On the front page of yesterday’s Providence Journal, under a delightful illustration by Tom Murphy, was “Saint Nick Sails a Retro Route,” a poem by longtime South County editor (ret.) Gerry Goldstein, typically droll and deft of touch. Read it to the cadence of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with a “tip of the cap” to Clement C. Moore. Santa’s sleigh hits a time warp, and flies over Rhode Island as it used to be. As the author of Lost Providence, my favorite passages look down from above downtown Providence:
Rudolph, who that night was leading the sled,
Looked down at the landscape and nervously said,
“Santa, I think we are far off our beat —
Can that be the Outlet on Weybosset Street?”
Sure enough, when he looked he saw brilliance and shimmer
As display windows sparkled with Christmas Eve glimmer.
Santa spread out his maps to consult travel records,
When Rudolph exclaimed, “There’s the tea room at Shepard’s!”
They flew over Peerless and Cherry & Webb
And the Loew’s State marquee — ’twas Downtown at high ebb!
Rudolph declared it to be quaint and pretty,
And flatly refused to call it “Downcity.”
In “flatly refus[ing] to call it ‘Downcity,'” Rudolph agrees wholeheartedly with the author of Lost Providence. The words “Let’s go downcity” once meant “Let’s go downtown to shop,” more an activity than a place. The word was selected to brand the old commercial district in the 1990s by planner Andrés Duany, who got the name from preservationist Antoinette Downing. It was widely misused as a synonym for downtown by Mayor Buddy Cianci and eventually many others, at which point it was also being widely misspelled as DownCity. At last, this writer flung it overboard. Good on ya, Rudolph!
The Shepard’s Tea Room was dearly departed by 1975. When I arrived a decade later, the department store had degenerated into a handful of outlets for cheap imported goods. The Peerless was still going (if not going strong) until Buff Chace bought the building, leased the ground floor to Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel and the Met Café, then gave them the heave-ho (or helped them move to The Strand on Washington), then finally reamed out the building’s core for a glitzy atrium surrounded by some 99 loft apartments.
To read Goldstein’s stanzas reminds me how barely I qualify as a Rhode Islander. So many of the places he mentions are unknown to me, or places I’d heard of but never visited, including places I’d never visited even though they existed in recent memory, though not in my own. These latter must surely include Nyanza and Trifari. What were they? Eateries? Shops? Sears, which I frequented as a bachelor, was demolished not too long ago after a couple decades of vacancy, and replaced by an LA Fitness – a building that, in spite of its wannabe classicism, makes me yearn with nostalgia for the Deco Brutalism of the North Main store.
He sped over Sears, that North Main Street emporium,
And saluted the Reds in the old Auditorium.
He buzzed the Ming Garden, and brimming good will
Waved to the skiers atop Diamond Hill.
Gladding’s, he noted, and the First National Store,
City Hall Hardware, Nyanza, and more:
Trifari and Coro went by in a breeze,
As well as did Mee Hong, and then Luke’s Chinese.
Luke’s has a snug corner in my heart even though I’d never been there. For 11 years I lived in the Smith Building, Buff Chace’s first loft rehab downtown, but quite a while after the ground-floor reign of Luke’s, with its Luau Hut in the basement. The drinks had umbrellas, natch – or so I understand. I once had lunch with Irene Hope, its former owner, who still lives in Paul Rudolph’s Beneficent House (that’s Rudolph the architect, not Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer). What I don’t fathom, and what Goldstein did not note, is that (old) downtown is again without a Chinese restaurant, Dragon 2000 having gone under on Mathewson Street some year or two ago.
Don’t blame me! I used to eat at the Dragon all the time, both singly and in a group of us from the Journal editorial board who used to lunch there now and then – this long after an earlier “lunch bunch” would chow down at Ming Garden, where I had lunched with Journal personnel director Paul Reeve, I believe, during my two sets of interviews back in 1984 for the job I held there for the next three decades.
(For that matter, the Turk’s Head Club went missing at least a couple of decades ago. That’s where I had lunch with Journal publisher Michael Metcalf. He pointed out the window toward College Hill at the Rubik’s Cube and said, “We hate that.” (I wrote a chapter under that title in Lost Providence.)
But the Turk’s Head Building remains, as do many of the buildings that hosted the stores, shops, restaurants and other places recollected by Goldstein. Most cities and states can’t make that claim, and it is what makes Providence such a wonderful city and Rhode Island such a wonderful state. Goldstein’s concluding sentiment says it all:
Recalling our yesterdays with their allure,
Locked in our memory, safe and secure.
So from Foster to Newport to the Point Judith Light,
He bids Merry Christmas to all on this night!