On a return visit to Rhode Island's quiet capital, Amy Larocca finds the city transformed.
Wendy Ball & Dara Albanese Providence, RI
| Credit: Wendy Ball & Dara Albanese

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.

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.

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).

Where to Stay

Historic Jacob Hill Inn Built in 1722, the property was once a hunt club whose members included the Vanderbilt family. 120 Jacob St.; 888/336-9165; inn-providence-ri.com; doubles from $179.

Hotel Providence 311 Westminster St.; 401/861-8000; thehotelprovidence.com; doubles from $249.

Providence Biltmore 11 Dorrance St.; 401/421-0700; providencebiltmore.com; doubles from $229.

Westin Providence 1 W. Exchange St.; 401/598-8000; westin.com; doubles from $269.

Where to Eat

Al Forno 577 S. Main St.; 401/273-9760; dinner for two $92.

Bob & Timmy's Grilled Pizza 32 Spruce St.; 401/453-2221; dinner for two $25.

Local 121 121 Washington St.; 401/274-2121; dinner for two $70.

Mill's Tavern 101 N. Main St.; 401/272-3331; dinner for two $88.

Olga's Cup + Saucer 103 Point St.; 401/831-6666; lunch for two $16.

Scialo Bros. Bakery One of the best on Federal Hill. 257 Atwells Ave.; 401/421-0986.

Where to Shop

Bambini Infant Interiors 251 S. Main St.; 401/490-6952.

Benefit Street Antiques 140 Wickenden St.; 401/751-9109.

Capucine 359 S. Main St.; 401/273-6622.

risd/works 10 Westminster St.; 401/277-4949.

L'Elizabeth 285 S. Main St.; 401/466-5805.

What to Do

First Baptist Meeting House 75 N. Main St.; 401/454-3418; fbcia.org.

Providence Athenaeum 251 Benefit St.; 401/421-6970; providenceathenaeum.org.

RISD Museum 224 Benefit St.; 401/454-6500; risd.edu.

Trinity Repertory Company Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington St; 401/351-4242; trinityrep.com.

WaterFire 1 Providence Place; 401/273-9727; waterfire.com; every other weekend through October.