Thursday, April 19th, 2012
[ Here is the second in the two part guest author series on Providence. Alon Levy of Pedestrian Observations brings his typical keen insight to the city – Aaron. ]
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.
This article originally appeared in Pedestrian Observations on March 7, 2012.