Providence, Rhode Island: Bright Lights, Bright City

How an arts renaissance spurred economic revival

| May-June 1997

Twenty years ago, downtown Providence was given up for dead. A third of the population had moved away, and the once-fashionable shopping area was deserted. But now this gritty city is a national model of urban renaissance. It has infused millions of dollars into restoring downtown landmarks: The once-abandoned art deco Biltmore is again a five-star hotel; Loews Theater has become the Providence Performing Arts Center (which mounts big Broadway shows and orchestra and ballet performances); and the old Peerless Department store is now Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel, a major stop on the Boston-New York rock tour circuit.

Longtime mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, a Republican turned independent, has made the arts a key element of economic revival. Under his leadership, the city created a federally designated arts and entertainment empowerment zone where property owners are offered tax incentives to convert vacant buildings into housing. Artists now live there in cheap lofts and receive tax incentives to sell their work. Cianci also helped a struggling nonprofit organization buy several abandoned buildings and convert them into a multipurpose arts space with apartments and workspaces for artists, a theater space, a dance theater, and a gallery. “Not long ago downtown was pretty much a wasteland,” says Duane Clinker, director of the Rhode Island Organizing Project, a faith-based community organizing alliance. “Now between the culture and the students [from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design], you can’t find a place to park.”

Providence (population: 160,000) has all the admirable qualities of the best northeastern cities—on a miniature, accessible scale. Says Clinker, “You can get a great meal in an Italian, Cambodian, African, or Vietnamese restaurant for five dollars. You can be walking along a river and seem to be in the country. There are working-class and middle-class neighborhoods that still have ethnic character.” Add to the list reggae, rock, and hardcore punk in several huge clubs downtown, plus independent films at the Avon Repertory Cinema and the Cable Car, and you’ve got everything you need for a rich urban experience without long commutes and traffic jams.