BORN TO BE RILED
Gail Greenwood has lounged across the cover of Rolling Stone in blue-spangled hot pants. Now she’s driving Middletown developers crazy with her anti-sprawl crusade. When did this passionate punk-rock mama learn to love the great outdoors?
By Jerry O’Brien
Don’t bother asking Gail Greenwood to slow down or shut up. Chain-chewing Twizzlers, tapping black-nail-polished fingers on her kitchen table and sprinkling “omigod” and “oy” into every other sentence, Greenwood is a fierce and charming force of nature, a woman whose drive and determination leave you breathless. Whether she’s dancing in front of a stack of Marshall amplifiers, a Gibson Thunderbird bass guitar strapped across her body, or addressing the town Zoning Board of Review with a sheaf of paperwork cradled in her arms, Greenwood has a chin-up, shoulders-back attitude that proves she means business.
Depending on where you stand in Middletown these days, Greenwood is either Athena or Medusa: a smart, savvy woman unafraid to mix it up with longtime power players on Aquidneck Island, or a brash upstart with a high-octane motor mouth. For the past year, she’s planted herself in the midst of a long-standing dispute about the fate of open space and the rights of commercial developers.
“Don’t Mall Middletown” reads the bumper sticker on her road-scarred ’91 Jetta. It’s her ambition to tattoo that legend on the soul of every person in town. As the founder of and inadvertent spokeswoman for Middletown First, a residents’ group devoted to what they describe as “kicking asphalt and busting sprawl,” Greenwood has earned the warm affection of local community gadflies twice her age, the professional approval of regional and national anti-sprawl activists and the grudging respect of her critics.
She’s a graphic designer and Web mistress with a flair for the weird. She’s an insatiable music fan who’s never liked the Beatles. She’s a professional musician who played bass with the rock band Belly and appeared in blue-spangled hot pants on the cover of Rolling Stone. So what’s Gail Greenwood doing before municipal boards in Middletown, hiring traffic consultants and quoting from the town’s zoning regulations? Why did
“Omigod, those pants. I know, they’re awful. What can I do? I don’t have a lot of
dress-up clothes, all right?” Greenwood says of an appearance last year.
It wasn’t an appearance on a smoke-filled stage before thousands of fans. It was in the Middletown Town Hall before the Zoning Board of Review, a rather sedate bunch, with just a few dozen folks in the audience. No one there probably knew that Greenwood had pouted languidly with Belly bandmates Tanya Donelly and brothers Chris and Tom Gorman for a cover story in Rolling Stone in April 1995, that the band and its first recording, Star, were nominated for Grammy awards. The magazine dubbed them “the shiny, happy people of post-punk power pop.” If anyone seated in the metal folding chairs of the Town Council chamber had known about Greenwood’s rock credentials, they wouldn’t have cared, anyway. What they cared about was the proposed 108,000-square-foot strip mall that a developer wanted to build on the traffic-clogged retail artery, West Main Road. They were against it, and Greenwood was their chief advocate.
“I’m really doing this because I got sick of hearing myself complain,” Greenwood says. “I just figured, if I’m going to complain so much, it’s time to put my money where my mouth is. I worried about being considered a freak, but it might help my rock career.”
At that zoning board meeting last year, Greenwood spoke with a confident swagger, her anti-sprawl remarks laced with passion and a dark humor that suggested awareness of her position’s inevitable doom that time around. Indeed, the development was eventually approved. But nothing was going to keep Greenwood from getting her comments on the record. As she was trying to address the board, the insistent voice of the developer’s lawyer, Robert M. Silva, could be clearly and distractingly heard as he spoke to an associate seated next to him. “Do you have anything you’d like to share with the rest of the class?” snapped Greenwood at Silva, prompting the board chairman to admonish the lawyer to keep still.
Greenwood grew up in Leave-It-To-Beaver Barrington, in a house on Salisbury Street, not far from East Providence. She has two sisters and a brother. The family had a blast together. Her parents, both of whom graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, encouraged their children to think for themselves and supported their growing interests. For Gail, that meant art and music. She graduated from RISD in 1985 with a degree in illustration. Her drawing and design talents have been honed over the past twenty years in her steady work as a freelance illustrator. She is currently a business partner with her boyfriend, Chil Mott, in Greenwood Associates, the family graphic design business carried on by Gail’s sister, Betsy Greenwood. Gail and Chil moved to Middletown to be close to the strong, slow-breaking waves at Sachuest Beach, which explains the surf racks on the car.
Music has always been a passion. At twelve, Greenwood had Neil Diamond’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull at the top of her chart. It didn’t stay there long. By the next year, the snapping, propulsive bass lines of Marshall “Rock” Jones of the Ohio Players led her into a funk groove that still excites her. She played the baritone horn in the marching band at Barrington Junior High School (“Nobody wanted to play it — I felt bad for the band teacher”), but it wasn’t until after graduation that she started thrashing guitars and screaming vocals in assorted garage and basement bands. She got her first big rush of rock adrenaline as rhythm guitarist and bassist with the Dames, a band that won the WBRU Rock Hunt in 1986 and played regularly at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence. One of their signature tunes was “Loco Amore.” A tour of duty with the rock band Boneyard followed, which included North American appearances with heavy hitters such as the Goo Goo Dolls and Social Distortion.
The rush got a lot more heady in early 1993, when Newporter Tanya Donelly, a founding member of Throwing Muses, one of the country’s best alternative-rock bands, asked Greenwood to join her new band, Belly. The group’s bass player had split shortly after the release of Belly’s first album, Star. With a demanding road schedule set up to promote the recording, which was generating strong reviews and sales, Donelly needed a team player with great chops and a strong constitution. The mix worked. Belly undertook a grueling tour, performing 195 concerts in fifteen countries that year. Star hit gold record status, with more than 500,000 copies sold. The album peaked at number fifty-nine on Billboard’s Top 200. The single “Feed the Tree” reached number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and was one of Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles of the year.
Momentum grew. The following year, Belly was nominated for two Grammy awards, for best new artist and best alternative music album, and two MTV Video Music awards, for best new artist (Stone Temple Pilots got the nod) and best alternative video (Nirvana). The group’s follow-up album, King, was released in February 1995. Reviews were solid. Sales weren’t. Though Belly toured at a frantic pace to promote the release, the sleigh was heading for a tree. The band broke up in July 1996.
Getting on the cover of Rolling Stone was not exactly a dream come true. “My memories of that day are horrible,” Greenwood says. “It was a long, tough day. We were told what to wear, how to pose. We all ended up in tears. The pictures were awful — they didn’t even airbrush them. I mean, I look at them and all I see is razor stubble. But, yeah, it was a great thing.”
A loud-volume, no-frills bass player with a head-banging stage style, Greenwood joined the L.A.-based L7 for three years (“It was a tough commute”), then hooked up with Canadian rocker Bif Naked, spending much of 2001 on tour. Greenwood’s latest musical incarnation is playing, singing and writing with her boyfriend in the band Benny Sizzler. The group’s off-the-wall Web site, a Greenwood/Mott creation, is a window into her skewed, satiric sensibility. “Rock hard or don’t rock at all,” she harmonizes in “Sacred Crowd Pleaser,” “Bang your head in a shower stall.” The
A vegetarian since she was fourteen, Greenwood is straightedge and proud of it. Despite years in the music business, she says she has never smoked, used alcohol or tried drugs. There’s a rotary telephone on her kitchen wall. Her hobby is aviation, especially World War II fighters. Her backyard is a source of delight — not so much because of the thriving gardens but because of the propeller noise from nearby Newport State Airport, which she loves. She has a sweet tooth. She writes important messages on the back of her hand in ink.
In the 1970s, when Greenwood was growing up, her parents used to drive from Barrington to Middletown on hot summer days so the kids could enjoy Sachuest Beach. Coming off the Mount Hope Bridge, the car would turn toward West Main Road, which leads south into Newport. Like a lot of Rhode Islanders, Greenwood remembers when the vistas on either side of Route 114 were mainly farmland and dairy pasture. A couple of years ago, driving home to Forest Avenue after months on the road performing, she felt as if she was seeing West Main Road for the first time. Flanking each side of the four-lane highway was one commercial building after another — strip malls, fast-food restaurants, hotels, banks, supermarket plazas — all trimmed with asphalt parking lots, overhead lighting and garish signs. She had lived in Middletown for a decade. Didn’t she notice this was happening?
“Years ago, we all used to complain about the Chicken City sign on West Main Road — how big and ugly it was,” Greenwood recalls. “But looking back, that was a real place. It had character. There is no character on West Main Road now. It’s just sad.” What finally helped Greenwood turn emotion into action, though, was learning that one of West Main Road’s landmark buildings, the Vanicek house, was slated for demolition. Built in 1937, the ten-room Dutch colonial had not only seen three generations of family grow and thrive; the household and the acre of rich farmland behind it had also stood grandly as an image of Middletown’s rural heritage.
The family sold the property to a man who wanted to put up an automobile repair shop. He was willing to give the house away for free to anyone who could afford to have the structure moved. There were no takers. The house was razed in 2001. Where Dorothy Vanicek once tended her rose bushes, a cinderblock garage now stands.
Pictures of the Vanicek house, from the cozy red and white kitchen to the spacious bedrooms upstairs, can be seen on the Web site that Greenwood helped create when she founded Middletown First, www.middletownfirst.org, a new electronic home for anyone who wants to learn about the regulations that govern land use and development in Middletown. The group’s mission is not anti-growth. It is anti-sprawl. Supporters believe that residents and town officials who are armed with knowledge of the town’s zoning regulations and who are persistent can deal successfully with developers, their lawyers and their paid consultants. Middletown First contends this group has subdivided property in Middletown for fifty years without regard for visual beauty, for quality of life or for what future generations deserve to enjoy.
The Web site was created with former Middletown Town Planner Michelle Maher, who now runs her own Bristol-based consulting firm, Practical Planning Services, and was paid for by less than $4,000 in grants. It is a model for how the Internet can be a valuable civic partner. The site includes a free downloadable copy of the town’s Comprehensive Plan, a 231-page document that you’d otherwise have to pay to copy from the Town Hall. The site also has applications, and checklists for subdivisions, variances and appeals. It has the names, addresses and telephone numbers of every Middletown municipal and school official. Most important, the site has an interactive feature that allows users to click on any portion of a Middletown map to see how each neighborhood is zoned and what the zoning classifications mean. From there you can find important regulations such as minimum lot size and permitted, prohibited and special-permit uses.
“It’s fantastic,” Arthur E. Benner, of Namquid Drive, says of the Web site. Benner is a retired Raytheon supervisor and a familiar presence at council meetings and budget hearings. “It’s amazing what Gail has done for such a small amount of money. The town has spent $3 million to $4 million on information systems in the past few years and never did anything like this. It’s great that Gail has taken such an interest in the town. She’s really taken it to heart. She’s inspiring to other people.”Greenwood, who is now a member of the town’s Conservation Commission, attributes her drive to the inspiration of longtime residents such as Benner and otherolder Middletown community activists, including Arthur Taddei, Vincent Sonsini and Manny Mello. “That’s one of the reasons I do Middletown First — for those guys,” Greenwood says. “Retired folks are Middletown’s great untapped resource.”
Greenwood’s first target was a large retail plaza proposed for the north end of West Main Road, not far from the Super Stop and Shop plaza. Bailey’s Brook, which leads to a portion of Aquidneck Island’s water supply, runs through the parcel from north to south, and part of the land lies in a watershed district. The plaza’s developer, James Chadwick of Massachusetts, needed a special-use permit to build. After months of meetings before the zoning board, Chadwick won his permit. Middletown Square, as the plaza will be called, is supposed to include Petco and Linens ’n Things stores.
Robert M. Silva, Chadwick’s lawyer, is a former member of the Middletown Town Council and a popular choice for developers in their appearances before the council and the zoning and planning boards. Silva seems to dig deep to find something nice to say about Gail Greenwood, but he does it.
“She has a tremendous amount of energy and zeal,” Silva says. “She’s taken up a cause that she describes as not anti-development but anti-sprawl. The only problem is that her definition of sprawl is not what my definition is or what sprawl might be considered in a reasonable reading of the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Ordinance.” Silva says the developer spent time and money making sure that the watershed would be protected: adjacent to the brook, permanent easements were granted to the Aquidneck Island Land Trust, a runoff retention system has been designed, curb cuts will be reduced and a traffic light installed. “[The developer] is trying to be a good corporate neighbor, but Gail doesn’t see it that way,” Silva says.
Silva doesn’t pull any punches when he criticizes the group for hiring lawyers who have represented the petroleum industry.
“The attorneys that are representing Middletown First have appeared at other hearings in other jurisdictions in opposition to any such gas-facility expansion for Stop and Shop and for BJ’s. It’s more than just coincidental that these very same attorneys represent Drake Petroleum Company of Providence, which distributes to more than 600 gas stations from Maine to Florida. Their lawyers have filed petitions in Westerly, Cumberland and elsewhere to object to Stop and Shop getting municipal permitting for a gas facility.”
“I think Middletown First is being used by Drake Petroleum,” Silva adds.The latest turn has Silva representing the company that owns the Super Stop and Shop plaza in a bid to build a gas station in its West Main Road parking lot, which Middletown First opposes. In 2001, the Town Council made a preemptive strike against such freestanding gas stations when it killed a zoning amendment that would have allowed them as a permitted use in shopping centers. Silva and his client regrouped. In September they won approval from the zoning board to subdivide a portion of the lot for an unspecified use. Concerned about an end-run around town regulations, Town Councilman Charles J. Vaillancourt wants a zoning amendment that would close that loophole and keep gas stations separate from shopping centers. As of presstime, the issue was unresolved, but Greenwood will make sure that Middletown First stays in the thick of the fight for reasonable development and an attractive community.
Al Norman, who started the national anti-sprawl group Sprawl-Busters after blocking a Wal-Mart in his Massachusetts hometown, calls Gail Greenwood “part Ralph Nader, part cowgirl.”
“She is willing to do the research, willing to take risks and willing to take on some pretty well-established characters,” Norman says. “She doesn’t care if the odds are stacked against her. She’ll do what she thinks is right.” As for Silva’s charge that Greenwood hired a petroleum industry lawyer to further her agenda against freestanding gas stations, Norman says: “You are hearing noises from an irritated developer’s lawyer who for years has had free rein. These people have had complete control over the development process for years. The whole process has become a joke. When someone like Gail sticks her nose in their affairs, they squawk.”
Tanya Donelly, Greenwood’s former Belly bandmate who now has a thriving solo career, applauds her friend’s grassroots work in Middletown. “It didn’t surprise me because I know how passionate and well-rounded she is,” Donelly says. “She really spreads that passion across her life in every aspect of it. She’s very clear, very smart and very good at cutting through the crap.”
Tossing back long, brown hair that’s streaked with blond and purple, Greenwood laughs and calls to Edith, one of her beloved — and vegetarian — dogs. She knows she’s not alone in feeling that Middletown’s charm could vanish like a Popsicle on a hot sidewalk, and she’s filled with hope.
“I used to be an open space nazi, but I understand that someone owns land and has a right to develop it,” she says. “I also understand that the town is trying to keep its retail development on West Main Road. We just say, enough is enough. Look, I’m still punk rock enough to go up against the Man to see what you’ve got. It’s still fun. Besides, you sleep better.”
Portrait by Patrick O’Conner
Copyright 2003 Rhode Island Monthly Communications, Inc.