Friday, May 2, 2014

My Town, Our Town, Your Town

     A short time ago, Peter Van Buren posted an article on TomDispatch that addressed the central theme of his new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Van Buren used to be a State Department official who'd seen firsthand the excesses in Iraq that always seem to favor the 1% there. After 20+ years working for the kind folks at Foggy Bottom, he'd lost his job when he decided to turn whistleblower and expose some of those excesses and abuses of American taxpayer dollars.
     In "This is Not Your Land, This is Their Land", he'd profiled four communities: Atlantic City, NJ, Weirton, WV, Camp Lejeune, NC and Spanish Harlem in Manhattan. So, like the Crazy Horse Memorial that's abducted from Mount Rushmore proper, I thought I'd add my adopted town of Hudson, Massachusetts to his quartet of communities that had seen better days.

Hudson, Massachusetts
     When they'd first begun building the onramps to Routes 290 and 495 in 1980, great things were promised to Hudson. About to be connected to two major central Massachusetts highways, Hudson seemed to be a place on the move (pretty impressive for a town without a mayor) and would forever shed its status as yet another anonymous mill town that one shoots past at 65 mph on the way to better, more viable towns.
     The timing was odd, since the shoe business that had once sustained much of the town until the first years after the Second World War had long since gone bust and high tech would not make its appearance for about another decade. It was during that time that Hudson was still a sleepy little town of about 30,000, one in transition. Wal-Mart was about a decade away and the Solomon Pond Mall (and Donald Lynch Blvd) were about 15 years away.
     The town was incorporated in 1866 and was originally called Feltonville. Back then, Hudson was actually larger than it is now, owing to its having annexed, then lost, parts of nearby Berlin. The Feltonville Town Library, still standing, got its funding when old Charlie Hudson decided to donate the money in exchange for something. If you're still in doubt what that favor was, please note the present name of the town.
     Considering it resides in a town once briefly renowned for its high tech companies, the library still uses relatively ancient technology that was de rigueur back when Compuserve and flying toasters were big. Its computers (big, ancient desktops that look as if they ought to run on diesel) have no CD-ROM drives and still take floppy disks. Internet access is restricted to one hour a day and library patrons must sign up to reserve their precious 60 minutes of glacially slow internet access.
     But then the optimism of tying Hudson into the highway system was justified when high tech began tip-toeing in. With high tech comes professionals all looking for adequate housing, trendy restaurants and bars and Hudson obliged. The Bar Club and Lunch, Manny's and Billy Jack's all became, respectively, Hudson Appliance, the Harvest Cafe and Sophia's Italian Restaurant. Hudson no longer had gin mills and biker bars and we were well on our way to respectability and gentrification.
     Starting in the early 90's (or right around the time Digital Equipment Corp began its final death spiral), technology companies like Digital and Stratus were perched atop an incline built specially for them (named, not surprisingly, Technology Drive). Then when Ken Olsen, Digital's founder and head, decided to cash out, Intel took over the corporation and the Hudson facility and for about a decade or so, the town's fortunes went pretty well.
     Then, as with many other communities, high tech's bubble began to burst and by the beginning of this year, even the mighty Intel, they who had created the microprocessor that made home computing possible, shut down 90% of its operations, putting thousands out of work. Stratus was made a casualty long before that and now there are hardly any high tech companies on the now-ironically-named Technology Drive.
     By the early 90's, Wal-Mart had moved in, setting up store #1970 near the Hudson/Marlborough town line. Gradually, Ma and Pop businesses on Main Street began shuttering their doors and by 2009 I once counted at least six consecutive empty storefronts with "For Lease" signs behind them. Perhaps not by coincidence, the businesses that had once occupied the main drag (a pharmacy, a stationary store, a hardware store and even the Salvation Army thrift shop that had been here for decades and closed up late last year) just happened to offer goods that are now offered by Wal-Mart at rock-bottom prices. The Aubuchon's Hardware franchise that had been a staple in town since the early 1930's, went belly up in 2010.
     With the near extinction of Intel's operations on the hill overlooking the residential area of Hudson, Wal-Mart is now, unsurprisingly, the town's largest employer. As far as Ma and Pop stores going head-to-head go, one of the very few still remaining from decades ago is Robinson's Hardware, a family-owned business enjoying a solid and loyal customer base, even though Wal-Mart is an easy mile and a half drive down Route 85.
     The once dozens of shoe factories gone for decades had anticipated the fate of the town's two industrial parks that are largely wastelands now occupied by derelict buildings with weeds sprouting from once-used parking lots. Hudson, as with many towns in America, can now be considered "post-industrial". What few factories remain now do their so-called hiring exclusively through predatory temp agencies (since revamped "staffing agencies", as if the euphemism somehow benefits the working poor and those desperate enough to agree to an uncertain vocation at minimum wages without benefits).
     Thankfully, for a town growing more desperate by the day for more quality jobs at quality pay, crime is virtually nonexistent. A quick peek in the weekly local paper, The Hudson Sun, will reveal in its police blotter petty crimes that are almost a parody of the real crime that's inevitable in major cities and larger townships. Murders occur decades apart and on those mercifully rare occasions, the local constabulary has to hand off the homicide investigation to the State Police and their crime lab in Sudbury. There's no major drug trafficking  and violent crimes are almost nonexistent. We have no SWAT and the Chief has yet to request a surplus tank or MRAP from the Defense Dept. Bank robberies are unheard of. If you go out at the right time, you'll catch friendly Officer Wendy Durkin, mother of four, walking her beat and whether or not she knows you, she'll always give you a smile, a throwback to the cops often depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings.
     As with 3000+ other towns and cities, we were victimized by Wal-Mart that not only thought nothing of putting well-established family-owned businesses out of business but made it a part of their business strategy. Down Donald Lynch Blvd adjacent the mall is another Big Box store, Best Buy. The local three screen movie theater in Marlborough had long since given way to the mall's megaplex and, entirely due to corporate mismanagement, Borders Inc. had closed its doors along with its 2000 brethren across America.
     We send our kids to good schools, go to the mall, mow our lawns in the summer and grumble as we shovel our walkways in the winter and have an annual festival the first Saturday of every June as with so many other communities. But Hudson, an anonymous, unremarkable mill town gone to seed as with many others (Most aren't as fortunate as Waltham, where high tech at least stuck and Moody Street boasts a fabulous variety of international restaurants to satisfy the most eclectic yuppie palates), is treading water and valiantly maintaining its civility.
     And, being a resident of this town these past 20 years, I wonder often how long that façade of civility will last as we vainly await the next miracle or boom.


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