Providence: The Quiet Revival

Rustwire’s recent article about Providence, and a less recent article on the Urbanophile, have made me think about Providence’s growth. The Urbanophile comes strongly on the side of the power of its coziness; Rustwire takes the opposite track, talking about redevelopment and about the problems of the current recession, which has hit Rhode Island particularly hard.

With the caveat that I’m familiar mainly with the East Side, let me say that the redevelopment is unimpressive. Providence doesn’t look like it’s booming (in reality, its metro area income growth is high), and the city itself is very poor. That said, it doesn’t look very poor – not just on the East Side, which is solidly upper middle-class, but also near downtown. Downcity has a lot of urban renewal hell, but it doesn’t look especially bad.

To me the contrast is with New Haven, a city I’ve visited many times over the last few years, and there’s simply no competition. Although New Haven’s Chapel Street is busier and livelier during than anything I’ve seen in Providence, away from it the city looks post-apocalyptic (and even then, Thayer Street generally stays open later than Chapel). Yale student housing is in glorified project towers surrounded by too much parking, and a never-completed freeway stub and elevated parking structures cut off the main campus from the medical center. Providence has its share of freeways slicing neighborhoods apart, but the East Side managed to avoid them, and its housing stock is normal buildings, developed by different individuals over hundreds of years. Perhaps this better urban integration is why despite being poorer than New Haven, Providence maintains lower crime rates, echoing Jane Jacobs’ points about safety.

In other words, Providence is starting from a much better base than peer cities, though, going purely by income, nearly all secondary Northeastern cities are growing fast. The issue is not that Providence is rebranding itself as the Renaissance City, or Creative Capital. It’s that it was messed up less than other cities. Worcester has almost nothing next to the train station. New Haven has housing projects that I know people who are afraid to walk through. Providence has sterile condos and a mall, but next to them are some nice secondary shopping streets, and beyond them, in the right directions, lies intact urbanism, on the East Side and in Federal Hill.

If anything, most relevant government policy even in recent decades has hurt city walkability. In the 1980s, the city moved the railroad tracks north of the river, severing them from the East Side Railroad Tunnel. Simultaneously, it built Providence Place Mall and today’s train station, covering what used to be elevated track. The project was meant to remove an eyesore from downtown, but instead just moved the station to a more inconvenient location, and the mall sucked retail out of Downcity streets. Even what Rustwire calls highway removal was really a realignment: the I-195 river crossing was moved to a more southerly location since the old route was not up to the latest design standards, and this also happened to move the freeway farther away from Downcity and reunite it with the previously-isolated Jewelry District. There’s nothing wrong with that realignment, but it’s the kind of project Robert Moses would’ve supported.

On top of this, the attitude toward economic development is just embarrassing. Last year, I went to a meeting featuring smartphone app writers who claimed that “Providence is like a startup,” without a shred of irony about using this word to refer to a 17th-century city. A representative from the city government talked about the subsidies the city is paying to young entrepreneurs to just come live here.

And still the revival continues. Rhode Island may have one of the highest unemployment rates in the US today, but income growth is high; things are slowly getting better. The most visible growth in the US is in population rather than income, and so the usual markers are new housing starts, new infrastructure, and a lot of “coming soon” signs. Providence of course doesn’t have much of this. Instead, people are getting richer, slowly. RISD students occasionally go down the hill to Downcity (though Brown students don’t, since Brown’s campus is much higher uphill).

Economic growth in the richest countries is slow enough that people don’t perceive it. Instead, they think it’s the domain of countries that are catching up, such as China, where it’s so fast it includes new construction and the other markers that signify population growth in the first world. In the long run, it matters that a city’s income grows 1.8% a year rather than 1.1%, but it’s not visible enough to be captured by trend articles until long after the spurt of growth has started.

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8 Responses to Providence: The Quiet Revival

  1. DingDong says:

    “Although New Haven’s Chapel Street is busier and livelier during than anything I’ve seen in Providence, away from it the city looks post-apocalyptic ”

    That’s ridiculous. Urban renewal hit New Haven pretty bad, but there are plenty of areas that are still quite nice and were untouched by it (East Rock, Fair Haven, Wooster Square, Ninth Square; Beaver Hills, Westville, much of Cedar Hill, Newhallville, lots of Dwight,). I get the feeling from this post that you were in a foul mood when you wrote it.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Prospect Hill and the areas to its east are fine, but they’re pretty suburban. Fox Point and College Hill aren’t exactly shining examples of dense urbanity, but they have a much more complete street wall than what I remember of that part of New Haven.

      • DingDong says:

        I wouldn’t disagree that Providence’s urban form is more intact than New Haven’s. I was just taking objection to the idea that off of Chapel St., New Haven is “post-apocalyptic.”

    • According to Douglas Rae’s book, New Haven received far and away the most federal urban renewal funding per capita of any city in the country — almost triple Newark, which was in second place. I don’t know where it all went. The city leveled some old commercial blocks around the Green, and destroyed a neighborhood or two, but the damage was modest compared to Hartford or Bridgeport (which was already tearing down the area around its RR station in the 1920s). It even avoided having the interstate “noose” thrown around its neck, as happened to Hartford, Bridgeport and Providence. It does indeed have nice areas away from the immediate downtown.

      A minor point, but it is incorrect to say that Wooster Square was “untouched” by urban renewal. It did avoid total clearance for the I-91 right of way, but many shops and homes were demolished by the city in the late 50s and early 60s.

      • Adirondacker12800 says:

        Bridgeport (which was already tearing down the area around its RR station in the 1920s).

        Well unless you want to preserve everything in amber for perpetuity, things get torn down when you build all sorts of TOD-y goodness.

        Grand Central terminal and all the Midtown job density was redevelopment of low rise tenement clustered around the El and the commercial/industrial clustered around the noisy smelly dirty railroad on Fourth Ave. The whole concept of Park Ave. is redevelopment luring the rich folk away from Fifth Ave. Rockefeller Center was low rise tenement, one still survives because the owner refused to sell. All the addresses in Philadelphia that start with “Penn Center” were railroad viaduct or the Broad Street station. Grant/Millennium Park in Chicago is landfill around the trestle the Illinois Central built in the lake…. Riverside Park in Manhattan..

        …ah Newark. I know many many people who lived in the neighborhoods that were bulldozed. The apartments were hopeless, no central heat, no running hot water and most of them no bath. a few without electricity. There was one tap in the whole apartment, a cold water one for the kitchen sink. The toilet was in the hall. it would have cost more to upgrade the tenements than it did to tear them down and build new. The mistake was building tower-in-the-park and mismanaging them, along with all the other mistakes that were made.

        • Eric Fischer says:

          I don’t know anything about these apartments, but how expensive could it possibly have been to retrofit new heat, electricity, and plumbing? When we moved we replaced those systems in our house, to replace the hundred-year-old originals, at a cost of several thousand dollars but dramatically less than the value of the structure, and certainly no more than it would have cost to install the same things as part of a new building. Grand Central, etc., were built because somebody thought that the new buildings would be worth dramatically more than the old. You don’t do that just because the plumbing needs to be replaced, unless you are a midcentury redevelopment agency.

  2. Pingback: The Urbanophile » Blog Archive » Providence: The Quiet Revival by Alon Levy

  3. Pingback: Pedestrian Observations from New Haven | Pedestrian Observations

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