Providence’s ‘renaissance’

Shephard's on Westminster at the rear end of the lunch hour, circa 1960. (Providence Journal)

Shephard’s on Westminster at the rear end of the lunch hour, circa 1960. (Providence Journal)

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.”

Woman stands at bus stop near the Outlet Company, circa 1965. (Providence Journal)

Woman stands at bus stop near the Outlet Company, circa 1965. (Providence Journal)

Policeman directs traffic at Westminster and Empire, circa 1925. (Providence Journal)

Policeman directs traffic at Westminster and Empire, circa 1925. (Providence Journal)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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5 Responses to Providence’s ‘renaissance’

  1. Pingback: That Providence renaissance | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Our Downcity walkabout | Architecture Here and There

  3. Pingback: Downcity walkabout w/Maria | Architecture Here and There

  4. I recall the mid-’80s when Shepard’s was still open as a cheesy retail center, no longer its own department store. If I recall, it survived beyond the Outlet, which had closed by the time I got here in 1984. I know nothing of their owners, but there were plans to turn the Outlet into an apartment complex before it burned down in the late 1980s. If you look down Clemence from Westminster you can see an overpass connecting the upper story of Shepard’s and the upper story of Gladdings, with Cherry & Webb in the same building, if I recall. Do you remember that Gladdings spent some time up on the second story of the Arcade while it was still owned by Johnson & Wales, which operated it as a sort of retail training center for students? But Peerless lasted into the early 1990s, I think, as did Woolworth’s the next block down on Westminster, in the old Journal building, yes? Correct me if my memory is playing games.

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  5. Robert Solomon says:

    Total Ignorance on her part – Shepard was a viable business, with a suburban branch in the first mall in Warwick (2 stories with Sears at the other end). Unfortunately, the new owner of the stores was a thief, and milked the two businesses dry. Shepard’s failure had nothing to do with retail business downtown, just corporate malfeasance. Shepard’s failure left a big hole on Westminster Street, which was followed by the sale of the Outlet Company as the Sinclairs withdrew from the retail business. I think the 3 other department stores – Peerless, Gladding’s, and Cherry & Webb all had corporate ownership connected to either or Shepard or the Outlet.

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