This story is part of our series “Rising Tide” about how – or whether - Rhode Islanders are emerging from the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. The question we’re asking is: does a rising tide really lift all boats, or are some Rhode Islanders still being left behind?
Central Falls was one of the hardest hit communities in the great recession, with unemployment reaching 16 percent between 2010 and 2012. Now Rhode Island’s economy appears to be swinging back. As part of our series ‘Rising Tide’ Rhode Island public Radio’s John Bender went to Central Falls to see if residents think the tide is turning.
In the heart of the state’s smallest city, Dexter Street is Central Falls’ ‘Main Street.’ It’s one of two major thoroughfares that bisect this community of nearly 20-thousand, packed into a little more than a square mile. Markets, restaurants, clothing stores and bakeries, like Antigua Guatemalan Bakery on the northern part of Dexter.
Inside, shopkeeper Otoniel Juarez motions to several large glass cases full of enticing pastries and breads from Central America.
“Like Guatemalan, Mexican; that’s our customers,” said Juarez.
Central Falls is 60 percent Latino according to the 2010 census. It’s home to some of the state’s highest population of Colombians, along with Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Salvadorians among others.
Though Dexter Street bustles with pedestrians, Juarez said business at the bakery isn’t going that well.
“No, just ok. Just getting by” said Juarez. But he said sales really plummeted in the midst of the recession.
“Five years ago, they went down.”
Juarez said eventually it got so bad they too had to let people go at the Bakery. And it was the same story at other local businesses. Juarez said many Central Falls residents went elsewhere to find work.
“People had to leave because there’s no place to work here. They went to Massachusetts; they went where they can find jobs,” said Juarez.
Central Falls was hard hit by the economic recession, and the foreclosure crisis helped push the tiny city into bankruptcy in 2011. The state stepped in, appointed a court receiver, and has been monitoring the city since.
Always a mill town, the city was disproportionately affected by the loss of American manufacturing job. In the last year, the shutdown of lightbulb manufacturer Osram Slyvania, eliminated another 90 jobs. Today Central Falls has an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, well above the state average.
But in one way the shops on Dexter Street are insulated from some economic woes, as they provide specialty products for their largely immigrant customer base.
A few blocks down the street from Antigua Guatemala Bakery, at a store called Latin Clothing, owner Maria Giraldo chats with customers.
Giraldo said business is good, through her friend, Eugenia Gutierrez, who translated.
“The neighborhood is good for the store, because there is Latin People. The Latin people likes the products.” The bright shop is full of dresses and skirts and jeans. But the two say the top selling item is a sort of slimming undergarment, like spanks. But a very specific kind of spanks called Fajas, which come from Colombia. And this store sells them.
Dexter Street’s economy is truly local, driven by the demands of the population. But being so dependent can be tough when nearly one third of the residents live below the poverty line.
Across the street from Latin Clothing, Maria Rodriguez works at Mi Pueblo market, a small grocery store that carries produce and products from Central and Latin America.
She said despite an improving economy this year, the winter made things especially bad.
“Yeah because we had a lot of snow, and some days we can’t open. The people don’t want to go out because it’s too cold, most of our customers are walking you know. It was a very hard winter,” said Rodriguez.
Winter aside, Rodriguez said her customers don’t seem to be feeling any economic recovery.
“Because I work in a hair salon too and I see from so many years ago we had a lot of customers, right now, we don’t have like before,” said Rodriguez. “Most of the people they lost their work. They don’t have money to do their hair.”
Rodriguez expects to see more people leave Central Falls if they hope to find work.
“Most of the people want to leave from the state and from the city, because this is a small city that has a lot of problems with the economy.”
In some ways, Rodriquez is right; Central Falls is still two years away from controlling its own budget. As you drive down Dexter Street, as populated as it is, you’ll notice no national stores or chains have opened up. Outside investment on Dexter Street has yet to take off. But city planner Steve Larrick said new stores are opening up.
“We have very little vacancy on Dexter street, there’s a lot of energy and a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, and small business owners that are getting creative with it. Starting restaurants, small shops, small businesses, that are focusing serving the neighborhood,” said Larrick.
At Antiuga Guatemala Bakery, Otoniel Juarez said he remains hopeful.
“The best is going to be later, so I’m looking forward to the future.”
At the other end of Dexter Street, a brand new shop, Latinos Market, another small grocery store has just opened up. And farther down Dexter Street a new development is in the works. One city officials say will include a national retailer; possibly a dollar store. It may be small, but it’s a start.
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