The River Valley is a cluster of nine working-class towns, including Rumford with its paper mill along the Androscoggin River. It is a microcosm for working-class towns across America. Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times

RUMFORD — The River Valley, a rural paper mill community comprised of nine working-class towns, is the focus of one of 10 reports on the condition of American communities and what they need to thrive.

The new initiative is called American Roundtable.

Headed by the Architectural League of New York, teams of contributors received $10,000 to support their work, which will be published digitally on archleague.org and in a series of print publications.

Drawing on still-active relationships with local residents, activists, writers, business leaders and town officials, the report seeks to provide answers to:

  • “How does a machine-age mill community thrive in an age of post-industrialization and global corporate profiteering?”
  • “In what ways can this report, and the community itself, amplify the voices and concerns of the River Valley’s workers and its residents?”
  • “What infrastructures or economies may be needed if the primary industry — paper making — is rendered obsolete in the near future?”
  • “How can the community celebrate and amplify its natural resources, without losing them to the unrelenting grips of profit-seeking capitalist investors?”

The River Valley is the hometown of Aaron Cayer of New Mexico and Kerri Arsenault of Connecticut, co-editors of the local project.

The valley serves as a microcosm for working-class communities across America. Its natural resources, mountain springs once prized for their healing properties, the Androscoggin River and the mountains that offer recreation and inspiration for hikers, skiers, authors, campers, artists, fishermen and musicians, are overshadowed by the smokestacks of Rumford’s 100-year-old paper mill that has been blamed by residents for environmental and human offenses.

Aaron Cayer Submitted photo

“I began thinking that the River Valley area may be a suitable community to focus on, in part because it represents so many challenges that other working-class towns face, though in a more concentrated and visible way,” Cayer said.

“I had never met Kerri, but I was aware that she had been studying the town and was writing a book, ‘Mill Town,’ which is scheduled for release in September,” he said.

Arsenault said Cayer reached out to her in early February about the project.

“We worked on the proposal together — he in New Mexico and me in Connecticut — and by March 10 we were notified that we were one of the editorial teams to receive a grant!” she said.

“Both of us were personally motivated to spotlight the River Valley, in part because the mill, as the economic generator, overshadows so many of the incredible natural resources of the area. Both of our fathers worked in the mill and recently died from cancer,” she said.

“Aaron and I both grew up in the River Valley and still care deeply about the community and our family members who live there,” she said. “I hope we can reveal, rather than dictate solutions. Real change has to come to come from within. That said, when you are too close to something, it can be hard to see. It’s hard to be objective or see the pros and cons of a place when you are in the middle of it.”

“On the other hand, Aaron and I no longer live there and don’t have that inside, daily perspective of what the community experiences,” she said. “Both points of view are important — inside and outside — and it’s the latter that I think our report will provide. That doesn’t mean we are outsiders, because we know what it’s like to live there, to grow up there, to hear logging trucks rattling down the road,” she said.

While Cayer and Arsenault will serve as the editors for the report, Cayer noted the report will feature work by a number of contributors that will focus on categories such as artists, an audio engineer, photographer, writers and others. Each selected team will focus on local challenges, though each is required to address the categories of public space, health, work and economy, infrastructure and environment.

An ethnographer, historian, and educator of architecture, he is an assistant professor of Architecture History at the University of New Mexico.

Kerri Arsenault Erik Madigan Heck photo

Arsenault graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from The New School midway through the 10-year development of her recently completed book, “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains.”

“It took me 10 years to write ‘Mill Town,’ and during that time, I learned how the past has shaped our future in the River Valley,” Arsenault said. “Meaning, how our landscape has defined us, but how we have defined it, too. The mill, while providing the engine that has kept our town and our families afloat, has also destroyed lives and the environment in which we live. And we had a hand in both the success and the destruction, the latter largely by keeping silent or by not having the choice to do anything about it.”

Cayer said the publication date of the report, online and print, is Sept. 1 so reports about small towns could potentially shape discourse about the presidential election in November.

The other nine proposals selected are:

  • Africatown, a historically rich, yet underserved neighborhood in Mobile, Alabama;
  • The Appalachian communities of West Virginia;
  • Brownsville, Texas’s poverty-stricken southernmost border city;
  • South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Reservation, the fourth largest Indian reservation by land in the U.S.;
  • Clarksdale, Mississippi, often credited as birthplace of the Delta Blues;
  • New Mexico’s Lower Rio Grande Valley;
  • The climate change-vulnerable South Beach communities of Washington’s Pacific coast;
  • North Carolina’s agriculture-dependent Southeast Good Food Corridor;
  • Ohio’s Youngstown-Warren-Lordstown metropolitan area, a former industrial hotbed that has experienced stark population and job losses.

The 10 projects were selected from 125 submissions covering 40 states and territories.

“The proposals reflected the tremendous richness and diversity of America’s small cities, towns, and rural regions, so often collapsed into stereotype or dismissed altogether in our national narratives,” Sue Mobley, a New Orleans-based urbanist and activist and member of the American Roundtable Selection Committee, said in a statement.


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