The evening of New Year’s Day, after seeing The Force Awakens at Providence Place with Victoria, Billy and friend Maria, all the shops were closed as we descended the escalator to the third level and strolled down the concourse, at the end of which is Nordstrom. The passage raised the vague memory of a column I’d written for The Providence Journal a decade and a half before, a few months after the mall and after seeing a movie at the Hoyt’s cineplex and walking through the mall after closing time. I told Maria as we strolled along that I had written about seeing a pretty girl off in the distance at Nordstrom, and …
Well, here is that long-forgotten column, courtesy of the Journal.
The year of living gloriously
April 27, 2000
SUNDAY, in the evening, after a delicious Easter dinner in Cranston with the family of a dear friend, I treated myself to a movie at Providence Place. High Fidelity was a fine film for the mood I was in. Exactly a year had passed since my move downtown. And the Hoyts Cinema is a brand new downtown delight. So is the eerie experience of leaving the mall after a late movie.
Indeed, leaving the mall after hours may be an experience worth more than the movie itself. An escalator takes you down from the fourth-floor entertainment complex to the mall’s third-floor concourse, with its arched cathedral ceilings. Subdued lighting and classical music feed the ecclesiastical ambiance. Each shopfront along the concourse is a shrine to commerce. As you pass one and then another, you cannot help but judge its offering to the Goddess of Shopping, just as you might judge the congregation of a church by the height of its steeple or the ornateness of its vestibule. In the distance, at the north end of the concourse, is a beautiful woman in a sexy pose. She is seated on a bench inside the Nordstrom window, watching you approach.
It turns out that she is just a large photographic cutout; nevertheless, her presence adds to the divinity of the moment. You turn down the escalator, from which the spare, geometric elegance of the mall architecture is only the more apparent. You exit onto Francis Street and see the city at night, in all its glory, on the far horizon.
This put me in a mood for the more tried and true downtown delights, for wandering the streets of the city. A few days before, in a similar mood but at a considerably later hour, I had strolled up and down the embankments of the rivers. The tide was high and the night was silent, and I walked, brooding, all the way from Waterplace to the Crawford Street Bridge and back without seeing another soul.
At any hour, with or without the multitude, with or without WaterFire, the rivers are a constant blessing for those who live downtown. They are right next door, always beckoning, always beautiful, always a source of spiritual nourishment. Sometimes, the mellow notes of a saxophone drift from the passage beneath the Exchange Street Bridge. Sometimes, the swans are out in state, swimming up and down the Woonasquatucket, as they have done for years. Someday, when these banks are lined with balconied apartment buildings and outdoor cafés instead of empty dirt lots, our rivers of delight will be even more blissful.
But this past Sunday night, following my stroll through the vast serenity of the mall, I was drawn after a stop at home to wander up and down the streets of my neighborhood, a hop, skip and (soon) a skybridge from the mall. Downtown at 10ish on Easter Sunday was even more dark and deserted than usual. Its energetic population of clubbers was absent at home, no doubt, chilling out after their own fat repasts, or maybe it was still far too early for them to stumble out of their clubs.
In the evening, the architecture of downtown has a particular allure. It does not boast of its beauty as it does under a brilliant sun, but it speaks softly, its ornate edges glinting off the light from the historical lamps lining Westminster Street. This melancholy elegance will become more joyful if – oops! not if but when – the street is also lined with shops and cafés. There may not be enough room for lots of outdoor seating (except at Grace Square), but inside/outside seating such as that at Mediterraneo or Olives would turn Westminster into a rival of Newbury Street in Boston.
Round the corner onto Empire Street and a sort of bustle returns. A group of artists hangs outside AS220. When the door opens, the sound of the Neo-Nineties or some such high-wattage band busts out onto the street, setting off a car alarm. Around another corner, Weybosset Street’s denizenry acts out its usual plots and subplots on the sidewalk near Dunkin’ Donuts.
Of course, this may not be for everyone. Some prefer the changeless quiet of suburbia or even an in-town leafy neighborhood. But for me, give me the choice of a dozen or so restaurants a stone’s throw from where I live; give me the clang of the trolley and the clippety-clop of the mounted police; give me the hustle and bustle of the city, day and night, where insomnia at least has a raison d’etre; give me the abundance of shops of old, far beyond in number what you probably think exists; give me the gentle, quiet watchmaker on the second floor of Paolino World Headquarters, watching out the window for what I like to imagine is his lady love walking by daily for 30 years on the sidewalk of Dorrance Street below, unbeknownst; give me the friends, neighbors and acquaintances who seem to pop up around every corner. And please, give me more of all of the above by building even more apartments downtown.
They are coming, but oh so slowly! True, downtown can only get better. Yet it already offers delights aplenty for the pioneer boulevardiers and boulevardettes of downtown Providence. Let us multiply.
Copyright © 2000. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Westminster still has a ways to go before it rivals Newbury!
When I wrote this column I used the term Downcity for the old commercial district of downtown. Within a few years the term had become regularly misused by many, including Mayor Cianci, as a synonym for downtown and I lost my taste for it, since it was no longer clear what it meant in the public mind. It was supposed to be the name of a district within the downtown neighborhood. Now, who knows? So in this version I have replaced its two occurrences with “downtown.”
The wonderful photo of Waterplace by the excellent Richard Benjamin was taken right around the time I wrote this column, pre-GTECH, pre-HUD warehouse condo towers, pre-Blue Cross/Blue Shield headquarters. Ah! Those were the days!