WOONSOCKET – The asphalt throbbed to the pulse of amplified music, and the aroma of chicken teriyaki and roast beef wafted through the air as Jackie Archambault maneuvered her motorized scooter through the crowd, noshing on a bag of popcorn.
“I’m having a good time,” said Archambault. “They should’ve done more of this stuff when we were younger.”
The 84-year-old woman and her daughter, Joyce Small, usually call Main Street home because they both live in Hanora Lippitt Apartments. But last night they called it a party as tens of thousands of city residents came downtown to mark the 125th anniversary of the city’s founding, replete with a massive mockup of the Arc de Triomphe. The Main Street Block Party lived up to its promise as the biggest block party on the East Coast, with an estimated 35,000 visitors streaming through.
From Market Square to Monument Square, a sea of people packed the area, crowding in front of a dozen staggered stages featuring all kinds of amped-up music, from the straight-ahead rock of Rough n’ Ready to the muscular blues of James Montgomery and the Uptown Horns. Everywhere you looked, there was food, food, food, from chowder and clam cakes served from trucks to chicken bourbon sizzling on electric griddles. There was a food court near Monument Square where some new city restaurateurs were getting some tasty exposure.
“I usually hate roast beef, but truthfully, I like this,” said Tanya Schleff as she chomped on a plump sandwich prepped by Major League Roast Beef. Her seven-year-old daughter, Lucienne, and mother, Nancy Bartholomew, seemed just as happy with their plates.
“I’m so glad it left off raining,” said Bartholomew, commenting on the weather.
From the very young to the very old, it was a mixed crowd. Parents pushed strollers and carried infants, some walked dogs despite the official ban on pets at the party, and many older people were seen on mechanized wheelchairs or getting pushed along by family members. It seemed like the entire city had decided to spend the night outdoors.
“You meet a lot of people you haven’t seen in years,” remarked Small. “A lot of wonderful, nice people.”
Anyone who’s spent any time in Woonsocket saw people they knew, or whom they were sure they’d met before, but many of the faces belonged to public figures. Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras were spotted in the crowd, along with a smorgasbord of local dignitaries, including state Reps. Lisa Baldelli Hunt and Stephen Casey, state Sen. Roger Picard, and Councilmen Dan Gendron and Chris Beauchamp. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, who conceived the affair, and Council President John F. Ward had brief speaking engagements at the opening ceremonies under the Arc.
The atmosphere was part carnival, part street festival, with children playing on air-filled bouncy rides across from Chan’s and some visitors setting up lawn chairs in front of their favorite stage, as if they were waiting for a parade to go by.
There was even a preacher under the railroad trestle on Main Street offering a free test to find if you were a good person.
From a pea-green Ford Pinto to Roger Paul’s 1931 Ford Roadster, a lot full of classic cars was the perfect backdrop for King’s Row, a popular oldies band churning out the doo-wop near the Heritage Block.
Paul, of Burrillville, seldom puts the hot wheels on the road, but the city’s birthday bash was worth it. “I married a Woonsocket Rocket,” he said.
“This is wonderful.”
It was all good fun. As “Junior” Ray Arruda, warmup entertainer and local painting contractor, advised the crowd from Stage No. 12 in front of the Stadium Theatre, “If there’s anything in your mind that’s telling you not to have a good time, tell yourself to shut up.”
It was a party, but a party with a purpose. In a city struggling to stave off bankruptcy, where taxpayers have been walloped by double-digit tax increases as property values have plunged, officials deemed the event an occasion to “come together” and mark a new beginning.
The price tag for the event, pegged at about $70,000 by Matt Moylan, the fundraising chairman, was raised largely through corporate sponsorship and the benificence of the city’s restaurateurs, who pitched in by staging a series of pre-bash fundraisers in recent weeks. CVS/Caremark was a major sponsor, and The Call was the designated “media partner” for the event.
As he addressed the crowd during opening rites, Fontaine said that, given the city’s circumstances, he considered arranging a low-key celebration. But the city deserved better. He commissioned real estate developer Albert Beauparlant Jr. and his executive secretary, Linda Plays, to pull together the details.
“When we sat down and thought about what we should do about our 125th and some people said, ‘Well, maybe we should kind of keep it low,’ and I said ‘You know what? We need to celebrate those great things in our community. We need to turn this around and pay tribute not only to what’s happening now but to our parents and our grandparents and all of those who came here and made this their hometown and made this city what it is.’”
Fontaine added, “I know this was the right thing to do to celebrate our community. This is the day that not only do we kick off our 125th celebration, but we kick off the turnaround of our great community...”
He got a thumbs-up from Taveras.
“I think it’s a great event celebrating the history of Woonsocket,” he said. “Especially during difficult times, it’s important to remember what binds us.”
As dusk settled in, the signature moment of the event offered a note of suspense as all eyes turned to the centerpiece of the celebration – the towering Arc de Triomphe, emblazoned with images of the city’s past. At 68 feet tall, it towered above the tallest buildings in Monument Square, and it was outfitted with an pump-powered waterfall, designed to cascade to the ground in a celebratory homage to Woonsocket Falls, birthplace of the city’s founding villages
The marquee of the Stadium Theatre glittered with a happy birthday message for the city. The crowd quieted down as they waited for the water to come crashing down.
“Is it going to work?” someone whispered.
The crowd broke into whoops of applause of cheers. And the party was on.