The first time I saw Providence was September 1992. I was a nervous high-school senior with a desperate crush on Brown, the college on the hill. My mother and I checked into the rickety old Providence Biltmore Hotel, on Kennedy Plaza, smack in the middle of the city's desolate downtown. Here I must remind myself that, contrary to my imaginative memory, tumbleweeds are not part of the flora in southern New England.
For the next four years, as a student at Brown, I lived just a short walk (but a world) away from this urban desert, in the dappled sunlight of College Hill, moving happily among the colorful clapboard houses and leafy streets as their trees, so catalogue-perfectly, changed from green to orange to a soft, downy pink. I rarely wandered off the hill. It was Gotham City down there, a place of howling alleys and spooky vibes. Downtown Providence always looked more like a film set than a proper city.
But on a balmy night 14 years later, in the formerly bleak DMZ of downtown, I found myself immersed in a street fair where the atmosphere could only be described as lively. The city's fantastic restaurants had all brought their shows on the road, lining the once derelict banks of the Providence River with luxury food carts dispensing curries, pastas, and frozen lemonade. On the river itself, which for years was shielded by a concrete parking lot, couples snuggled in gondolas, sipping wine. There were parents tangoing in front of an imposing granite bank, which was dressed in billowy red veils for the occasion. I could imagine coming upon this scene in Europe and writing home happily, "I've found the most marvelous place! It's a university town, and they're dancing in the streets!" while lamenting the lack of such communal, delightful public life anywhere in the States.
To be fair, Providence has always had its charms. Beyond the Yankee appeal of College Hill, with its houses that date from the Revolution, there are the generations-old Portuguese communities in Fox Point up above the river and, to the east, the predominantly Italian Federal Hill, where the streets feel like the Brooklyn my Italian grandparents describe. Downtown, however, was different. As with many small, formerly industrial cities along the eastern seaboard, increasing suburbanization had left the center lifeless. No longer. I was witnessing the new Providence—a place with historic charm on the periphery and modern, creative energy at the core. The patchwork city that I once knew had finally filled in.
Providence's revival is the stuff of legend: the talk of midsize mayors all over the country. Driven by the colorful, notorious now ex-mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. (otherwise known as Buddy), who has just finished serving five years in federal prison on corruption charges, the renewal began in the early eighties (during Buddy's first term) and culminated (in his second) with the restoration of the city's riverfront in the early 1990's. Aided by a coalition of public and private partners, Cianci removed the parking lot that covered the two rivers that run through downtown, dredged their muddy depths, and dressed their banks with small bridges and wide, tree-lined pedestrian walkways. With a little help from a burgeoning local economy, this remarkable act of urban revitalization laid the foundation for Providence's renaissance and set mayors across the country scrambling to begin their own waterfront initiatives.
This tale, however, has always been tainted by corruption. Cianci's first bout as mayor, which lasted from 1974 to 1984, ended when he pleaded no contest to charges of assaulting his wife's (alleged) lover with a lit cigarette. His comeback in 1991 was epic, and lasted until 2002, when he was found guilty of running a criminal enterprise out of city hall. Sordid, sure, but he remained beloved, and it all somehow added intrigue and sexiness to the whole operation. The prevailing attitude in town was that Buddy may not have done things by the book, but he certainly got things done—and his Mayor's Own pasta sauce occupied shelf space in every market in town.