Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Rust Belt Chic, Providence Style

I had an interesting conversation the other week with some folks here in Providence. I happen to live in a converted mill building in a somewhat dowdy outlying area. Chatting with some folks at a swank bar/art gallery in downtown Providence, folks suggested that for the same rent, I could live downtown and enjoy all that is on offer there, such as said swank bar and many other similar type cultural amenities.

I can appreciate this point of view. I certainly highly value being able to take advantage of those things. But for me, if I wanted to enjoy swank bars, art galleries, coffee shops, vegan restaurants, cutesy boutiques, etc., I’d never have left Chicago. Chicago already has a vastly greater array of such places than Providence could ever aspire to, and is a legitimate transit oriented metropolis to boot.

On the other hand, I couldn’t live in a converted mill of the type I live in now in Chicago no matter how much money I was willing to pay. This type of architecture only exists to any great degree in Rhode Island and select other New England locales. This is something unique here that you can’t get anywhere else, and if I’m going to be living here, that’s what I’d prefer to take advantage of for now.

The cold reality is that Providence is never going to be competitive in talent attraction by trying to out-appeal Boston, NYC, DC, Portland, Seattle, etc., etc., etc. on creative class type amenities. It’s just not going to happen. You are competing with other places at their strongest point and will fail.

That’s not to say these types of things aren’t critically important. If there weren’t some critical mass of that type of attraction, if I couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee, meal, beer, or have some cultural stimulation, I’d probably blow my brains out. Or more likely take the next train out of town. Those types of things remove “knockout criteria” that would keep someone from even considering your town. But they won’t close the deal.

What closes the deal is some type of unique attractional characteristic. It could be as simple as family or being your original home. It could be a unique career opportunity. Or it could be something about the local place or the local culture that isn’t on offer in every other town in America, something that makes your town a truly unique and authentic experience.

For Rhode Island, the birthplace of the industrial revolution in America, the old mills and such are a part of that. They are part of our Rust Belt heritage, just like the “Pittsburgh potty” is in that town. They fact that so many of these old places are decrepit and rundown only adds to the charm in some respect. What a place with real history and character? This place has got it.

That’s what it will ultimately take to turnaround a Providence or other Rust Belt city. It won’t be chasing the same dreams as everybody else. It will be charting a unique path rooted in local history, culture, and geography, repositioned for the 21st century.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: Providence

9 Responses to “Rust Belt Chic, Providence Style”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    Exactly so. I agree that there are certain “hurdle” or “threshold” city necessities, beyond which a city risks becoming “me too”.

    Leaders should help make their city the best (fill in your city name here) it can be, not another (fill in your choice of world city name here).

    As an aside, it would be an interesting thought-exercise to try and make a “standardized test” of cities or metros. I envision something that would attempt to compile in one place the plethora of “best place to live” variables. So a reader who values history, climate, nightlife, cultural attractions, advanced education, K-12 education, recreation, greenspace, mountains, beaches, pro sports, density, sprawl, real estate cost, healthcare, etc. could see the leading cities in his/her preferred categories as well as those cities’ rankings in other categories.

    After all, what most people seek is “the best place for me” rather than “the best place”.

  2. Racaille says:

    Mr. Renn,

    You should move to Detroit:

    You could be transformative! Imagine the upside!

    Nice photo of the mill BTW.

  3. Richard May says:

    Very interesting observations. I do hope these lovely rust-belt towns will be able to reinvent themselves naturally. It’s difficult to be patient, but many people are beginning to perceive the intrinsic value in the buildings and cities that shaped our nation but have now been forgotten. Letting it evolve naturally is going to be the challenge.

  4. James says:

    At first I couldn’t see what you are seeing because that looks a bit like Bridgeport. The forest in the background is what I think makes it different from Chicago. Otherwise it looks like Blue Island. Maybe more pictures would help convey your idea?

  5. James, maybe I’ll do a photo survey of New England mills at some point. The building on the left is definitely a more Chicago style red brick industrial building. The one on the right is a gigantic stone colossus, however. I haven’t seen a building like it in Chicagoland.

  6. urbanleftbehind says:

    You might see that kind of stone building in Joliet.

  7. James says:

    Sorry I was also reading on my phone so not the biggest screen ever.

    That aside the point is one I am mulling over. How much should cities focus on amenities like coffee shops and cupcakeries that are surely better in New York and how much should they focus on things for which they have a clear comparative advantage.

    For example looking at that picture it looks like there is a big park or nature preserve within walking distance from your place. Kind of a get away from the crowds place. You can’t really buy that in Chicago for any price. Walkable urbanism within walking distance to forests is something not a lot of big cities can match.

  8. Peter Brassard says:

    The setting of Aaron’s building is more typical of the environs of Providence. This collection of buildings is along the Pawtuxet River, which is south of Providence (city). North of the city similar clusters can be found along the Blackstone Valley in small villages that are part of larger more conventional suburban towns. This particular place is rather exceptional. Stone is not always that common most places, except in Fall River where just about every mill is constructed of it. Like this example individual mill buildings of a complex can be constructed of different materials (wood, stone, brick, concrete), which usually is dependent on the period each mill was built.

    In the inner core cities of Providence, Pawtucket, and Central Falls are more dense and urban, though along the Woonasquatucket River in the Olneyville section of Providence the riverbanks can be forested, but more often they have been transformed into traditional city parks and playgrounds. It’s not likely that you’d feel like you were in a nature preserve in Olneyville. The relationship of apparently natural surroundings contrasted by the industrial can even be found in a few places in Pawtucket and Central Falls. Most of New England and the Hudson Valley just north of New York City will often have an intermittent series of towns or villages or conventional suburbs separated by woods or rivers. The hilly topography can make a place appear more isolated than it actually is, adding to the illusion.

  9. Just me again says:


    I agree with you and completely understand your point of view about living in the mill area of Providence R.I. Also, not being able to have that same experience in Chicago. I think that’s a big problem with Chicago… after a while you become closed-in because there’s nowhere else to go to in the region that offers a “real” educated small town coastal feel when you’ve outlived the trendy areas of Chicago.

    However, the truth is… Chicago “could” and “should” offer the same mill experience that you have in Providence. But that’s the problem with Chicago… it has the POTENTIAL to do a lot of things but the people are not forward thinking enough to take advantage of the city’s great infrastructure outside of Downtown and the vanilla Northside region.

    The far Southeast side of the city is amazing! It’s an old fishing community, coastal area with lots of water front access, tons of boat slips, old marina’s, canals, cheap housing, small lots and charming streetscapes that would make a very unique coastal region. Very similar to what Michigan and Indiana offer. But the simple fact is that part of the city (like most) is controlled by gang violence, desperate drug dealers, poverty and no one in their right mind would want to move to these neighborhoods or invest in them without being forced to. I mean how much can we over invest in the Loop or on the Northside?

    The reason the city cannot advance and has such a high turn-over rate is due lack of regional options. The city is stagnated by poor education, corruption, Aldermatic control, high crime, drugs, gangs, unnecessary regulation, difficult zoning laws, shake down inspectors and an overly-meddling City of Chicago. This makes it impossible to have a nice low-key neighborhood away from the Loop near the water and in old empty Mills comunities that do exist on the far Southside of the city and near Gary.

    Once again, poor leadership is limiting the opportunities in Chicago and forcing people to leave the area for greener pastures.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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