Scott MacKay Commentary: One Square Mile Johnston, All This Week

Jan 30, 2017

Monday we renew a tradition at Rhode Island Public Radio: our recurring series  "One Square Mile." It’s designed to take you deep inside one  Rhode Island community and bring you insights about the people and places of the Ocean State. 

This week, we’re focusing on the northern Rhode Island town of Johnston. Its long been considered a Democratic stronghold, but the majority of Johnston voters supported Republican Donald Trump for president. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst Scott MacKay examines some of the reasons why.

Johnston’s history is Rhode Island’s. It was settled before the Revolutionary War by English farmers. The town was named for a colonial attorney general named Augustus Johnston when it was incorporated  in 1759.

But Johnston himself didn’t last long in his namesake community. He was burned in effigy during the Stamp Act protests that led up to the young colony’s split from England. He sided with the British during the Revolutionary War, fleeing Rhode Island as a Tory.

As was the case in many communities in the northern part of our state, Johnston evolved in the 19th century into a factory town, where mills churned out textiles in the villages of Thornton, Pocasset, Graniteville, Manton, Morgan Mills, Belknap and Hughesdale. Then the factories moved south in search of cheaper, non-union  labor and locations closer to the raw material of cotton.

A few working farms and orchards anchor still the rural West End of town, but today’s Johnston, home to about 29,000 residents, is more bustling Providence bedroom community than one linked to the seasonal rhythms of farm life. Residents are likely to work in one of the growing number of office parks hosting financial services companies, such as F.M. Global. Town leaders boast of a growing economy and were pleased when Citizens Bank chose to consolidate its operations in the town.

Outsiders often view Johnston as the site of the state’s huge landfill, labeled Mount Trashmore. Residents and town officials have long had a precarious relationship with management of the landfill, which is run by a quasi-state agency known as the Resource Recovery Corporation. In summer months of yore, rancid, wind-driven odors from the state’s rotting garbage hovered over sections of the community, forcing motorists to roll up their windows and stay inside their homes. The landfill was the skink at many a lawn party and backyard barbeques, sparking angry town government protests and lawsuits.

Things have gotten better in recent years, as new landfill management and a focus on recycling has reduced odors, says Mayor Joe Polisena.

Johnston politics have long been a contact sport; deeply personal and limned by ethnic tribalism and ballot battles. As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, an article of faith was that holding the top ballot spot, which was determined by your surname’s first letter, led to victory. Politicians with names such as Rusillo and Russo changed their names to become aRusillo and aRusso in the belief that appearing first on the printed ballot would give them a better shot at ruling at town hall.

``We take our politics very seriously here,’’ says Polisena, who served 12 years as a state senator before his election as mayor. His career is typical of the personal nature of the town’s door-to-door and wakes and weddings political culture.  A veteran firefighter and emergency medical technician, Polisena was the fellow who sped grandma to the emergency room when she had a stroke or gave your brother cpr when he was in a car wreck. Polisena, a Democrat, said those connections garnered votes years later when he ran an insurgent campaign for state senate, knocking off incumbent Greg Acciardo.

State politicians always stop in Johnston as they plead for votes. The annual St. Rocco’s Church feast is known as a must-stop on the Rhode Island political circuit, as regular as stumping in New Hampshire is for presidential aspirants.

A point of pride in Johnston is its distinction as the most Italian-American community in the United States, according to the U.S. Census. This week, we’ll introduce you to some of Johnston’s ethnic culinary traditions, including a 92-year old woman who still makes meatballs the old way.

If you ask average Rhode Islanders to name a bold faced name who hails from Johnston, don’t be surprised if they answer Lou Lamoriello, the former Providence College hockey coach who is now general manager of the National Hockey League’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Or in a more colorful vein, Paul DelVecchio, better known as `Pauly  D’, the DJ and reality television personality from Jersey Shore.

We’ll also take you to town schools, where kindergartners are among the first in the state to get their own computers when they begin elementary school. We’ll  look at the landfill’s new recycling program, as well as a tour of one of the state’s oldest buildings, the 1691 Clements-Irons House.

In this most Roman Catholic of communities, we’ll profile King’s Tabernacle, a Pentecostal and mostly African-American church. And, of course, we’ll focus on politics. Johnston was once a Democratic redoubt; in 2012 voters supported Democrat Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But in 2016, Johnston broke with tradition and gave Republican Donald Trump, who once made overtures about building a casino in the community, a majority of the town’s presidential votes.

Johnston. All week on One Square Mile, here at Rhode Island Public Radio.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and commentary on our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org