Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Ruining Rhode Island – Missing the Context

My latest article is online over at City Journal, and shows how Rhode Island has become an economic and demographic basket case, one not making headlines largely because the state is small enough to fly under the radar. I’ll give you a trigger warning on this one. While making clear that the Republicans of Rhode Island have hardly crowned themselves in glory, I focus on the follies of the Democrats who have had overwhelming control in the state since 1935. If you don’t want to read this one, try one my previous posts about the Tea Party instead. You can also read a response from the left at RI Future.

In my article, titled “The Bluest State,” I attribute the state’s failure to poor governance and corruption (bi-partisan), a complacent populace, and far left policies that have imposed top 5 or top 10 levels of high taxation, high service/low investment spending priorities, stifling regulations, and very powerful public sector unions on a state radically unsuited to them.

The response by some in Rhode Island was to say that while the legislature is controlled by Democrats, they are conservatives, not progressives. Or pointing out Republican failures like Gov. Don Carcieri. I have a very simple reply to that. If the policies of Rhode Island are indeed conservative, then progressives should have no problem rolling back the taxes and regulation, rebalancing spending, and curtailing union abuses there. Welcome aboard.

In any case, the macro problem is that this collection of policies was implemented in a place completely unsuited for them. The ideas were imported from elsewhere and implemented in a way that ignores the context. I plan to explore that in a three part series starting today. This post will be about the competitive context of Rhode Island. Thursday I’ll lay out a “decision toolkit” of questions that can be used to evaluate any proposed policies there. And next week I’ll give some very specific recommendations in the form of an expanded and more detailed list from my article.

Let’s start with the context. That’s something that’s really been missing from the Rhode Island discussion and is absolutely critical – because without the context, you can’t really property evaluate any proposed solutions to the economy.

I want to start by going back to the Slater Mill in Pawtucket 1793. Why did America’s industrial revolution begin in Rhode Island? There are a lot of reasons. We were a coastal country, and Rhode Island was on the coast. Rhode Island was right in the middle of that Northeast Corridor from Philadelphia to Boston that was far more dominant then than it is now. So Rhode Island was in the middle of the action – it was centrally located. It was an era of water transport and power, and Rhode Island had the seaport access, and numerous small rivers it could dam for power. It was in the intellectual center of America, and had a freethinking culture that was open to the new and the different. And once the first mill was built, Rhode Island had first mover advantage in the marketplace.

So in a sense where else in America other than New England could this have happened? Not too many places. You couldn’t have done textiles in North Carolina back then because their entire economy and culture was a slave based agricultural economy, for example. It would have been a non-starter.

So what we see is that Rhode Island and New England had major structural competitive advantages that let them initiate and then dominate the early stages of the industrial economy in America. It was like Detroit in cars, or Silicon Valley in tech today.

Fast forward a hundred years to the 1890s, and that’s when Rhode Island’s textile base began to erode. What happened in that hundred years that caused this change? Well America was a very different place in the 1893 than 1793. Instead of a coastal nation we were a continental nation. Rhode Island was no longer centrally located, it was on the periphery. The primary transport mechanism was no longer ship, it was rail. Power was no longer water, it was coal, steam, and electricity. Slavery was abolished in the South, and they had to find something else to do. Religious freedom and free thinking ways were no longer the exclusive possession of Rhode Island. And as a consequence of these changes, Rhode Island no longer had a structural competitive advantage or fortress position in the industrial marketplace. Instead, it was subject to something it didn’t have originally, and that was competition. This newly competitive environment posed – and still poses – particular challenges for Rhode Island because it is so geographically small and thus border arbitrage is easy.

What Rhode Island needed to do was to recognize that its circumstances had changed, and that it need to start acting like it was in a very competitive market instead of one in which it held all the cards. That would have been difficult in the best of circumstances candidly. But it didn’t do that. And I’d argue that’s true up to the present day. And it’s easy to understand why. Rhode Island had a 100 year run in a market dominant position. Keep in mind, Detroit only had 60 years of success and dominance in autos, max. Rhode Island had a hundred years of industrial dominance, and successful merchant trading and such industries before that. So clearly that stamps the thinking of a people. It has to. But nevertheless, the situation has changed.

And that, fundamentally, is the most important thing to understand about Rhode Island’s condition. It’s been acting like it’s still selling a premium product from a structurally advantaged position like it was at the beginning, when it’s actually selling a commodity product into a highly competitive global marketplace. It’s been trying to sell a commodity product at a premium price point in terms of costs, taxes, regulation, etc. and unsurprisingly hasn’t gotten a lot of takers. The stone cold reality is that with limited exceptions, Rhode Island has no marketplace leverage. One might blame this on federal level neoliberal policies, but that doesn’t make reality any less real for the Ocean State.

The state hasn’t recognized its problem of trying to sell a commodity at a premium price point. That’s for several reasons. First is that the policies that are intended to embody Rhode Island’s values were imported from other places that have radically different conditions. Rhode Island is a state with progressive values. There’s nothing wrong with those values and in fact I share many of them. But where do the policy ideas that instantiate progressive values come from?

To just pick an area that’s been a debate in the gubernatorial race, every Democratic candidate has pledged to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10/hr, which would be the highest statewide level in the country. Where did that idea come from? Did it originate in Rhode Island? I don’t think so. So the question we need to ask is where did it originate, and what are the conditions like there?

I’d argue most progressive policy ideas come from three primary places: San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC. And if you look at those cities, or other progressive capitals like Boston, what you see is that they are like Rhode Island was back in 1793. They have a structural competitive advantage in the marketplace because they have captive, high value industries that are bound to the geography where they are located, operate at global scale, and spin off huge amounts of cash. Wall Street prints money and it isn’t going anywhere. Silicon Valley isn’t going anywhere. Speaking of printing money, the federal government literally prints it and is not pulling out of DC. Harvard and MIT aren’t moving out of Greater Boston. These places have cash registers that never stop ringing. So those cities can get away with doing things Rhode Island can’t because it no longer has those fortress industries like they still do today. So the state has been importing policy ideas from places that are nothing like Rhode Island.

That includes the rest of New England. If you pan back the lens, what you see is that there are really only two poles of wealth in New England. One radiating out of Boston. The other out of New York City into Connecticut. To the extent that you’re able to tap into Boston or New York money, you’re doing pretty well. To the extent that you’re not, you’re likely as bad off as Rhode Island. Most of Massachusetts, its so-called Gateway Cities and all that, are exactly like Rhode Island. Connecticut is chock full of struggling industrial cities like New Haven and Bridgeport. Even their white collar economy is in trouble.

The states of Massachusetts and Connecticut only are able to do what they do because of the high value they capture in Boston and places like Greenwich and Stamford. Even New Hampshire similarly is almost entirely dependent on access to Boston money. Rhode Island simply looks worse, because it has less access to New York and Boston money than those other states.

That’s where I’ll actually defend Rhode Island’s leadership. In a previous article, I argued that Rhode Island’s problem isn’t poor leadership. I’d like to qualify that. Rhode Island has indeed been poorly governed, and that’s a problem. But it hasn’t had uniquely bad leadership. Some people like to say that the problem is Rhode Island’s leaders are stupid whereas those in other states are smarter or less venal. I don’t think that’s the case. Three House speakers in a row got indicted in Massachusetts. But you can get away with things in Massachusetts that you can’t in Rhode Island because of the Boston area economy. It’s like Warren Buffett said: when the tide goes out we get to see who’s been swimming naked. The tide went out on Rhode Island a long time ago whereas some other places have been luckier in that regard.

This is a painful reality for the state because Rhode Island takes its cues from its neighbors. But they’re richer. It’s like three brothers, one’s a doctor, one’s a lawyer, and one’s a teacher. The teacher isn’t going to be able to live in as a nice a house as his brothers. That’s just financial reality. And that’s the situation Rhode Island is in. Because neighboring states have access to money from fortress industries. Rhode Island doesn’t. They’re market makers; Rhode Island is a market taker.

Another aspect of missed context is that Rhode Island has over-estimated its quality of life advantage. It really struck me when I was living there that the idea that Rhode Island has a markedly superior quality of life to other places is just sort of taken for granted. It’s a bedrock axiom. I think the quality of life is good in Rhode Island. I’m not going to criticize it. And I think that the assumption of superiority actually was true not that long ago.

But I visit a lot of places, and I can tell you, America has really raised its game in the last two decades. I live Indianapolis now, and when I first started spending time there back in the early 90s, to be honest, it was like Siberia. You wouldn’t want to live there unless you were from there. Today, it’s completely different. Indianapolis has more and better microbreweries than Rhode Island, better coffee, pretty good restaurants – not as good as Rhode Island’s but definitely serviceable – a big farm to table movement, their own local fashion magazine – I mean like a real print magazine – and a lot more. It’s night and day.

Rhode Island hasn’t fully woken up to how much better life has gotten in a lot of places you never would have considered living before. There’s a new level of competition out there that was never there before.

Add it up and Rhode Island needs to have a big mindset shift. My observation is that candidly, it’s had an entitlement mentality. I attribute that to three sources I talked about above:

One is Rhode Island’s rich historic legacy which is a justifiably proud history. Part of that legacy is its history as a highly competitively advantaged economy in the past. But that history can blind the state to the reality of today, which is very different.

Two is that Rhode Island feels entitled to live like its neighbors, its brothers if you will, in New England, when they’ve got better jobs.

Three is that Rhode Island hasn’t recognized the extent to which other places have improved their quality of life such that its advantage is much slimmer than it realizes.

Rhode Island has to realize that it is not entitled to live like it used to or like California lives today. And that’s tough to accept. In America especially, with this deep seated narrative of economic progress, regression is a bitter pill to swallow. We’ve seen the results of that in post-industrial America across the board.

That doesn’t mean rejecting every progressive idea. It does mean assessing what makes sense for the state in light of its weak marketplace position. The values of Rhode Islanders have to be embodied in a policy set that makes sense with its own economic competitive context, not somebody else’s.

The problem here is that there’s hasn’t been indigenous R&D to create locally appropriate policies. That’s actually one reason I started my site so many years ago when it was focused on smaller Midwest cities. Those cities were – and sadly still are for the most part – passive importers of ideas about what cities should be. I wanted to start a conversation about Midwest cities on their own terms. I’m all in favor of stealing good ideas from anybody, even NYC. But you have to ask whether it makes sense locally and how to do it. And also be developing your own “in-house” ideas as well. That’s what I set out to do with this site.

So if Rhode Island wants to perform differently, it needs to create an indigenous R&D capability, especially as most national progressive ideas emanate from elite citadels, which Rhode Island is not. This will be hard because to many of Rhode Island’s intellectual elite came from places like New York and Boston, and thus are steeped in that way of thinking.

But I have an idea. There are a lot of people in Rhode Island who are heavily involved in boosting the fortunes of developing counties. Would they go into a developing country and say that the leaders there should adopt California style taxes, services, and regulations? No way. They’d realize that these places need to start with where they are at. The immediate needs in many places are better governance (esp. less corruption), basic services like clean water and sanitation, education, upgrading infrastructure, and facilitating economic development. Rhode Island isn’t a developing country by any means, but it’s not California or New York either. No matter how much people in Rhode Island might be in agreement with the values or policies of those places, the state is simply in a completely different situation. It needs to focus on the basics. So maybe those Rhode Islanders who are involved in developing country work can try to think about Rhode Island through that lens to see what ideas can be generated. Again, Rhode Island is NOT a developing country, but there may be things that can be learned.

The good news is that change is possible. Though Rhode Island has huge problems and a long road back to recovery, I believe there’s certainly a lot of room to believe that it can be a lot more successful than it is. I’ll delve into the specifics of a starter program in the next two installments.

Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Transportation, Urban Culture
Cities: Providence

33 Responses to “Ruining Rhode Island – Missing the Context”

  1. MichaelSchwartz says:

    Aaron–I’ve always been a little confused about Providence and Rhode Island. If one makes a cursury visit, it seems to be doing ok. Downtown Providence appears to be about as prosperous as most other similar sized cities, the suburbs seem ok. It just seems to be sandwiched in by the giants of Boston and New York. It seems to be very similar to Hartford or Rochester–both in somewhat similar straights with high taxes and low expectations. And now that I think about it, all the second tier cities of New England seem to just putter along in the shadow of the mega cities. This may be all that we can ever expect of them. And while not exciting, its not all bad.

  2. Pete from Baltimore says:

    This week in The Economist Magazine, there was a map of America which graded each state on its “Small business friendliness”

    Most states got As,Bs, or Cs. A couple of states got Ds. And 5 states were graded “F”

    The 5 that were graded “F” were
    1 Rhode Island
    2 Illinois
    3 California
    4 Vermont
    5 Maine [to be honest, I was surprised at Maine ranking so low\

    I think that the accompanying article made a good point that while businesses don’t like to pay high taxes, state and local regulations and red tape generally are considered a far bigger problem for most businesses

    And its often not a case of businesses wanting to get rid of regulations and rules. Its often a case of wanting the process [for getting permits for instance] to go quicker

  3. Pete, Rhode Island actually ranked dead last in that survey (though it didn’t include all states for some reason). Metro Providence ranked second from last in the metro version.

  4. One of the things that needs to be understood to get this idea across party lines is to show that some of the regulations that get in the way of business are not necessarily in themselves progressive at all. Perhaps they’re progressive in the sense of the Progressive Movement from 1900, but they’re not left-leaning in the modern sense of how people think of that. Big issues that we need to deal with are zoning. We’re slowly deregulating certain bad zoning policies, like parking minimums, and allowing some greater use of mixed-use areas than were allowed on paper before, but the progress is incredibly slow.

    For instance, the N. Main Street Sears is being razed for a 300 parking spot surface lot, to build a gym on another surface lot just across the line in Pawtucket (in fairness, the building is a shell, and perhaps nothing better can be done to take it down. . .). We’re eventually going to have parking maximums of some kind on that street, and if that happens they’ll only be allowed to have 150 parking spots. But would you call that transit-oriented development? 150 parking spots, to me, is the suburbs writ large.

    But at the same time we’re putting $43 M plus interest into a garage in downtown, ignoring the nationwide movement for serious bike infrastructure, rolling out a joke BRT line that doesn’t have rights-of-way, doesn’t have station payment, doesn’t have good land use regulations around it (the Sear-to-gym-demolition being one of the “TOD” locations we can be proud to have). We don’t have smart tax policies to tax surface lots and garages more than buildings, so property taxes on the real drivers of the economy continue to go up while the parking crater of downtown festers. So, yes, we have a very hands-on government, but none of these choices is particularly left-leaning. In a lot of ways, the rhetoric of the Democrats around doing bad projects to build jobs is the same rhetoric of Republicans in Ohio around the “opportunity corridor”.

  5. Saul Kaplan says:

    Aaron, insightful as usual. Your diagnosis is right on and I look forward to your prescription. I offer only the following input.

    “The stone cold reality is that with limited exceptions, Rhode Island has no marketplace leverage.” I agree as long as we try to play the same game as everyone else. We have little geographic advantage and when we try to play the game the same way larger better positioned states play it our size becomes a decided disadvantage. You also make a valid point about our fleeting quality of life advantage.

    I also agree that RI has been a share taker versus a market maker for a very long time. With no population growth and compact geography, share taking is an unsustainable losing strategy. The only viable growth strategy for RI is to become a market maker again.
    I have argued for a long time that innovation and entrepreneurship must be central to our economic transformation.

    I believe our state’s real ruby slippers are turning our small size and small world network properties into an economic strategic weapon. The world is beginning to realize that innovation is more than just shiny new technologies and products. The unmet need is a place to explore and test new business models and social systems in the real world. A place where the next generation models and systems originate from. Rhode Island could be that place. I call the place-based strategy Innovation @ Scale. We are a long way from being able to realize our advantage as existing local models and systems lobby for and receive protection against new ones. We look like everywhere else in this regard and are not taking advantage of our natural advantage from an innovation perspective, our size.

    Keep making your argument. I hope Rhode Islanders are paying attention.

    Saul Kaplan

  6. Saul, I agree – and that’s on my recco list. I think Rhode Island could be a good place for incubating business models. Big enough to be a real market but small enough to have a reasonable cost of entry. I used GoLocalProv as one example in my City Journal piece. But there are probably many conceivable applications.

  7. Evan says:

    This is why i listen too and watch what Arenn Renn has to say.
    Very good post and great job showing how extremes on both sides are bad.

  8. Greg says:


    I think the influx of people you mentioned from Boston and New York might be worth greater study. I moved to RI after living in both New York and Boston (a double dose of bad news in your model) and like many, I sought a place with a lower cost of living and a child-friendly environment to raise my family. The “elites” RI attracts are established in their careers and set in their thinking.

    Rather than debating tax policy and streamlining small business red tape (as a small business owner, I personally love these ideas) we should be debating music festivals, entry level jobs, lax marijuana policy, more funding for artists, bike lanes and other things that attract younger “immigrants.” While we wring our hands about the plight of small business owners and still get nothing done, we could easily (it seems to me) engage in some forward thinking that makes RI a great place for 22 year olds to meet, build a culture of innovation and change the fabric of the state.

    I was working in Providence for a few years before starting my own business, and one of the primary struggles we faced was finding young talent. Most educated people in their early 20’s move elsewhere, and I don’t blame them. New York and Boston (and other cities) are crawling with options and opportunities for young people. Those who stay mostly do so out of obligation to family. Our recruiting strategy turned north to try and find smart “kids” who stayed home with their parents south of Boston. At night they mostly went home and they spent their weekend in Boston. When they left us, they left us for jobs in Boston.

    I’ve heard people claim proximity to New York and Boston as an asset, but I believe it is a distinct disadvantage. We’re not unique versus our neighbors, and we shine far less brightly. How do we shine brightly enough to lure talent or even retain that talent we nurture? I say we start with the youngest and cheapest, and hope they stay.

    How much would it cost to give tax breaks to companies hiring up to 25 employees under $50k per year? Likely far less than paying a company we imagine 23 year olds will want to work for to move here. How hard would it be to properly fund or even spoil the existing arts infrastructure? How hard would it be to give an inch on cultural issue that matter to younger people, like blue laws? How hard would it be to create residential zoning in Providence that would encourage young people to rent in the city rather than stay home with their parents?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy I live here. I hope we do fix the issues making this state so fantastically bad for small businesses, but if we want real change on the cheap, we should aim to be a city state of energetic 23 year olds with a back drop of family stability. It’s what’s missing, especially if what we want is innovation.

  9. Chris Barnett says:

    I’ll snag an idea from Greg’s response above: RI seems as if it could be the US’ second “city-state”, after DC…except with the advantage of having two senators, a voting representative, and a state government structure.

    What if RI were to just consolidate all its municipalities, whack one house of the legislature, set the other house to about 35 members, call it the “state council” and roll from there?

    RI’s area is about like three Central Indiana counties, with about 10-12% more population than Indianapolis-Marion County. That size “state council” would be like Indianapolis’ 25-member Unigov council plus two adjoining county councils. Districts would represent about 30,000 people.

    The small size of the state (basically a metro area) affords it the opportunity to do something no other state has done in government reorganization.

  10. Derek Rutherford says:

    I think Aaron is on target with respect to the mismatch between what RI wants and where it is. Rhode Island is learning that, much as NYC Mayor Bloomberg described New York as a “luxury good”, the policies of NY/SF/Boston/DC are a “luxury good” as well. It takes a lot of money to be able to afford their inefficiencies. Less-wealthy area (Providence, Rochester, Buffalo, Fresno, for example) struggle under those policies.

    The thing I enjoy most about this blog is its focus on the less-fashionable cities, such as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Columbus, Providence, etc.. There is an over-supply of commentators on NYC and SF, who look down at other cities and assume they should simply emulate their “betters”. Very few take a serious look at the issues facing other cities are facing and what their realistic options are. This blog is a welcome exception.

  11. wkg in bham says:

    @Aaron: Something to think about when you tabulate remedies. Your first article from Providence featured a photo of an old mill converted into apartments or condos. The mill was an old water powered mill. There was this nifty little river running beside it. My thought upon seeing the photo was that the first thing I would do upon moving to Rhode Island would be to buy a canoe. Rhode Island is just covered up with nice little rivers and lakes. Then you get to the salt water with Narragansett, Sakonnet, Mount Hope, and Greenwich Bays. This area should be a paradise for people who like being on the water (like me for example).

    In traveling around the area (albeit via Google Maps and Streetview) I didn’t see any boats. They should be ubiquitous. Does Rhode Island tax the snot out of boats too?
    Where are the marinas, boat yards, docks,……?

    It just seems like it’s a terrible resource going to waste.
    PS have you moved back to Indy?

  12. Greg says:

    @wkg: Rhode Island is called the Ocean State, and has an anchor on its flag. It was the first home to the Navy and the site of what some think were the first shots of the American war for independence is just off the Warwick, RI coast. I assure you, boating is well established. i many Rhode Island families, a boat is the favorite child.

  13. Thanks for the comments and nice words.

    Boating is big in Rhode Island, but I haven’t seen people canoeing on the Pawtuxet River. I’m not sure why, but the water may be still pretty polluted and there are some serious dams that are too dangerous to shoot over.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Re the minimum wage point: as I mentioned on Twitter, the original study that showed no significant disemployment effects from higher minimum wages looked at counties bordering another state for a natural experiment. The Card-Krueger study, which for some reason I attributed to Blinder on Twitter, looked at the NJ/PA border. In other words, it was in an inherently low-leverage environment: Wal-Mart could easily relocate to the neighboring state without the minimum wage increase.

    It’s harder to study high-leverage environments, like an entire country, because they definitionally can’t give you a natural experiment. For example, Germany just introduced a minimum wage; but it’s hard to do a natural experiment comparing it with its neighbors, since Germany’s economy has many other parameters distinguishing it from its neighbors, which could influence growth independently of the minimum wage issue.

  15. Thanks for the link, Alon.

    To me it’s less about raising or not the minimum wage but the fact that the idea to raise it and the specific amount to raise it to were out of town ideas (originally a national proposal??) glommed onto in RI without any real thought as to the applicability to the local context.

  16. John Morris says:

    My two cents as one of a few people on here who considered moving to Rhode Island. (haven’t spent too much time there.)

    I am closer to agreeing with those who think RI has a strong regional position. But it fails to play to its strengths.

    I imagined- Providence would be a tight, walkable, city, centered around the train line and the colleges. But in the flesh, it was hollowed out, disconnected- unsure if it was a suburb, a manufacturing city, or an urban hub and failing at all three.

  17. Greg says:


    Like RI around it, Providence boasts several truly great places, but they aren’t connected, which leads to people living their lives in a very tight radius. Providence is very walkable, but not centered on anything. I don’t mind that lack of a center, but I do mind the lack of cohesion — the kind that pulls you from one node to another and another without great effort.

    There just isn’t the scarcity needed to expand these great places into each other. New York, for example, is a collection of great places with no true center, but Grammercy runs into Union Square runs into the East Village and Braynt Park runs into Times Square runs into Hell’s Kitchen. Maybe someday there will be that kind of demand for RI’s many flavors. I hope so.

  18. John Morris says:

    “There just isn’t the scarcity needed to expand these great places into each other.”

    I disagree with that strongly. If one looks at the NY- to Boston real estate market, there is a pretty extreme scarcity of that kind of place. Which is why almost every Brooklyn resident has wondered about Providence. The problem is that Providence does such a poor job providing it.

    The city is unsure about its basic identity. Should it be a car designed suburb, or oriented around the rail line.

    The earlier post on Olneyville demonstrates the failure. A few disconnected historic mills surrounded by a confused gap of parking lots & cheap dollar stores.

    A city with a much larger land area could live with this confusion.

  19. Greg says:


    The gaps between great places surprised me when I got here. I couldn’t figure out why they don’t connect, but the issue is that there really isn’t demand for access to these places that can’t be filled by the immediate vicinity, so between very charming Wickford, East Greenwich and Warwick neighborhoods like Buttonwoods and Warwick Neck, there are literally trailer parks and strip malls. If there was any kind of demand, they would be priced out, but there isn’t.

    If a parking lot is the most sustainable use of part of Olneyville, that’s not the parking lot’s fault. Comparing Providence to Brooklyn is the fallacy Aaron warned about. Providence can’t expect to be like Boston and Brooklyn unless it can create the same kind of demand for its charms. I don’t know when you got there, but the Brooklyn I knew 20 years ago was far more like Providence today than Brooklyn now, so there’s certainly hope (RI pun intended).

  20. John Morris says:

    Yes, I agree that a lot Brooklyn 20 years ago was more like Providence.

    Actually- a lot of it today is made up of neighborhoods with poor transit access that will take years to better connect to the city.

    Ask yourself- how desirable would a tight, walkable city with elite colleges as close to NY & Boston be?

    The Problem is that Providence just isn’t that place and has undermined opportunities to get there.

    “If a parking lot is the most sustainable use of part of Olneyville, that’s not the parking lot’s fault.”

    BTW- Olneyville was attractive enough to have had a legendary underground art & music scene. If You truly think this is the best possible use for that land you are part of the problem.

    Fort Thunder was torn down and replaced by a parking lot for a planned strip mall with a Shaws and Staples. The mall failed- meaning the parking lots were not a sustainable use.

  21. Greg says:

    I don’t believe it is the best possible use for the land (I don’t think it’s the best use of any particular piece of land, though the world needs to park), but you have to make land valuable enough that a parking lot is unsustainable. You can’t just decide it’s so. A formerly thriving music scene might be enough for Muscle Shoals, but it isn’t spurring development west of Federal Hill (itself less shiny than previous iterations).

    I’ve been through that intersection by car, foot and bike. It’s a mess. It’s no more disadvantaged than Kenmore Square in Cambridge in terms of access to the city, but Olneyville is not Cambridge, and therefore, a drive through fast food place is not only viable, it is possibly the only viable use of space that otherwise would remain vacant. A revival doesn’t start through will alone. Vacancy is worse than sub-optimal urban development. It’s not like we’re choosing between a bad and a good option and choosing the bad. There is no other option. If you don’t move up and open a vintage record store specializing in Olneyville classics, you are part of the problem.

  22. John Morris says:

    These were not empty buildings- they were occupied by dozens if not hundreds of artists.

    “Although Bronhard has been ordered not to use the building, Lepizzera estimates the landlord was earning between $20,000 and $30,000 in monthly rent from the tenants. And it’s a unfortunate irony that that only ones who have really been adversely affected thus far by the mass evictions in Olneyville are the artists and musicians who helped to make it a better place.

    IF WE’RE LUCKY, this occasion will serve as a wake-up call. Then again, just as affordable housing generally gets short shrift because of the profit imperatives of the marketplace, the outlook for preserving the presence of low-rent artists seems less than certain.

    When the developer of Eagle Square proposed leveling an array of historic 19th-century mills, it triggered a storm of protest from a coalition that aptly described the old buildings as more desirable than whatever would replace them. The coalition helped to preserve some of the mill buildings, and the situation sparked heightened appreciation for these kind of endangered structures. But although some important incentives have been created to help foster the reuse of mills, their cost puts them beyond the reach of less affluent individuals.

    Some observers, like Berge Zobian, a photographer who runs Gallery Z on the edge of Eagle Square, thinks the Olneyville artists need to get more organized when it comes to solidifying their future by buying property. Zobian, who was among the 80 or so artists displaced from the Foundry complex in the late ’80s, was able to use the equity he had accrued from fixing up a triple-decker to buy his gallery space, and he acknowledges having a bit of an edge. Still, he says, “There are always ways.””

    Most were not in great shape but they were great buildings- and there was clearly a great demand for them- at least at a low price.

    I agree with Aaron’s basic idea that Providence isn’t so well positioned it can afford to snub opportunity. But, there clearly (was)is potential demand.

  23. Greg says:


    You can’t send a ten year old article to defend a point about a McDonalds moving in today. It’s like saying airport security needs to be tighter because I took a saber on a plane in 1992. Conditions have changed. Move here. There are many reasons to do so. When you’ve lived here six months and your assumptions about how cities work have been challenged by observation, you’ll see. A thriving, organic arts scene is a symptom of a thriving city. You can’t call something artist housing and expect to fill it with income-producing tenants. Right now, we aren’t choosing between $30,000 in rent from artists and a McDonalds. I hope those days come again soon, and that Aaron has good ideas to get us there. I believe that taking a longer view is very useful, and you’re right that putting a parking lot between the foot/bike-based traffic and the store front is a bad long term decision, but you have to convince people with money and retail ambitions that it’s worth the long-term investment, or help them make that investment. Right now all I hear from you is “take a loss so I’m more happy.”

  24. John Morris says:

    I’m not an expert on Providence but it seems like you are not taking the long view or trying to understand the historic context.

    The article (many more available) shows that Providence had substantial demand from the same type of “creative class” youth it now claims it can’t retain.

    What was going on in Olneyville is a legendary part of DYI cultural history. An offshoot of Fort Thunder participated in the 2004 Whitney Biennial and there was substantial buzz and interest in NYC.

    There is always interest in possible affordable creative cities in that region- and Providence always came up.

    I would like a poster with a deeper background to comment.
    How did the buildings get in such bad shape? Was there any realistic way to allow them to be reused earlier? How has Providence managed to combine a weak economy with a pretty bad housing shortage? At sub minimum, Providence should be a slacker haven – more like Berlin.

    If anything the years since 2004 increases the mystery as affordability in the NYC- Boston region has gotten much worse.

    Clearly the city has been doing things that actively undermine its attractiveness- just as many other cities have upped their game.

  25. Alon Levy says:

    Aaron, pretty much none of the proposals you make were invented in Rhode Island. Improve the business climate? Not a Rhode Island idea, either. The mayor as CEO? Ditto. What is it about giving more money to working poor that triggers this “but it’s from outside” reaction?

  26. Well, for one thing, those imported ideas have failed. Maybe the other guys deserve their shot. Keep in mind, that unlike a place like Mississippi that has always been poor and uneducated, Rhode Island’s economic problems take place in a state with decent education levels and which used to be rich. That takes some doing.

    On the other hand, if Rhode Islanders believe the policies haven’t failed and enjoy the status quo, they are welcome to pursue whatever policies they want, of course.

    You’ll note in my framework and forthcoming suggestion list I don’t think Rhode Island should copy Tea Party like policies or try to copy Texas (e.g., no right to work). I do try to look at the realities of what is going in the state.

  27. John Morris says:


    Here is a long video about another large eviction in Olneyville in 2013- showing this is a continuing process.

    A “non” profit is evicting actual paying musician & artist tennents to rehab the building for possible light industrial/ office use. No doubt they are using government grants for this process. If history is a guide, the building will then sit partly or mostly empty. (And later be torn down for a McDonalds parking lot)

    I don’t have an answer. The building no doubt needs work, but is it totally unusable- by the people who want to use it now? Actual members of an artist community who love the area and want to stay?

  28. Derek Rutherford says:

    Providence may also be suffering from a lack of critical mass. A previous post noted that Grand Rapids, MI, was on the edge of being too small to be considered as a office location for many firms. While metro Grand Rapids has only 1m people and metro Providence 1.6m, Providence does not have a real hinterland beyond its metro area. Especially compared with NY and Boston (or even Hartford), Providence simply does not have the depth of skilled labor pool or supplier/customer networks.

    I suspect that for many companies, their northeastern office (if they have one) will be in metro NY or Boston. If those cities are too expensive, the next choice won’t be Providence, it will be Pittsburgh or even further away.

    Another way to think of this is from another old post: Providence is “too close to the sun” – not close enough to be a suburb or extension of Boston, but too close to be an economic hub in its own right.

  29. John Morris says:

    Providence hardly needs to be a huge “hub” to do better than it is. The suns here are huge and any city that close, with elite colleges on the northeast rail line doing that poorly is doing something wrong.

  30. John Morris says:

    Two big areas need are probably worthy of posts on here.

    First is the widely held theory that being a state capital is huge natural advantage. A long list of cities like Trenton, Albany, Harrisburg, Providence, Hartford, Tallahassee, Richmond, Illinois and Sacramento make me think there is also a big downside.

    Is it really a boon to crowd downtown areas with a massive dead weight of government buildings? I think Connecticut state employees had free parking in their union contracts.

    The other thing to explore is the full negative effect of I-95 on Rhode Island. The nature of the state means that it gets all the negative downside of the road plowing through it- but has little available land to exploit office park or distribution centers.

  31. John Morris says:

    Sorry I mean Springfield, Illinois.

  32. Jacques Rigaut says:

    Interesting piece. I have to say, though, I raised my eyebrows at “Indianapolis.” I’m someone who left the Boston area for Pittsburgh (which I think has more in common with mid-west cities like Indianapolis than eastern cities). By many measures, Pittsburgh is an up-and-coming city and has already radically transformed itself from the hollowed-out postindustrial wasteland it had become in the 1970s. Still, no matter how vibrant and loaded with potential cities like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis (really??) might be, Providence will always one-up them on two (for me) key measures: proximity to the Atlantic shore and to the two major northeast metropolises. I’m currently investigating a return to New England, and given the buyer’s market in Providence (and nearby) real estate (Pittsburgh, by comparison, is much higher), I’m considering Providence as a potential destination. Cape Cod, Boston, NYC all within arms reach. Seems RI has to play its location up to move forward.

  33. John Morris says:

    I think you get what you pay for.

    Premium hill top homes in a place like College Hill can run up to $3 million. (I don’t think anything in Pittsburgh goes for 3 million) There seem to be a lot of houses broken into condos in this area for 150- 200 Thousand for 2 bedrooms. Overall this does not measure well against Pittsburgh prices.

    Yes, there seem to be a lot of “bargains” all over but on average the city seems to have much a more damaged, disconnected urban fabric and much poorer housing stock. It seems exactly where it was when I looked in 2003.

    Providence will always be on the radar due to its location but its advantage over regional cities is declining. 10 years ago people might have been impressed by small doses of urban fabric and a few nice mills.

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