West Warwick: an old mill town looks for a new way forward

West Warwick, R.I. – Ida Lancelotta probably knows West Warwick better than anyone alive. She was born here 100 years ago - in 1910 - and now lives at the Westview Health Center, an assisted living facility in town.

"I was happy at home," Lancelotta says. "I mean, they made it happy for you. My mother used to make macaroni. She sued to make everything home made, a garden. We had everything we wanted."

Like so many of West Warwick's early residents, Lancelotta's family came here to work in the mills, like Riverpointe Lace, which is still operating, and still produces lace for the clothing industry.

West Warwick is the youngest of Rhode Island's 39 municipalities. It was originally part of Warwick, but it split off in 1913. Back then, residents of the town's west side, many of them mill workers like the Lancelotta family, believed their interests weren't represented by the eastern part of Warwick.

"The eastern side of Warwick - and you can use Route 95 today as a dividing line - that was a very different area," says Scott Molloy, a professor of labor history at the University of Rhode Island. He says the east side of Warwick was agricultural with summer homes and very little industry.

"The western part of Warwick on the other hand - what today is West Warwick - was quite different," he says. "It was urbanized. It was industrialized. Cotton and wool were king there. The textile industry burgeoned up and down the Pawtuxet River."

From the town's earliest days, textile mills lined the Pawtuxet River. They were staffed with thousands of immigrants - unskilled people who could be taught in a day or two the monotonous tasks mill work required.

After World War I cheap European goods flooded the American market. To compete, Pawtuxet mill owners in West Warwick responded by lengthening workers hours and increasing the number of machines they worked. This led to a 33-week strike, which ended with no appreciable gains for the worker but solidified West Warwick's commitment to the Democratic Party.

"In 1922, Governor Sansouci called out the state militia to put down basically the French Canadian mill, workers which turned them to the Democratic party," Molloy says. "So you have a very big demographic change occurring between 1922 to the advent of the Great Depression, which pushes everyone over to the side of Roosevelt and the New Deal."

West Warwick's heyday as one of the most productive textile producing communities in America didn't last long. Even before the town's incorporation, mills had started moving south in search of cheaper labor.

Today, some of the old textile mills have been turned into condos, but most lay dormant, mausoleums
of a more prosperous time.

Despite the decline of its mills, by the middle of the last century, Main Street in West Warwick's Arctic Village had regained its stride as a busy retail hub. Stan Tabak is president of John J. Clark Insurance in West Warwick, which was established by his father-in-law in 1928.

"And if you talk to anyone who has been here for a while, this was the heyday," Tabak says. "This was the shopping Mecca south of Providence. Many of the stores that you see in the malls were situated right here in West Warwick. There was a big department store right across the street and on a Friday night there was wall-to-wall people and everything was here."

But by the 1960s all that began to change. Like the decline of the mills, another round of economic forces clobbered Main Street in West Warwick's Arctic Village: suburban development. As new, shiny malls were built along Rt. 2, West Warwick felt the impact.

"All those jobs got pulled from Arctic to along Rt. 2 to where all the malls were located," says Luke Peterson, assistant to the town manager. "It basically pulled all the business from here. And ever since then, West Warwick has been crawling along without any direction because it hasn't had any plan. And that's what we're working on now."

Peterson is a new arrival to West Warwick. He's responsible for economic development - which is badly needed here. There are a handful of new businesses along Main Street, but there are also empty storefronts, vacant lots and signs of blight. The town's unemployment rate is 14 percent - well above the state rate, which is one of the highest in the country. Scores of young men like 33-year-old Chris French are struggling to find work.

"It's been tough. Hard," says French. "Everybody's just accepting applications I'm looking for just about anything right now. Anything would help."

West Warwick Town Manager Jim Thomas says attracting new businesses is his number one priority.

"We don't have a lot of jobs," Thomas says. "We don't have a lot of industrial. We have some but for a community of 32,000 we don't have a balance. "

But efforts are underway to change that. Peterson is working on a plan to bring green businesses into the downtown. He recently commissioned an economic development blueprint from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Among the recommendations, according to Peterson: West Warwick has to change the attitude is has about itself.

"The town needs to get beyond this attitude of hopelessness," he says. "People are almost proud of how bad things are in West Warwick. With Rhode Island being as connected as it is, that message gets out. So we have to change how we look at each other - that's the biggest key."

But Peterson says, despite the challenges, West Warwick has important assets - including proximity to the airport, the highway, Providence and Boston - as well as a commitment by many residents to their town.

"I think West Warwick is basically a bell-weather for Rhode Island and the whole country," he says. "We're basically a rust belt city but on a small town scale. And if we're successful with what we do here, you'll be able to see if it can be successful in Providence, Detroit, and Flint Michigan, and other places that are struggling. Because this is a small enough scale so that you can really see what's happening."

Another goal of the town's is to build a proper monument to victims of the 2003 Station Nightclub fire. The roadhouse where 100 people died when an indoor pyrotechnics display went awry is gone. In its place an unsightly vacant lot strewn with an assortment of handmade crosses, stuffed toys and candles.

"Yes, the lawsuit has been settled but the unsettlement is that it's still not hallowed ground," says Thomas. "There still seems to be a black cloud hovering over that piece of property."

After waiting more than seven years, $176 million is about to be distributed to the 200 people who were injured and relatives of the 100 who died. Dave Kane, whose son Nicholas O'neill perished, says the fire site will be turned over to the Station Memorial Foundation when the money is disbursed and a memorial will be built with volunteer labor.

"This is not so much a memorial for our loved ones because they'll always be remembered," Kane says. "It is a reminder to everybody of what can happen when people don't do their jobs. And that's what's really important."

Today, West Warwick is more a bedroom community than an industrial powerhouse. Yet despite its many challenges, generation after generation stay on; loyal to their past and hopeful for a better future.