College Hill is also where the best of the city's shopping remains, in defiance of the ungainly Providence Place Mall, home to a predictable assemblage of stores. (The mall, to some Providence purists, is a blot on Cianci's revitalization plan.) Along Benefit Street, antiques shops sell nautical pieces (Rhode Island is the Ocean State) and good Yankee linens. At the somewhat fusty Benefit Street Antiques, owner Marian Clark is the homey, Waspy aunt—with heirlooms for sale—that you never had. There are good bargains to be found: a sketch of the Musée Marmottan in Paris, for example, in this spare and dusty storefront. Double back along South Main, where you'll find L'Elizabeth, a tea shop specializing in hot toddies—for real—and trendy but lovely one-off shops, such as Capucine, for hip women's clothing, and Bambini Infant Interiors. But the real jewel in Providence shopping is risd/works, on Westminster Street, which sells only work by the school's faculty and alumni. After browsing the ceramics and glassware, the Roz Chast books, and Gus Van Sant DVD's, one realizes how many contemporary design favorites originated at this art school. (The street-art collective, Andre the Giant Has a Posse, slapped their trademark tribute stickers all over College Hill in the early 1990's.)
Risd may be the feeder school for the country's art-world elite, but it was a Brown grad, Barnaby Evans, who started "WaterFire Providence," the installation that drew crowds on that clear summer evening when my old college friend and I stumbled, mystified, through the crowded streets of this "new" Providence.
The appeal of WaterFire, a sunset event held throughout the summer and into early fall, is somewhat dubious: a number of torches are set aflame on the Providence River while eerie techno music is pumped from a colossal sound system. But what it has done for Providence is remarkable: it's brought people out and together to wander around the gorgeous set of the city, admire its progress, and even, if so inclined, gloat a bit, which I do now when people ask me about my college town. Unlike the somewhat regrettable tattoo (in a hidden spot) that I got on Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill during my freshman year, Providence has definitely gotten better with age.
Amy Larocca is a contributing editor for New York magazine and author of The New York Look Book (Melcher Media).