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Middle class eroding, gap widening in Bristol, R.I.

Yachts and a food pantry in uneasy juxtaposition

At the East Bay Food Pantry in Bristol, R.I., people waited in line this month.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

At the East Bay Food Pantry in Bristol, R.I., people waited in line this month.

BRISTOL, R.I. — With its sweeping views of Narragansett Bay, this quaint sailing town boasts waterfront mansions, postcard-perfect New England inns, trendy gastropubs, and a museum to the America’s Cup yacht race.

Yet a few short blocks from the seaside parks and granite docks is another side of Bristol not found on the tourist maps. On weekday mornings, people stream into the basement of a former rubber mill where the town’s food pantry does a brisk business.

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Like many other places in America, Bristol is increasingly a community of extremes, home to both great wealth and a shrinking middle class as more residents slip closer to poverty. Nearly one of every 10 households in Bristol County uses food stamps, more than double the number just a few years ago, representing one of the largest increases in New England.

“I feel like I’m trapped,” said 32-year-old Christy Watkinson, a stay-at-home mother collecting free potatoes and cabbage from bins at the East Bay Food Pantry with her 1-year-old daughter, Sage.

“We try to make things work, but it’s really hard,” said Watkinson, whose partner works as a landscaper in summer and snowplow driver in winter. “It gets tight.”

Hundreds of families like Watkinson’s visit the food pantry each month as good paying jobs remain scarce and the cost of necessities like food, gas, and housing, particular during tourist season, climbs. “If you’re willing to work at Dunkin’ Donuts for $7.50 an hour, that’s what’s available,” said Ashley Cheatom, a 30-year-old mother of four who collected fresh and canned food at the food pantry recently.

Bristol is the seat of Bristol County, which has a population of nearly 50,000. The town sits on a peninsula between Providence and Newport, a slice of Americana best known for its 200-year-old Independence Day parade along Hope Street, with the growing divide between rich and poor often invisible to the tourists who flock here to take in the views.

‘We celebrate being American. What does that even mean anymore?’

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Over the years, jobs in manufacturing and fishing that paid middle-class wages vanished or were replaced by lower-paying service jobs catering to tourists and wealthy retirees.

The number of households receiving food stamps in Bristol County soared to 1,700 in 2012 from about 700 in 2009 — a jump of 130 percent, more than double the 56 percent increase for all of New England, according to an analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

“Hidden poverty is becoming more obvious and it’s going to become even more obvious as income inequality grows,” said Kaili Mauricio, a Boston Fed policy analyst.

Downtown, Bristol’s harbor overlooks mansions and summer estates on an exclusive stretch known as Poppasquash Neck, where a gated, newly built mansion recently sold for $5.2 million, one of the most expensive sales in the state so far this year. Nearby are residences of the likes of the former chairman of Texaco and the late actor Anthony Quinn.

Yet less than two miles away, Bristol’s first food pantry opened in 2009. Visits to the pantry, which is just blocks from Bristol’s commercial district and Hope Street, have jumped 34 percent, to 4,300 in 2013.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

The ocean vista from homes on Poppasquash Road in a wealthier section of town.

More than one-third of the households using the pantry have more than one wage-earner. One in five families using the pantry are two-parent households with children, according to the food pantry.

“This is a community of extremes,” said Daniel Barron Randall, pastor at Bristol’s First Congregational Church, who founded the food bank because a growing number of people were asking him for food. “Part of the middle class has slipped into poverty.”

In what was once a community of rubber factories and textile mills, many of the old factory buildings along the waterfront have been converted to shops and condominiums.

Tourism has become a major source of revenue, but Rhode Island was hit especially hard in the last recession and places like Bristol were affected when consumers cut back discretionary spending on items like vacations, restaurant meals, and shopping.

Unemployment in Bristol County was more than 8 percent in February, compared with about 9 percent statewide and about 7 percent nationally and in Massachusetts. Rhode Island, which has the highest jobless rate in New England and one of the highest in the country, was the only state to lose middle-wage jobs from 2010 to 2013 — jobs that pay $14 to $21 per hour, according to the New England Economic Partnership, a regional forecasting group.

Keith Sartini, chairman of the East Bay Chamber of Commerce, said Bristol and surrounding areas have been solidly middle class for generations, but wealthy people have bought property and driven up prices, attracted not only by the waterfront, but also easy access to Boston and the rest of the region.

“Bristol isn’t that far from the highway, and you can make your way up to Boston pretty quickly,” said Sartini, a financial planner. “We’re getting an influx of higher-net-worth residents.”

“It’s upsetting and very sad,” he said of the food stamp increase. He said he believes the state’s high taxes and regulatory climate have driven many small employers away.

An influx of wealthier retirees has also made Bristol a more expensive place to live, putting an even tighter squeeze on middle- and lower-income families struggling with unemployment, underemployment, and stagnating wages.

Sandra Andrade a real estate agent and Bristol resident, said real estate values have climbed. The median home value has about doubled over the past decade, and Andrade, 67, said she is having trouble affording a tax increase on her modest home. She hopes to move to Florida soon. “It’s incredibly hard to live in town,” she said. “Even though it’s very beautiful.”

Lisa McMaster, a 30-year-old mother of two, said she has struggled to find an affordable place to live because landlords often prefer renting to students from nearby Roger Williams University or seasonal renters willing to pay more.

She said she works in the fishing industry, the third generation in her family to do so. But new fishing restrictions and competition from poachers have limited her income.

Leaving the food pantry with two bags of free groceries on a recent morning, she said Bristol was different than the community of her childhood, when neighbors seemed friendlier. The town’s famed Independence Day celebration is one of the few events that bring locals together. But that’s the only day the town feels like a true community, she said.

“We celebrate being American,” she said. “What does that even mean anymore?”

Anita K. Randall, executive director of the food pantry, said some community leaders didn’t like the idea of opening a food pantry in Bristol in the first place, not wanting to “acknowledge the problems in the town.”

She said she had to encourage many residents struggling to pay their food, rent, electricity, and auto bills to take advantage of the pantry and register for the federal food stamps program. For many, it was an issue of pride.

Joanne Ciullo, a volunteer at the Linden Place historic mansion and a longtime town resident, said at a superficial glance, everything looks like it’s going well in Bristol. “It just looks like a prosperous little town,” she said. “But it’s a town of contradictions.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse-@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Hope Street.

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