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The 69th city in America
"Nice," as they say
The U.S. News and World Report ranked Worcester the 69th city in America or something like that idk I didn’t read the article. Obvious bullshit. However I think we can all agree it’s pretty nice.
Huge missed opportunity on the part of the city’s social media team taking the news in earnest and not going for the joke.
Worcester Massachusetts: Voted 69th on account of it being a little gross but still pretty cool! It’s not for everyone but if you like it you really like it. A little too much maybe.
Tell you one thing if you give me the keys to Worcester’s socials I will Make Online Fun Again.
But Worcester’s public relations team has other priorities. They’re out here issuing press releases about deadly fires that transparently shill for the new toy the cops want to get.
It’s a classy move to express your “sincere condolences” then in the next breath brow beat the public into supporting the acquisition of a new surveillance tool. You’ll notice he didn’t say how it was used or how it helped and just a stretch here but maybe it’s because it didn’t. You’ll also notice, reading the full release, that the officials quoted are the city manager, the mayor and the police chief. No one from the Fire Department weighing in here about the fire! Instead we have the police chief going ‘what a tragedy thank god Auburn brought their little drone to help us watch the house burn down from a different angle.’
While it’s a transparently stupid little political maneuver, it ranks pretty low on the list of weird, sketchy and heartbreaking aspects of this fire.
Ranking high however is that one of the four tenants killed in the fire had last month won a $100,000 judgment from Alex Jones—yes, that Alex Jones—in a lawsuit he filed in 2018. Marcel Fontaine lived on the third floor of the Gage Street apartment and he was 29 years old. After the Parkland shooting in 2018 Jones’ site, InfoWars, plastered Fontaine’s picture all over its website saying he did it. “Shooter is a commie” read one post. The idea was to stir up some sort of Antifa narrative to latch onto. The whole “hoax” thing must have been getting boring for them. Needless to say falsely identifying someone as a school shooter to promote an equally false narrative is among the most cravenly fucked up things you can do. So Marcel sued and, in April, he won a $100,000 settlement.
I wrote about Fontaine’s suit at the time for Worcester Magazine. I sent him a Facebook friend request back then to try to get an interview but he went the responsible route of deferring to his lawyers. I’m still friends with him on there though. He posted a lot about metal and about being queer and about how he was working security at a Black Dalhia Murder show and saw Trevor Strnad share a blunt with a fan. Strnad died last week. Fontaine wrote “rest in power Trevor!” with a couple little devil horn emojis.
Last Thursday he posted “T-minus one week until I’m on a jam packed week long vacation!” Last Friday, hours before died, he posted a picture of some Friday the 13th DVDs. “Friday the 13th movie marathon has started!”
So life is good. You just got your little piece of a hate monger’s collapsing media empire, you’re looking forward to vacation, you’re a couple hours into your horror movie marathon and then bam. Roll the credits. The end.
You read on the news that someone died in a fire and you process it like a tragedy among all the other tragedies of the world but you check a guy’s Facebook feed and all of a sudden it’s you daydreaming about your upcoming vacation. It’s you sliding the first Friday the 13th disc into the DVD player. It’s you sitting back and enjoying a movie you’ve watched a thousand times, a small pleasure to mark a tiny occasion. And then it’s you breathing in smoke and dying in the crappy triple decker you fork over too much money to some slumlord for the right to live in. It’s you dead at the hands of some cocktail of negligence, criminality and bad luck the specifics of which remain to be seen.
I live in a crappy old triple decker, as do most of my friends in Worcester and I’m sure a good chunk of the people reading this post. It’s no great leap to imagine what happened to Fontaine happening to any one of us. So excuse me if I take it a little fuckin personal that Chief Sargent would use the occasion of an avoidable tragedy to shill for a piece of technology that would not have prevented said tragedy from occuring in any conceivable situation. Trivial as it is, Sargent’s drone comment is an illuminating little onion to peel. Where I’m at after a couple days of peeling myself is this: how does a person see death and think ‘I can use this’? Heavy.
But really the only productive question—the only one which will lead to a reduction in the future loss—is what we can do to make our very old and very fire-prone housing stock more safe for its inhabitants? And the more fraught follow-up: Is there political will to move on safety measures that might hurt a landlord’s bottom line?
With that in mind the investigation is going to be very important to follow. Right now we’re at a point where there’s a ton of speculation and not a lot of facts. Officials have taken the tact of saying nothing save that it’s “under investigation” as is tradition. Lots of amateur speculation filling in the gaps and while I won’t personally add to it I will catch you up to speed on what’s out there.
There were apparently a “bunch of exotic snakes” in one of the apartments, as Channel 5 put it (in a quite hilariously colloquial fashion for a cable news operation).
Perhaps relatedly, Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents were on scene and are assisting the investigation. City Manager Ed Augusts said that ATF agents routinely investigate fatal fires, a statement which raised my eyebrows at first but does appear to be true. The bureau handles arson investigations according to its website for what that’s worth.
A couple of the preliminary news stories dabbled in insinuation of foul play. Channel 5 quoted a survivor as saying the fire “started in the basement” and that the basement door is “always open.” Another report which I can’t find anymore quoted a witness as having heard rustling around the property before the fire. But that should be taken with a massive grain of salt. Again, without findings from a proper investigation it’s all speculative hooey.
There’s also a lot of speculation floating around about the landlord but after seeing what’s out there, I don’t feel comfortable diving into that whole line of questioning without some more substance. Was the building out of code? Were there illegal apartments? Good questions but we don’t have anything to go off in terms of answering them.
It should be said, in the event the fire is found to be tied to unsafe living conditions, that illegal apartments and cramped conditions are the direct result of a lack of affordable housing. People with the inability to find apartments they can afford will put themselves in dangerous situations. You can inspect apartment buildings with all the rigor in the world but it’s no substitute for creating conditions in which there is no need for unsafe living arrangements. We need more and better housing on the lower end of the spectrum and we’re just not doing that right now. Exhibit A: this little passage from a MassLive report on the new housing development going in on the Mount Carmel site.
For what it’s worth the city is trying to up its housing inspection game. On the Council agenda this week is a request to create a rental registry tied to a five-year inspection cycle. In the report Acting Fire Chief Martin Dyer says the registry will “have a significant impact on the safety and well-being of Worcester residents.”
“Short term savings to avoid a code requirement can cause devastating financial loss and injury or death in the long term,” Dyer writes.
It’s a whole lot better of an approach than simply responding to complaints as they come in, but again, what we really need is a zoning overhaul and an investment in low-end housing stock. And more than that, we need the political will to actually want to fix the problem. And I’m not convinced it exists as things currently are.
Short of a drastic course correction, this is going to keep happening. There will be more Marcel Fontaines. More opportunities for the cops to try and get what they want.
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This Council meeting coming up Tuesday is an interesting one. Come watch it with us on the Worcester Council Theater 3000 stream! 6:30 p.m. on the Wootenanny Twitch channel!
Probably the most important element is the contract for Eric Batista as acting city manager. Ed Augustus is leaving in just week after all. The proposed contract is ummmm pretty cushy. A $225,000 annual salary “until a permanent manager is found,” according to the Telegram.
“If Batista is not selected as the permanent city manager, he will be given a severance package where the city will pay him for up to five months or until he finds full-time employment, whichever comes first,” per the T&G.
Love the “if” here. And the severance package bolstering that “if.” It doesn’t lend a ton of confidence we’re going to take a national search process seriously. Really suggests we’re just going to install a successor in Batista and be done with it. And as the School Committee showed us the Council can and should do better.
The most interesting item to me however comes from a joint meeting last week between the Council’s education subcommittee and the School Committee requesting the City Council look at making its districts parallel to the new School Committee districts. What we’re looking at now is five council districts overlapping the proposed six School Committee districts, creating a messy and confusing situation for voters. A moment from the joint meeting last week neatly illustrates the lines of debate here. Councilor Donna Colorio visibly struggled to make a strained argument that the Council did a great job fulfilling the requirements of the lawsuit. It wasn’t the council that got sued, she argued, so why should we have to change anything.
School Committee member Tracy Novick promptly ruined Colorio’s whole day.
I wrote a full breakdown of this issue back in December if you’d like to know more about it.
And there’s also a very interesting report from the cops on Shotspotter and how it’s definitely really useful and good at distinguishing gun shots from other loud noises.
And definitely not at all racist in its design.
Well that’s a good note to end on I think. Til next time!