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.