The scalawag bugbear of an agitator Mary Ann Sorrentino on Sunday deplored downtown Providence in her Journal oped, “Walking through our moribund ‘renaissance’ city.” She describes strolling through town describing its former delights to her granddaughter. You can see the tears roll down her cheeks as she writes, “On this recent Saturday, in a near vacant downtown, ghosts of Providence’s glory hovered above my commentary.”
She is not incorrect about the difference between Providence today and Providence yesterday. But she is unfair. Nowhere in her piece does she describe why the city went downhill. Most of the big corporations left the city decades ago, and its big retailers closed shop and joined the rush to the suburbs. And she is deeply clueless about how much has been done to bring it back.
“Politicians take credit for Providence’s ‘renaissance,’ ” she adds after describing all the shops and tea rooms she used to go to that no longer exist. “They moved rivers and railroad tracks, but real rebirth never happened.” She seems to believe that the only crowds in Providence are “club-goers” who “spill into the streets in the wee hours in assorted stages of intoxication.” Not that Mary Ann has ever adventured out and about at such an hour, or analyzed how many drinkers quaff with civility and responsibility.
Lunkheads are not the only downtown nightlife, not by a long shot. Plenty of living goes on by night and day. There are people eating and drinking genially and peacefully, there are theater goers and audiences for live musical events and sporting events. There are outdoor cafés and street musicians, free bocce and free films. There are poetry slams, live/work lofts, and art galleries. (We just need more strolling bards!) And unlike the times Sorrentino recalls, today there are thousands of downtowners who live in the upper stories of buildings on Westminster and other downtown streets. People living in apartments don’t tend to “spill into the streets” at any hour, as club-goers do when the clubs close. But they are just as much in downtown as if they did.
A quarter of a century after it opened, thousands of people daily visit Providence Place. To be sure, most do not venture into “Downcity.” But they are in downtown nonetheless. The existence of crowds on the streets does not necessarily prove what is or isn’t happening. I’m sure the crowds that Sorrentino recalls were not out there at every hour of every day. She is unfair to judge downtown’s vibrancy by visiting on a Saturday afternoon in the dead of winter. Not a good time to stick a thermometer down downtown’s throat. She does not mention the tens of thousands who go to WaterFire every other week or so from May through October. The reopened rivers lined with beautiful bridges, parks and river walks that form the setting for WaterFire are part of downtown and its renaissance, too.
Providence isn’t Manhattan or Boston, but the key to judging our renaissance lies not in that comparison, or in comparison with Providence before the corporate and retail exodus of the ’50s and ’60s. But compare Providence to cities of similar size in New England, cities like Bridgeport, New Haven, Springfield and Worcester, cities that have not done as well as Providence. And although it cuts both ways, it is fair to note that Providence has far less modern architecture and urban renewal. I believe that one fact explains a good deal of why people like to live downtown and in the rest of the city, and like visiting it from elsewhere.
So yes, Providence today is not Providence yesterday. In some ways it is better. In some ways worse. But given half a century of modernity’s degenerative trends, and compared with other cities’ failure to cope, its renaissance is an undeniable success.