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Providence Today

Wendy Ball & Dara Albanese Providence, RI

Photo: Wendy Ball & Dara Albanese

Providence's momentum has hardly slowed in the years since David Cicilline, the first openly gay mayor of a major city, replaced Buddy. Perhaps the most important bit of Buddy-era legislation Cicilline has kept alive is the tax incentives provided to artists living and working in downtown's abandoned buildings. With a triumvirate of artistic student bodies (Brown: writers, theorists; Rhode Island School of Design: painters, sculptors; Johnson & Wales University: chefs, hoteliers) living in close proximity, Buddy and his successor have been keen to court the creative class. The result: vibrant cultural institutions such as the Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company; the 84,000-work RISD Museum of Art, which contains works from ancient Egypt to the present; and the legendary restaurant Al Forno, on South Main Street, which serves as a training ground for chefs both here and throughout the eastern seaboard.

Today, Brown and RISD graduates are forgoing Brooklyn and Silver Lake in favor of inexpensive lofts and studios in the onetime industrial neighborhoods of Olneyville and West Side. With this habitation have come other signs of life. Witness the scene at Olga's Cup + Saucer, a laid-back neighborhood café tucked among the converted mills in the city's Jewelry District. Here, bed-headed artists munch on avocado-and-sprout sandwiches in a shady front-yard garden while discussing which New York gallerists have lately trolled their studios.

But it's not all artist collectives and organic cheese. Some of those sturdy New England factory buildings, with their high ceilings and dazzling windows, have been converted to luxury lofts that appeal to people who work outside the city. (Providence is less than an hour from Boston and the high-tech companies of southern Massachusetts.) Naturally, these loft dwellers like to eat well, and Providence's small dining scene is expanding. On North Main Street is Mill's Tavern, with a raw bar, a wood-burning oven, and a menu (oven-roasted duck breast with spearmint-infused tabbouleh; Madeira-braised short rib with truffled cauliflower purée) as sophisticated as anything in London or New York. This summer, Local 121 opened up beside the AS220 art gallery in the Dreyfus Building, a 19th-century former hotel that will soon house—what else?—14 live-and-work artists' studios. The restaurant, all dark carved wood and plush banquettes, serves organic and sustainable produce scouted by its staff "forager," a recent Brown grad. Rumor has it that Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto is planning a restaurant downtown as well, though the jury's still out on what this means in a city where the talent has always been homegrown.

Providence's hotels also have a new shine. The creaky old Biltmore just underwent a $14 million spruce-up, and the gigantic Westin is opening a wing of luxury condominiums this year. (Donatella Versace, it should be noted, chose the Westin when visiting her daughter at Brown—the presidential suite, naturally.) Just around the corner, there's a new hotel called, simply, Hotel Providence. With its stock New England-y décor, it's unlikely the property will win any design awards, but its arrival is a watershed in a city known more for B&B's than for boutique lodgings.

Even during the years when its downtown languished, Providence as a whole remained vital. This is, after all, a city steeped in American history, with a past that I've always found helpful to navigate by appetite: from the Portuguese bolos (muffins) at the corner delis in Fox Point to the bakeries stacked with cannoli, zeppole, and impossibly green pistachio biscuits and the thin-crust pizza (try Bob & Timmy's) on Federal Hill. College Hill, in turn, provides the walks to burn the calories off. Begin with Benefit and North Main Streets, skirting the bottom of the hill, for Colonial landmarks and crooked brick sidewalks. Here, old and new Providence coexist beautifully. Mill's Tavern is right down the block from the elegant First Baptist Meeting House (founded in 1638, it was— literally—the first Baptist Church in America) and moments away from the Providence Athenaeum, one of America's original lending libraries and the place where Edgar Allen Poe wooed Sarah Whitman.

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