A shout-out from this corner to former Mayor Joe Paolino for buying the moribund St. Joseph Hospital, on Broad Street in South Providence, as a combination – so I gather – homeless shelter and SRO hotel. I’m not sure exactly what Paolino’s plans are, but his action has the feel of something done from the heart – and at his own expense – to solve a problem he has recently pitched in to try to solve as a Kennedy Plaza property owner and as chairman of the Providence Downtown Improvement District.
Paolino was mayor when I first came to Providence. My first experience of his civic design sensibility was his reformation of Westminster Street, in downtown. He turned the disaster inflicted by the flawed Downtown Providence 1970 plan, which in 1961 unveiled an insane proposal to destroy downtown, into a thing of beauty. He paved the sidewalks with brick, lined it with lovely period lampposts, planted delicate trees, and generally proved the power of street furniture to revitalize a street’s beauty. Paolino began the process of getting property owners to remove faux modernist façades whose installation was pushed in the 1970 plan but had been foolishly promoted by the city itself since the mid-1950s.
After serving as mayor, Paolino became Gov. Bruce Sundlun’s state economic czar during the early period of Buddy Cianci’s return to City Hall. In 1994, Paolino was appointed ambassador to Malta – described by my old Journal colleague Irving Sheldon as “Baroque from stem to stern” – and invited me out for a brief stay in Valletta, the island’s ancient capital. What a place!
But I am straying off topic. Paolino has purchased a building that has a strong pull on my heartstrings because my wife’s father, Laszlo Somlo, worked there as a pathologist for most of his career in medicine. He had retired by the time I met Victoria, but I could never drive by it without thinking fondly of him. He died last March, so the building and the thoughts it inspires have become even more dear to me.
Paolino’s first (to my knowledge) act in the matter of homelessness was to seek a ban on smoking in Kennedy Plaza. I thought that was a flawed response to Mayor Elorza’s refusal to enforce the law against aggressive panhandling. A deteriorating situation was made worse, in my opinion, by the city’s decision, under Mayor Taveras, to uglify Kennedy Plaza by replacing its lovely Art Nouveau waiting kiosks with sterile, cheapo, modernist glass-and-steel waiting kiosks.
“We shape our buildings; henceforth, they shape us.” That is how Winston Churchill put it. A civic square newly dispirited by sterile architecture (the kiosks) may be expected to see an increase in the spirit of degradation. That seems to have happened among the homeless and panhandling population of the plaza – the very population that benefits most, and for free, when the government makes the civic square lovelier and more inviting.
The city had plans of its own to bring greater civility and beauty to the plaza. A proposal by Union Studio Architects, of downtown, to turn the plaza into a more active public square (see image below) seemed likely to have a positive effect until the city’s “renovation” of the plaza turned its look in a downbeat direction – suggesting that the idea was to evict from the plaza all who might distress the eventual residents of a renovated Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Building. That would, it seems, have included bus patrons, whose bus stops were to be pushed out to the periphery of the plaza.
I wrote about these matters in 2014, starting with “Let’s ruin Kennedy Plaza.” Three years later there is no evidence that positive changes once planned for the plaza’s revitalization are anywhere near implementation. Nor have any coherent plans emerged from the city to keep Kennedy Plaza from sliding into a social-policy sinkhole.
In the meantime, Paolino’s plans for St. Joseph Hospital are meant to alleviate the disaster that Kennedy Plaza is becoming. More people who need a place to live or stay temporarily will have a major new facility nearby. Joe Paolino deserves credit for that. Rather than hunkering down at his firm’s headquarters, he is getting out into the civic arena and fighting the good fight for his view of the city’s best interests.