Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Other Bridgewater State

Prior to 1997, I had only been in Massachusetts twice: once to visit a friend in Boston in 1985 or so, and then in 1995, when I attended a conference in Providence, and my boss drove me to some of his old haunts in New Bedford and on Cape Cod. He may, in fact, have taken me through Bridgewater, where his wife had attended college. Honestly, I cannot be certain. I do know that when I saw a job announcement in Bridgewater in the AAG newsletter a couple of years later, I was not thinking of that connection. All I noticed was a geography department in a mid-sized college that was seeking someone to teach environmental geography and the geography of either Latin America. The rest is history, as they say.

Because these were the early days of the internet, online information about small towns was scarce. Bridgewater State College had its own web site, of course (at the forever-truncated, as I've mentioned elsewhere), but the town had no web site of its own, and this was not exactly a tourist Mecca. In fact, most of the pages I found were related to the Bridgewater State Hospital: describing either the death of its most famous inmate (the Boston Strangler) or Titicut Follies, the notorious documentary about conditions there.

This all came to mind early yesterday, as I was listening to the only sports show that ever gets my attention: Bill Littlefield's Only a Game. In the middle of a discussion with director Frederick Wiseman about his new boxing film, I heard the words "Bridgewater, Massachusetts." Although Littlefield records his show just 20 miles from here, I rarely hear the town mentioned on his station, so my attention was piqued. Not surprisingly, the words "Titicut Follies" soon followed, and I learned that it had been the first film Wiseman had directed.

I did not realize that Titicut Follies was the first in a long string of movies, many of which have been controversial or disturbing to some degree, but none quite like his first. The film was banned in Boston, not for the usual reasons of obscenity or national security, but because of the extreme invasion of the privacy of its subjects.

Although the 1997 internet told us little about Bridgewater besides this unfortunate claim to fame, our own reality upon moving here was very different. Settling into the center of the town, surrounded by the college itself and many of its students and employees, we usually gave little thought to the prison complex (the State Hospital is actually part of a complex with several different kinds of correctional facilities). In fact, we probably lived here a decade before personally meeting any employees of the second-largest employer in our town.

My connections to the complex were limited to my work on the board of a local land trust to provide long-term protection for some of the farmland belonging to the prison complex and to developing a park-management plan for the Titicut Conservation Area, located just south of the prisons. Deriving its name from the Wampanoag name for the Taunton River, the Titicut area was an important ship-building site two centuries ago and is an important recreational site today.

We eventually decided to watch the film, but turned it off halfway through, for exactly the reason cited in its censorship. We felt as though we were some place we did not belong; the camera did not respect the dignity of the prisoners/patients, and by extension it just felt wrong to keep watching. This was especially true because Titicut Follies is the kind of documentary that does not rely on narration. Nobody was interpreting the scenes we saw; we were simply looking into a most disturbing place and being left to draw our own conclusions. Viewing it decades after the fact, our conclusions were not of any tangible importance, so we could not justify continuing to watch. At the time it was produced, however, the film did make a difference, and of course this was through the reactions of people who saw it. The case can be made, in fact, that the censorship was motivated more by an intention to protect the prison's managers than to protect the inmates and prisoners themselves. The film is widely credited with instigating much-needed changes in the way mental illness is treated, and was the beginning of the end of warehouse-style facilities for people who really need treatment.

Whatever one thinks of the Bridgewater State Hospital, one thing became clear to us over the years: the name adds to the stigma that some students already feel, regarding their choice of a public college in a state dominated by private schools. It does not help that media stories about the most bizarre and hideous crimes end with the phrase, "and he was taken to Bridgewater for evaluation." Students who come to Bridgewater are careful to emphasize Bridgewater State University (or College, until recently), because friends back home are likely to complete the phrase for them if given the chance.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Inspecting the Sprouts from Boston's Seeds

Boston Globe's Peter Mandel recently got the idea to visit places called Boston, and wrote about it in Sunday's paper. His journey took him as far as Michigan, but he only traveled for one week, and did not visit all the places he identified, one as far away as Texas. Perhaps he should start a blog, too, and update as he is able. I am very happy to see he visited a librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society in order to do some research before his trip!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Welcome to the Bridge

East Bridgewater resident Dan "Wambo" Spector raps about growing up in the 'burbs. Read all about it in The Enterprise

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bridgewater State...University

As of Wednesday July 28 Bridgewater State College is now Bridgewater State University. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill that changed the names of most of Massachusetts State Colleges. So far it looks as if the State Universities will not be run as U-Mass branches. Time will tell.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

1000 Places to visit in Massachusetts includes two Bridgewater sites

Many were nominated, many were chosen...

Bridgewater State College and Bridgewater Historic District are listed among the 1000 Great Places to Visit in Massachusetts by the State Tourism Agency.

“The commission sought a geographically diverse tally of places that are important for their cultural or historic significance, or simply their natural beauty.”

Of course, any good tourist destination needs a cafe, and these two sites -- which abut each other -- have a selection that is good and likely to improve. In the Bridgewater Historic District, the Rockin' K Cafe offers fair-trade, organic coffee and family-style service at 14 Summer St (new location) every day of the week, 8-5. Also in the historic district, on the historic town common, is the Better Bean, which is open in the evenings (closed Sunday).

On the campus of Bridgewater State College are the usual assortment of campus coffee outlets, but with the possibility of a truly world-class cafe opening on campus upon completion of the new Science & Mathematics Center. If approved, the Benjamin Linder Cafe will feature fair-trade, organic coffee and a variety of educational projects around coffee, sustainability, and justice.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Village of Bridgewater, New York July 4, 2010

As we were driving our daughter to camp in upstate New York yesterday, James asked "is there a Bridgewater, New York?" I thought probably there was, so I checked the atlas, and there it was, due south of the camp. We decided to take a different route home than usual and stop in our town's New York "xará" (xará is a Portuguese word meaning one who has the same name).

The Village of Bridgewater is located at the junction of routes 8 and 20, just south of Utica. It is quite a small town with under 600 residents. Nevertheless the town has a library (with hours comparable to our own), a municpal building, a park, and a highway department.

Blogger and librarian, Pam, poses in front of the Bridgewater (NY) Free Library

As we took in the driving tour, which took about 3 minutes, we noticed the Bridgewater School. No longer a school, it now houses an antique store, indoor skateboard park, and the cleverly named Cafe'Teria - all run by Ron and Linda Inger. We had a wonderful experience meeting Ron, who was happy to show us around the school, chat, and make his signature iced espresso drink - his secret is to put half the ice directly in the cup, and the other half into the blender.

Cafe'Teria logo

Indoor Skateboard park in what had once been the gymnasium/auditorium. Ron points out that while the Bridgewater, New Jersey skateboard park allows bikes, his does not!

Interior shot of Cafe'Teria

Blogger James (aka Dr. Java) poses with his new coffee friend, Ron.

We took Ron up on his suggestion to eat at Dominick's Italian Bistro, right next to the old Bridgewater, New York train station. Our waitress, Pam (my xará!) was attentive and friendly, and the food was quite flavorful. James had chicken lightly breaded with a delightful mushroom sauce over fettuccini, and Pam had the baked lasagna. Normally we do not get appetizers, unless jalapeño poppers are offered, in this case they were, so we had plenty of leftovers of our main course to enjoy after we returned home.

Old Train Depot -- with a milk-crate basketball court

Good Unitarian Universalists that we are, we stopped for a photo op at the Bridgewater Universalist Cemetery, the print at the bottom of the sign reads "Site of the Universalist Church." Little did we know it was the 200th attainment day of famous Universalist P.T. Barnum.

On leaving Bridgewater, we decided to follow U.S. 20, a delightful transect which we describe in more detail on our Celebrating the States blog.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bridgewater, Virginia

Bloggers pose in front of entrance to Bridgewater College

We visited Bridgewater, Virginia on June 16 while driving from Charleston, South Carolina to Fairfax, Virginia. On this summer day it seemed to be a sleepy little town. It is a college town though, home to Bridgewater College, and I imagine that in the fall it will become a bustling place. We stopped at the College and pulled into a parking lot that had a sign clearly indicating "College Information". We went into the closest building, which turned out to be the fitness center, and asked the young woman there about the sign. She seemed to have no idea there was a sign there, nor did she appear at all interested in the fact that we were from Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and worked at a college with a similar name. She did however, direct us to the admissions office for more information. We picked up a copy of a special section of the Daily News-Record from Harrison,Virginia  dated May 14, 2010 which is a tribute to retiring College President Phillip Stone.

One unfortunate connection we made between Bridgewater State College and Bridgewater College is the proclivity to keep large screen televisions on in various lounge areas even when no one is around to watch them. These use a lot of energy, and BSC has been installing them in quite a few places, even as they build a Sustainability Center on campus. During the last winter break James and I noticed one on in one of the dorm lounges every time we walked by, even though the dorm appeared to be closed otherwise.

Pam poses with large screen television in an otherwise empty room at Bridgewater College

We did notice some cool sculptures on campus including this one:

We did not stay long in Bridgewater, but what we saw reminded us of our former home in Oxford, Ohio - home to Miami University. We also noted the following businesses or organizations that used the name Bridgewater:

(it was good to see an independent pharmacy going in this age of CVS and Walgreens)
Bridgewater Coin Laundry
Bridgewater Exxon 
 (possibly the only time I've seen this company with a separate franchise name)
Bridgewater Town Center
Bridgewater Car Wash

Additionally we noticed the Dayton Mennonite Church, just after we saw a woman in traditional Mennonite dress ride her bike by us

Marshall's Distribution Center is located in Bridgewater, Virginia

The Library is called the North River Library.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sacco & Vanzetti

For years I've heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, often as a punch line in a bit of dark humor about injustices of one kind or another. I had heard that they were political prisoners who were executed solely for their points of view. I had never heard anything terribly specific, though, and had no idea how close to home -- literally -- their story would eventually become.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927 for a crime that took place on December 24, 1919 in Bridgewater, a half-mile north of what would eventually become our home. On Valentine's Day this year, in fact, we took a walk -- in an icy wind -- to the scene of the crime. Thanks to the research of local historian Christopher Daley, we know that the armored-car robbery of which they were convicted took place at the corner of Hale Street and Broad Street, where today one can find a barber and a Friendly's restaurant. Hale Street runs parallel to the tracks in what was the industrial heart of this once heavily industrial town. Remnants of the old factories can still be found along both sides of what is now primarily a commuter rail line. The L.Q. White shoe factory at which the truck was delivering payroll is long gone, however, its remnants buried beneath a parking lot for Bridgewater State College commuters.

For me, what is most fascinating about the case is what it reveals about a Bridgewater that is fading quickly from memory. Today it is known for its college -- on almost half a square mile in the center of town, with over 10,000 students and over 1,000 employees (including both authors of this blog) -- and as a bedroom community for thousands who commute to white-collar jobs in Boston on the revived train line or the straight, dangerous shot up Route 24. A third major factor is the state prison complex on the south edge of town (old "State Farm"), but I lived here for a decade before I met anybody who works there, and it only comes up in conversation if there is a prison break or someone is remembering the 1967 Titicut Follies movie.

For many who have lived in the town for decades -- or generations -- the town has a different identity: a working-class, industrial town. At least three of the town's major park sites, for example, were once home to industries ranging from bricks to iron to ship-building. Where newcomers such as myself see second-growth forest, older neighbors remember their fathers working at furnaces. Where we see empty lots today, some neighbors remember active freight yards.

My brief research into the case has raised more questions than it has answered. Even the locations of many of the factories extant at the time are difficult to determine despite the availability of very detailed Sanborn maps. (Sanborn insurance maps are a great resource for historic and environmental research; they show industrial and commercial buildings at 1:1200 scale for almost every town in the United States between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Bridgewater State College has a subscription to the Massachusetts maps; most public libraries have copies of maps for their own towns.)

For example, the 1921 Sanborn map shows the White shoe factory between Spring Street and the rail lines, but almost everything on that part of the map has now changed, as a current satellite image of the same area shows. The robbery itself was just off the edge of this map, where Hale Street meets Broad Street, which is a main road toward Boston.

View Larger Map

Police were first led to Sacco and Vanzetti as suspects in the murder because a witness indicated that the perpetrators appeared to be Italian. The entire area to the northwest of the crime scene was a tight-knit Italian community, focused around the mills. In fact, the neighborhood surrounding Wall and High Streets, about 2000 feet away, remains something of an enclave to this day, surrounding the old Stanley Iron Works site, at which iron was forged for centuries. The satellite image below is centered on the old mill pond, and immediately to east and west are private clubs that continue to operate -- each sporting its own bocci court!

View Larger Map

To this day, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti stirs debate. From the hundreds of thousands of people who protested their sentence at the time, to the governor who pardoned them decades later, to books and articles that are still being published, their guilt or innocence remains uncertain. A Sacco and Vanzetti Commemoration Society meets twice each month in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An article by  Robert D'Attilio at the University of Pennsylvania summarizes some of the legal debate, as does an article on the web site of Torremaggiore,  Sacco's hometown in Italy.

It is unclear whether Sacco or Vanzetti ever even visited Bridgewater -- a gang who were holed up in a shack in nearby West Bridgewater eventually confessed to the crime -- but their association with the town reminds us of several important aspects of its identity and history.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


The inmate who walked away from the Bridgewater State Hospital (mentioned in the December 4 post) was captured in Georgia. He was recognized after being featured on the television program America's Most Wanted.