WOONSOCKET – Seventy-five-year-old Beverly Alward holds her arms outstretched and spins her great-granddaughter beneath the flashing neon lights of the Stadium Theatre marquee.
Swaying to the hypnotic hip-hop blaring from the stage near the towering replica of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, it’s not the kind of music she normally listens to, but she’s having a great time, nevertheless.
Alward, a city resident for the past 21 years, was among the thousands who came out in droves last night for Woonsocket’s long-awaited Main Street block party, a huge celebration marking the city’s 125th anniversary.
It’s the biggest birthday bash Alward has ever attended, and it’s a night, she said, she won’t soon forget.
“We love it and we’re having a ball,” Alward shouts above the music. “It’s a wonderful event and we’re so glad to be here.”
From Monument Square to Market Square, the city’s downtown was a sea of people, many dancing in the streets as music blared from a dozen stages set up strategically along a half-mile stretch of Main Street.
Billed as the biggest block party on the East Coast, the event was an occasion to not only celebrate the city’s incorporation 125 years ago, but to bring the community together in a time of financial crisis and to raise the spirits of residents hit hard by tax increases to resolve the city’s $17 million deficit.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Cathy Gagnon of Park View Manor and a lifelong city resident. “There’s been so much negativity and this is a chance for the residents of this city to come together, even if it’s only for one night.”
Gagnon’s companion, Lionel A. Bergeron, said while he appreciated the effort that went into organizing the massive street party, it won’t erase the fact that Woonsocket needs to get its financial house in order.
“We need jobs and to bring work to the city,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this mess.”
“I think it’s time everyone has some fun for once,” said Inez Antonio of Woonsocket, who is dipping into a sack of hot clam cakes. “I’ve only lived in Woonsocket for a year, but it’s a great city with a lot of good people. I think it’s good to just forget about all the bad stuff and have a little fun.”
Jay Shaven, who was in line waiting to sample some of the offerings under the Taste of Woonsocket food tent, lives in Blackstone, but knows Woonsocket well.
“It’s my second home,” he says. “I grew up in Woonsocket and my dad, who was a foot doctor, worked here all his life. I really feel for the people of Woonsocket and I understand that everyone is under a lot of financial stress. But I think things will get better and maybe this block party is the first step.”
“It’s okay to have a good time, but you still have to pay the taxes in the morning,” said one resident who identified himself only as Ralph, a resident of Woonsocket for the past 40 years.
Ralph, who is originally from Pennsylvania, met his wife, Muriel, in Woonsocket, when he was stationed at Quonset Point in 1967.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love Woonsocket, but it needs to get itself out of this mess and quick,” he said.
Ray Gouin, a local musician who fronts the Ray Gee and the Silver Dollar Band, agrees, saying he’s willing to do his part. “I’ve already mailed in my supplemental tax bill, but they haven’t cashed the check yet,” he smiles.
Addressing the crowds in Monument Square, block party organizer and co-chairman Albert G. Beauparlant said it was his belief the city is about to go through a resurgence, a theme echoed by Mayor Leo T. Fontaine.
“This block party is the kickoff to the turnaround of our great community and a bright future ahead for the next 125 years,” the mayor said.
Carrying his toddler son, Aaron, Michael Lessard, is standing in front of Chan’s restaurant looking up at the cascade of water falling from the Arc de Triomphe.
“I’m a homeowner, so I know what’s it like to get hit hard with taxes, but I’m not thinking about that tonight,” he said. “Tonight, I’m here with my son and he’s here with me and his Pepe and everything’s good.”