Here is the 1992 column mentioned in today’s post “Let’s ruin Kennedy Plaza” in which I suggest merging the plaza with Burnside Park to form a Central Park for Providence. I also placed the bus hub under “Kennedy Park.” On the whole this attempt to forecast the success of what was still being planned in 1992 is mawkish and unconvincing from the perspective of 2014. I cannot suppress my belief, however, that if Providence had continued to build revivalist architecture it had built in the 1990s rather than shifting to modernism as it has, the city would have done a much better job reflecting the success predicted in this postcard. And now they’re destroying Kennedy Plaza, too.
Postcard from Providence, 1997
FLEW INTO GREEN at about noon, grabbed a cab to Providence, and checked into the Biltmore (the convention center hotel, Westin’s Narragansett Plaza, was booked up after all), stowed my luggage, and went up for lunch in the hotel’s roof garden.
From my table, I could see the convention center down below, a block away. Looming above it (and above the Biltmore, for that matter) was the Narragansett. I was looking up at some folks looking down at us from its 24th floor when a fellow at the next table touched my shoulder and told me the taller building to its right, a jewelry trade center, was completed just last year. Lovely building. Art deco. I had assumed it was from the Roaring ’20s!
You’d like the view from up here on top of the Biltmore. Reminds me of our first anniversary. Remember our balcony overlooking Central Park? Well, Kennedy Park is surrounded by buildings, too. Though far smaller, the effect is much the same: a patch of green surrounded by buildings. In the distance, instead of Harlem, is a hill with domes and spires to the east. To the north is the state capitol, its dome guarded by a detachment of minor domes, sort of like the little gables surrounding the big ones on the Narragansett.
The fellow at the next table said Kennedy Park used to be a bus plaza, but was relandscaped as a park after two pedestrians in one week were killed by hurtling buses. Now, he said, the bus routes terminate in a station under the park.
Well, after lunch I registered at the first session. The convention center opened three years ago, and why it took us so long to book a meeting here is beyond me: Providence is architectural heaven!
Except for the buildings in the new downtown built this past decade, and the skyscrapers in the financial district the decade before, almost all of downtown was built before the Depression. The city could not afford urban renewal during the 1960s and ’70s, so today whole streets are lined with buildings that went up between 1870 and 1930, a veritable museum of American commercial architecture.
After the first session, ’round about five, I strolled to the new shopping mall next door. It looks like an ornate factory of the Gilded Age. I went into a jewelry shop to get you a gift, but the item was broken, so the manager sent me to their custom outlet four blocks away in the old business district. I walked to it, and was directed to a loft where the young lady who made your gift lives in a studio. As she worked she told me that many fancy jewelry and dress shops at the mall have outlets in this district, most with lofts for artisans. This, she said, was an arrangement cooked up by the mall developer, who agreed to set up a management plan for the old downtown in return for a city tax rebate that clinched private financing for the mall back in 1992.
She said the deal was blasted in the press at the time, but it had an eye-opening effect on the old men who own many of the old buildings downtown – and who’d believed, quite sincerely, that the mall would be the death of the old business district. But now downtown is filled with artists and students from RISD and Johnson & Wales University, whose graduates own, manage and often even live above many of the new restaurants, clubs and swank galleries here. There are groceries, laundries, delis, newsstands – it’s a bustling neighborhood now. It even has movie theaters competing with the mall’s videoplex.
And the old men? Well, they are rolling in cash like they never dreamed!
The silversmith conceded that the area has gentrified, and her rent has gone up. She said she and most other artisans can afford it. She said property values have escalated even more in the financial district: Many lawyers and accountants (“artist wannabes,” she called them) have discovered that the upper floors of the buildings they work in are even more fun to live in. So now the skyscrapers’ prestigious firms operate cheek by jowl with plush condos and penthouses overlooking Kennedy Park in one direction and Narragansett Bay in the other.
Well, after your trinket was repaired, I strolled around this extraordinary downtown and found that the ugly modern store fronts installed during the 1960s and ’70s had been stripped off and the facades beneath restored. Most of the buildings have plaques disclosing the dates of their construction, courtesy of the Providence Preservation Society. Tours of the “Downcity” begin hourly at the Rhode Island Museum of History, which used to be an abandoned department store facing the wrecker’s ball.
Downtown Providence may be the Williamsburg of the Industrial Age, but it is much more vibrant and commercial, spinning off tax revenues that are funding a neighborhood renaissance. Businessmen who attend meetings at the convention center are falling in love with the city and moving their businesses to Rhode Island in droves. Joblessness is under three percent for the first time since the Reagan years.
By the way, I’m writing this to you from an ornate pond encircled by granite walkways and an amphitheater, on one level of which is the cafe where I now sit. The view across the pond is the city skyline. It’s getting toward midnight. I ended up here by accident, but almost as if by design. While wandering downtown, I ran into a fellow conventioneer and together we ambled among the old buildings until we came to the Providence River.
On the far bank, between the river and a courthouse, was a park featuring a tall obelisk honoring the soldiers of World War I. We had dinner at an outdoor cafe overlooking the park from – imagine this – a cubic space cut from the upper stories of a building that was itself a cube, a Rubik’s Cube of neo-modernism we were thankful to be looking from, not at. We were eight floors up and could see that the river came to a fork a quarter-mile upstream. One branch flowed to the right by yet another park, the other curved to the left behind the skyscrapers of the financial district, which we decided to follow.
At dinner a waiter had told us we could either stroll the system of river walks or rent a paddle boat, which we did. After paddling past the confluence and under several lovely bridges (they were lit underneath!) we arrived at this pond, Waterplace Park, which is almost as wide as a football field and much more elegant. Along the way we saw water taxis that must have been built with Venetian gondolas in mind. We docked and parked ourselves at yet another outdoor cafe.
In fact, it took us a while after we sat down to realize how close we were to where we each had started, near the convention center and our hotels. After coffee, my fellow explorer offered to show me the view from her room at the Narragansett, but you will be glad to know I declined. So here I sit writing to you, wishing you were here. Indeed, I wish we lived here!
* * *
David Brussat is a Journal-Bulletin editorial writer.