On a walking tour of Providence, Rhode Island, you’ll encounter famous museums, historic homes, an Ivy League campus, and possibly even ghosts.
The statue of Roger Williams in Providence’s Prospect Terrace Park strikes an impossibly awkward pose: knees bent, back arched, right arm extended.
It looks as though he’s trying to catch himself after being punched in the base of his spine. I doubt the real Williams would have complained, however; he had a rough life and learned to take the good with the bad.
The good in this situation is the view. Statue aside, the panorama is breathtaking. Prospect Terrace Park sits high on College Hill, and the heart of Rhode Island’s capital city spreads out below it like a banquet. You can see the steeples of the old town, the towers of Downcity, and the regal dome of the state house. On clear evenings, the most beautiful sunsets in New England play out here, setting the glass and granite facades ablaze. That would have pleased Williams, its founder. In a region known for its sunrises, his city should be most beautiful at dusk: Providence was established as a critique of and an alternative to the rest of New England, a tradition it has happily fulfilled to this day.
Residents of Providence, when comparing their city with Boston, always talk about its size. It’s home to about 178,000 people–big enough to foster robust arts and food scenes but too few to require a subway system. Residents often refer to their city as “comfortable,” “doable,” or “just the right size to bump into people you know all the time.”
Providence has reinvented itself to capitalize on its small-town/big-city feel. At its heart, a compact and surprisingly diverse walking district is taking shape, highlighting some of the reasons why New England’s second city is first in the hearts of many.
Providence was founded at the place where the Woonasquatucket and Mashassuck rivers join to flow into Narragansett Bay. This junction is still at the core of the city, and it splits Providence’s walking district in two. On the east bank is College Hill, a primarily residential smorgasbord of 18th- and 19th-century architecture and the place where Providence was born.
When Roger Williams arrived here in 1636, he’d been chased out of Massachusetts the previous year for arguing that religion and politics should remain separate. He founded Providence on that principle. So while you’ll find almost everything you’d expect from a self-respecting New England historic district here–steepled churches, Georgian mansions, an Ivy League university–the one thing you won’t find is a meetinghouse. Williams would have nothing to do with them.
The original settlement was laid out in long strips that ran from the riverside up the hill. Those early homes are long gone now, but the steep grade of the hill remains. Today, however, instead of colonial Baptists laboring up and down it, you’re more likely to spot a gaggle of coeds regretting the poor arch supports in their canvas shoes. As its name suggests, College Hill is anchored by its institutions of higher learning, Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and both bring a lot to the neighborhood.
The RISD Museum on Benefit Street features an aggressively diverse collection dedicated to exposing its students to as many artistic styles as possible. Traveling from one gallery to the next, you’ll first see ancient Egyptian carvings, then possibly a modern multimedia installation, or a nine-foot-tall wooden Buddha. A new wing, opened in 2009, gives the museum more space to display works created by its students, though you could argue that the gift shop accomplishes that better. RISD Works offers an eclectic range of unique items–from fine jewelry to robotic bugs–all designed by current and former students.
Farther up the hill, the Brown University quad serves as the heart of the College Hill neighborhood. Here you’ll find the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, a worthy distraction, but book lovers could skip it and head right to the libraries. The John Hay and John Carter Brown libraries hold astonishing collections of rare and ancient texts, and they frequently display curated exhibits of their finest holdings. And visitors with a taste for the bizarre should know that if you ask the librarians at the Hay nicely enough, they may show you their collection of three anthropodermic books: books bound in human skin.
College Hill is a magnet for this type of thing. It’s filled with the macabre and the mysterious, as the ghost tours that ply its streets will attest. For instance, at the John Brown House Museum you can see a root that grew through the remains of Roger Williams and supposedly took on his shape. There’s also the Annmary Brown Memorial, a small art museum built within the tomb of its founders.
It’s unclear why the neighborhood’s spirit is so Gothic, but even Edgar Allan Poe felt it. He found inspiration here in the form of Sarah Helen Whitman, a fellow poet of similarly dark taste who enjoyed seances and wore a casket-shaped pendant around her neck. The two had a suitably literary courtship, stealing quiet moments together in the stacks of the Providence Athenaeum. They were betrothed, but the engagement fell apart the day before the wedding. Whitman continued to carry a torch for Poe and was convinced that she was the inspiration for the beloved corpse in “Annabel Lee.” (She took it as a compliment, which might mean they were right for each other after all.)
Traveling down the hill from Benefit Street you’ll quickly run into both the river and a time warp. The bookish, colonial ambience of College Hill vanishes at the water’s edge, replaced by the urban glass-and-steel grandeur of Downcity.
The river divides Providence into two eras. The east bank was built when tall ships were king, and cargoes from China, Africa, and beyond cluttered the wharves. In the mid-1800s the city began to shift westward, riding a manufacturing boom that established its urban core. With railroads taking the place of ships, the river was almost entirely paved over, replaced by Crawford Street Bridge, a thoroughfare known to history as the widest span ever built and to residents as the most congested.
To the relief of the city’s residents and visitors, that’s no longer the case. Like most New England cities, Providence saw its manufacturing base crumble after World War II and watched as urban decay set in. Starting in the 1970s, urban planners and nonprofits began imagining ways to turn the city around (a process they now refer to as “the Renaissance”). Resurrecting the rivers was high on their list, though it wouldn’t be until 1995 that Providence’s Riverwalk took full shape.
Starting a few blocks south of the fork and following the west branch around the northern limits of Downcity, the Riverwalk is a series of grassy enclaves and bench-lined promenades along the water’s edge. A handful of graceful bridges with ornate railings and streetlamps span the river. The scene has a very European feel, helped in part by La Gondola‘s Venetian-style vessels wending their way up and down the river, each with its own striped-shirted pilot and live musician serenading its passengers.
Across the river, the effects of the Renaissance have taken root in the once-blighted center of Downcity, though Providence’s rebirth is still a block-by-block battle. On Empire Street, for example, the Trinity Repertory Company and AS220 anchor the neighborhood’s cultural scene with traditional theater and avant-garde art–while just a block away the old “gentlemen’s clubs” are still doing good business. What was that about taking the good with the bad?
The poster child for Downcity’s restoration is Westminster Street, a short stretch of ultra-hip shops that are breathing new life into the abandoned department stores that once did business there. Craftland is a must-visit boutique featuring locally created clothes, jewelry, and art–much of which has a distinct pro-Ocean State message, such as the T-shirt warning “Don’t Mess with Rhode Island Either.” Across the street, Small Point Café attends to the neighborhood’s caffeine needs, while Symposium Books keeps alive the legacy of the cool independent bookstore.
As any urban planner will tell you, it takes more than building a few parks and bridges to jump-start a city. Businesses won’t open without foot traffic, but people won’t come downtown until there’s something to do. Providence found a solution by appealing to one of mankind’s most primordial impulses: If you want to draw a crowd, set something on fire.
WaterFire is the brainchild of multimedia artist Barnaby Evans. First put on in 1994, it was intended as a one-time occasion but has since become Providence’s signature event, with a number of celebrations each year from late May through early October.
From a performance standpoint, there isn’t much to see. At my first WaterFire, my girlfriend and I staked out a prime spot in Waterplace Park, a circular basin at the western edge of the Riverwalk. The air was tinged with smoke as boats carrying dark-clad torchbearers lit scores of braziers along the river. Classical music blared from the speakers as a slightly larger boat entered the basin. A buff, shirtless man performed a fire dance as the boat made a loop and then vanished back the way it had come.
“I think that’s it,” my girlfriend whispered. “That can’t be it,” I replied. “That’s just the intro.”
It turned out we were both right. The real show is what happens all around the canals. The side streets are filled with food vendors and performers; dance floors emerge along city byways, accompanied by the rhythms of tango or swing. All along the Riverwalk, people stroll arm in arm as the warmth of the fire battles the cool night air around them. And at every promenade, people sit along the benches and just stare into the flames, transfixed like children around a campfire.
It’s a quiet moment—a chance for visitors to discover and for residents to remember just how unique Providence is. It’s a city unafraid to rise from the ashes and move steadily forward, one rebirth at a time.