamps or purchase on store credit. “They pay cash on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays,” Geovamny says: the typical days for temporary workers to receive their pay.
Overhead costs are low at the bodega, so revenue relies on sheer volume and staying open as long as possible. Geovamny keeps the biorhythms of a farmer: up at six-o’clock, opening by seven, and closing by 10. He doesn’t wear a watch and doesn’t own an alarm clock. On Sundays, he skips sermons and bypasses mass, unlike most immigrants from the DR, which is predominately Catholic.
“I’m not un-Christiano” he says, while combing through a golden-paged Bible, which he briefly consults each Sunday. “I just don’t have the time.”
Corner store characters
The bodega is more than a bunker of un-bought provisions. Similar to a bus stop, it sees a cross-section of city traffic throughout the day, oscillating between English and Spanish chatter.
Across the street lies the Calcutt Middle School, so adolescent jargon occupies the mornings, when teenagers call out for “Crybabies” (generic gobstoppers) or Dutches (unsuccessfully acquired), en route to homeroom. “They turn into little monsters,” says Maria, Geovamny’s longtime girlfriend who works behind the counter. Geovamny disdains the public schools here, after a short-lived stay at Central Falls High school when he immigrated seven years ago. Complications with his accreditation from school in the D.R. made him drop out, and begin working at a local supermarket. “Now look at me, I’m driving a Toyota Camry,” Geovamny says.
In the afternoons, Maria does the charming chore of reserving the regulars’ orders: cigarettes and diet coke for the short man across the street (always 50 cents short), a newspaper and menthols for the painter in splotched overalls. And then, there’s Nelson.
“Hey, Mami,” he shouts, entering the store, sporting a Puerto Rican basketball jersey, sent by his girlfriend to fetch ham, cheese, and Wonderbread.
“Sometimes I have to kick his ass out,” Maria says. Nelson is unemployed, so he stumbles in at least three times a day to gossip and gripe about an ailing economy all in staccato Spanish. He collects medical insurance, and bears a limp. Maria doesn’t know the nature of his injury.
“He’s like a comedy strip,” she insists, “just one of the regular nuts.”
For the Columbia Market, the ongoing bankruptcy feels like an ambiguous saga on an alternative stage. “We’re the smallest city in the smallest state. Nobody wants to take over Central Falls,” is Maria’s smug reaction.
While the city edges toward extinction, Geovamny toils away like a layman steward. His business prospects boil down to an overwhelming riddle that encompasses his entire enterprise: how do you persist in a city without a government, with customers short of cash, or paying for Miracle Whip with WIC coupons—all the while knowing that the city may cease to exist in a year?
MALCOLM BURNLEY B ’12 is posted up at the corner store