Nordstrom’s absquatulation*

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View of Providence Place, with Nordstrom at right. (photo by author)

Providence and its renaissance will survive the departure, announced yesterday, of Nordstrom from the Providence Place mall. Many local commentators are pulling their hair out in shock and dismay. Relax. Losing Nordstrom is a gut check, but hardly fatal.

It’s early, but the winning entry in the sweepstakes for the gloomiest reaction to the startling news may be GoLocalProv’s “The Death of the Providence Renaissance.” “The Providence Renaissance began in the late 1990s. … Two decades later, Providence is stagnant.” The evidence? “A new report of the fastest growing cities in America ranks Providence number 458 out of 515 ranked. The population of Providence has decreased over the past fifty plus years. Providence’s population in 1960 was 207,498 and today it is just 179,219. And now, the Renaissance seems to be morphing into the Dark Ages.”

To take these in order, the renaissance started not in the late 1990s but in the late 1970s, after Johnson & Wales started renovating old buildings and the city embraced an unofficial moratorium on the demolition of old buildings downtown (which lasted until 2005). To save old buildings became the order of the day, including the Biltmore hotel, which had closed in 1975, reopened in 1979, and the Ocean State Theater, whose application for a demo permit in the late 1970s was refused, leading to its eventual rehabilitation as PPAC. Work began on the Capital Center development project in the early 1980s, and in the mid-’80s the river-relocation project was added. In the early ’90s the convention center and Westin hotel joined the fun. Waterplace opened in 1994, the same year as the first WaterFire. Narragansett Electric Co.’s Manchester Street Station was renovated in 1996. The renaissance was well under way by the late ’90s, and went into overdrive when the mall opened and Buff Chace started rehabbing old buildings as lofts the same year.

Stagnation hit almost a decade ago, before the Great Recession, when most of Chace’s rehabs were done. Old buildings were being demolished again after a quarter of a century. (Thank you, Mayor Cicilline!) Five new buildings were proposed in 2005, including one that would have topped the Industrial Trust. None was ever built. But the mall had become a financial boon to the state, and a great “third place.” However, in 2011, Borders closed.

Under a string of owners, the mall has been poorly run, a fact that was evident years ago when management refused, in spite of repeated requests from this corner, to fix the glorious exterior lighting that had long washed up between the pilasters at Macy’s. The mall’s lunkheaded leadership reached its nadir when Borders was replaced by the umpteenth shoe store. The last upscale restaurant, the Napa Valley Grille, also closed in 2011.

If Nordstrom is so vital to the Providence economy and to the mall’s already tarnished upscale rep – and it is – the mall should have tried harder to keep it there, offering a lower and lower lease until Nordstrom could no longer refuse. Its replacement will be Boscov’s, a retail chain that offers much of what Nordstrom offers at – ahem! – a lower price point. Let’s not forget that Nordstrom, too, is a retail chain. Perhaps, however, Boscov’s will do a better job tapping the market of metro Providence at its true price point.

Naturally, we hesitate to embrace that idea. But look at the survey linked above by GoLocalProv as “fastest growing cities in America.” Look at it and one thing is clear: The places rated tops in “growth” may not rank very high in a list of “nicest places to live.”

Providence’s population has declined from 207,498 in 1960 to 179,219 today. In 1959 and 1960, the city proposed the College Hill plan and the Downtown Providence 1970 plan. Both plans recommended massive demolition and urban renewal, replacing old buildings with new modernist buildings. Both plans were largely abandoned in just a few years, and what little was built made Providence worse. Neighborhoods were already being bulldozed for new highways. A highway had been seriously proposed to shoot right up the Providence River. The status of downtown and College Hill today is a rebuke to the know-it-alls of yesterday. It is altogether possible that a large portion of the population that left after 1960 were people who felt queasy at the city fathers’ ridiculous, indeed horrifying idea of what Providence needed to stem the flow of residents and businesses to the suburbs.

Be that as it may, the failure of these two plans left Providence with extensive historic architectural fabric intact, more so than in most cities, whether bigger or smaller, many of which bought whole hog into urban renewal and modern architecture. Providence did not, and that is the basic reason there was a Providence renaissance at all. In the 1980s, civic leaders finally “woke” to the idea that beauty was this city’s major advantage (along with being between Boston and New York City) in vying with other cities.

Today, our city fathers seem to have forgotten that. They are transforming a beautiful city into a standard city, one that could be located anywhere. Look at what is being built in the Route 195 corridor. New buildings, yes, but, my god! Must they be so damn ugly? Has Providence learned nothing over its past very extraordinary 40 years? Were today’s leaders asleep during the city’s renaissance? It certainly looks that way.

The primary concern of a city’s leadership should be its citizens of today, not its possible citizens of tomorrow. Make Providence nice and beautiful for today’s citizens and people in other cities are much more likely to become tomorrow’s citizens of Providence. Yes, other factors that have nothing to do with beauty are vital to making a place livable. However, those factors are very hard to do right, whereas we already know how to bring beauty to the city because it has been done very well before. Beauty creates places where civility reigns, and under the influence of a civilized environment it may be easier to come together and solve the city’s toughest problems. We already have more of such an environment than almost every other city. Let’s build it up not tear it down. Let’s strengthen our brand, not shoot it in the foot.

Providence’s mantra should not be more and bigger but better and better. That should be the lesson we take from the departure of Nordstrom.

* Absquatulate means to leave abruptly, and usually has a connotation of tail between leg.

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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12 Responses to Nordstrom’s absquatulation*

  1. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    It’s true with population, all boats rise in the tide. We’re LOW …Moreover, Nordstrom does not fit the demographic. Meaning our population base cannot afford their stuff. They change the grading of their stuff downward, But not enough. You know the problems, the school system and a high tax structure etc …Look at the percentage of tax free institutions …

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  2. Well said…I was reminded of a story when Buddy lived at the Biltmore and learned there were gangs roaming the PPM. He high-tailed it there in overcoat over PJs and told them to “get out of his mall” – what Buddy lacked – he gave tenfold to the city he loved and took a boom and made it a true Renaissance, which we are doing our damnedest to walk back to dirty and ordinary. Had to drive about 3 miles an hour over and around roads with potholes so deep you could see a “wooden” structure, below….but Mr. Mayor is on his way to re-election…what don’t we get? We need vision more than experience…

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  3. Christie says:

    Why no mention of WHO saved Providence in the 70’s, and had the vision to save and refurbish old buildings? Mayor Buddy Cianci has his faults but his love of the city and his plan of a “Renaissance” City are what still make Providence great today. The city has been missing this focus in its leadership ever since.

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    • Cianci certainly loved the city, Christie, but not enough to prefer it to his own self-aggrandizement, monetarily and otherwise. He probably undermined as much progress in the renaissance – projects, companies moving into town, etc. – as he made progress through his talking up the city, which he was very good at. He was not responsible for planning the major projects that gave rise to the renaissance. His hands were always in the pockets of those whose firms did the heavy lifting, and I don’t doubt he wanted projects that came with federal funds so he could try to grab some of that money for himself. He’s not nearly as responsible for the renaissance as he gave himself credit for. Sorry!

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  4. Peter VE says:

    First, Go Local neglected to mention that the population in 1980 was around 156,000 and peaked in the 1930s at just over 250,000. Their stats imply a continuing decline, but that what “lies, damned lies, and statistics” are for: to obscure the truth.
    Second, Nordstrom succumbed to the crapification™ of everything: for example: they stopped stocking house brand Oxford shirts with sleeve lengths in 1 inch increments, so when I went to pick up a couple new white shirts, my choice was sleeves one inch too long or too short. I could buy an overpriced brand in the right size. Today they have them back online, but I couldn’t buy it online or here a year ago.

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    • Peter, it is certainly true that Providence’s population grew until reaching some 250,000 in mid-century. And our Nordstrom did indeed target a lower price point than Nordstroms elsewhere. It probably targeted lower and lower, though how to distinguish these from crapification I’m not sure – but your perception is correct, it seems to me. Nordstroms in more upscale markets are much more lush in appearance and in offerings than ours.

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  5. Steve says:

    Only two points –
    First, “…Providence’s population has declined from 207,498 in 1960 to 179,219 today. In 1959 and 1960…” Actually, you will find the city’s population at well over 180,000 officially and then there is the 10,000 illegals AND the population is increasing (small percentage but a +).

    Second, I would argue build for the future population.

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  6. Mr. Downturn says:

    No one can tell this history better than this writer. Pity his definition of absquatulate is average — a C. No, with today’s grade inflation a B+! The word dates to about 1830 and means to make off with what one mistakenly believes is valuable. Rich connotations flow from the Anglo-Saxon verb within.

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    • Thank you, Mr. DT. As for the definition of absquatulation, methinks yours must also date to 1830. That does not mean it is false, only that taking “what one mistakenly believes is valuable” must go back even farther than “usually with something or someone.”

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