Twenty Years and Counting

On September 12, 1991, the city of Chelsea collapsed under the weight of social, moral, and economic bankruptcy. After decades of falling into the ground, its population fleeing to the suburbs, its housing stock tired and old, its politics hopelessly out of control, the city went broke.

The city, which had its greatest moments under the sun during the Roaring Twenties, when its population reached nearly 50,000 when it epitomized the perfect example of an American Melting Pot city, had become infested with petty municipal corruption, corrupt police, corrupt public officials, a corrupt and incompetent city hall and there was illegal gambling everywhere; and money laundering, fencing, truck hijacking going on daily as a way of life throughout the city.

Just about everything was the way it shouldn’t be in official Chelsea.

The people were held hostage by a system that was designed to fail – and it did.

The corruption and mismanagement of the city’s finances were complete and as thorough as a police investigation by September 12, 1991.

For decades the police department stood watch for the gangsters. How else could they operate to the extent that they did? The gangsters acted out in the open clear light of day. Gambling and money lending flourished and on Fifth Street, the biggest gangster of them all, met with an FBI agent every Friday at his bar. The agent was his handler. He allowed that gangster to operate unfettered as the bank for a Boston Mafia family in return for being a rat. And a rat he was – but no one understood what was going on.

In the weeks before the 12th of September, 1991, the city underwent a series of financial earthquakes.

The city’s bills for goods and services couldn’t be paid. Union raises couldn’t be met. There was a nearly empty treasury.

City hall officials talked about payless paydays while the city’s unions refused to alter contracts whose obligations could no longer be met.

Then came the week of the 12th.

Chelsea began the week unable to pay its school teachers, its firefighters, its police officers or its city employees. It could no longer meet its obligations. The city owed $10 million with no relief in sight and there was no leadership capable of righting what had gone wrong with the city.

Mayor Butch Brennan, a common man who had risen to become Chelsea’s mayor would be its last.

Shortly before noon on September 12, he threw in the towel. He called over to the state house and told the governor he was coming in to resign and to hand the city over to the state.

I drove Mayor Brennan to the state house in my car. We arrived at the state house and went to the entrance of Gardner Auditorium where Governor Weld was waiting for him.

There were television cameras to record the scene, and radio broadcasters and a handful of local reporters. And there was a gray haired fit looking man who had made millions in the insurance business named James Carlin standing next to the governor when we arrived.

The welcome the governor gave Brennan was cordial, and Carlin, too.

The mayor handed his letter of resignation to Governor Weld. Carlin was sworn in as the Chelsea receiver.

At 1:OO p.m., all city contracts were voided. All deals were off and Carlin went to work.

In the months that followed, the city began its long trip into the heart of darkness. Carlin changed everything that needed to be changed.

The city was put on a new footing. The pervasive public corruption was weeded out almost overnight by Carlin.

With the Board of Aldermen abolished, an impediment to doing things the right way had been eliminated.

After Carlin came in, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service followed. The great investigation into public corruption in Chelsea had begun.

When it was over, four former Chelsea mayors who held office from 1977 through 1991 either went to jail or were held under house arrest. A Chelsea police captain was sent to jail and several officers were indicted or forced to resign by Carlin.

Fast forward 20 years.

The Chelsea of today only vaguely resembles the city as it was before.

The geography is obviously the same but the population is entirely different and so too is the city government, the state of the city and the manner in which it is run.

Under the leadership of City Manger Jay Ash and with a pristine city council that is absent of corruption or political favoritism, Chelsea is moving forward boldly.

The city is surging with new development and investment. The infrastructure is being almost entirely redone. There is a rainy day account with millions in the bank.

Under Ash, the city is the example by which other municipalities in this state ought to measure themselves.

The city is now an inclusive place. And the city is absent of the petty municipal corruption that ruined it and brought it down.

Chelsea remains the proverbial Melting Pot.

It remains the best hope for thousands of residents struggling to achieve the American Dream.

English is a second language. Many are poverty stricken. Ignorance abounds because so many came here from other places without education or skills.

But Chelsea has survived. Chelsea has prospered.

After all these years the city remains the real thing, a place that accepts and welcomes

struggling people from all over this earth.

It is city that risen like a Phoenix and for whom the sky is today the limit.

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