The lady on the waterfront

View south from inside Conley's Wharf, circa 2005. (Photo by David Brussat)

View south from inside Conley’s Wharf, circa 2005. (Photo by David Brussat)

In her chapter “The curse of border vacuums” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs considered waterfronts a potential assassin of liveliness in city districts, not intrinsically so but because they were often poorly used. But near where she lived in Greenwich Village she found one stretch of waterfront seductive. She wrote:

Near where I live is an old open dock, the only one for miles, next to a huge Department of Sanitation incinerator and scow anchorage. The dock is used for eel fishing, sunbathing, kite flying, car tinkering, picnicking, bicycle riding, ice-cream and hot-dog vending, waving at passing boats and general kibbitzing. (Since it does not belong to the Parks Department nobody is forbidden anything.) You could not find a happier place on a hot summer evening or a lazy summer Sunday. From time to time, a great slushing and clanking fills the air as a sanitation truck dumps its load into a waiting garbage scow. This is not pretty-pretty, but it is an event greatly enjoyed on the dock. It fascinates everybody. Penetrations into working waterfronts need to be right where the work (loading, unloading, docking) goes on to either side, rather than segregated where there is nothing much to see. Boating, boat visiting, fishing, and swimming where it is practicable, all help make a seam, instead of a barrier, of that troublesome border between land and water.

In Providence, the mayoral race features the issue of whether the waterfront south of downtown and south of the Route 195 redevelopment project should be of the working type or the leisure type. An intelligent case can be made for both types of urban riverfront; the question is whether it is feasible to develop the working waterfront effectively enough so that the jobs and tax dollars are greater than those that would come if the city redeveloped the waterfront as a leisure type.

Of course, the removal of taxable economic activity in the process of accomplishing the latter strategy is a cost that would be difficult for Providence to recoup, and whether the city could interest enough developers of marinas and hotels to really make it work – it certainly lacks the money to subsidize them – is very highly dubious.

I wrote a column long ago supporting local developer Patrick Conley’s effort (since failed, largely because of official city opposition under the dreadful Cicilline administration) to turn his wharf property into a waterfront paradise. His Fabre Line Club was a nice place for years while it lasted (it closed several months ago). And he was able to turn the old plant that housed it into space for artist live/work space for a considerable while. But the machinations of the Taveras administration (which is on its way out) put paid to Conley’s efforts. If he had been allowed to succeed, he might have sparked a development trend that could have animated the waterfront between the port and downtown.

Or maybe not. Again, the working waterfront strategy also holds promise when intelligently managed. Taveras did not seem to make much hay on the working waterfront he inherited as mayor from Cicilline, nor even farther south along the city’s largely moribund port. But that is another issue – upon which, I believe, all the candidates for mayor agree.

You can read my Sept. 29, 2005, column “Pat Conley’s educational wharf” on my next post.

In any event, Jane Jacobs’s words offer ideas that the city can use if it wants to continue the working-waterfront strategy. As she suggests, there are ways to have it both ways, at least to a degree. Who is not enthralled by the working waterfront? That is, if you can get close enough to luxuriate in the grime and noise of its action and drama.


About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to The lady on the waterfront

  1. Pingback: Patrick Conley’s waterfront | Architecture Here and There

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