Providence, R.I.; No longer just a waymark on the road to somewhere else

Against the aqua dawn sky, the silhouetted skyscrapers appear flat and two-dimensional, like the vertical rectangles of a bar graph forecasting economic good times. At their base, small, uniformed men hunched over push brooms loom up out of the ground mist like otherworldly beings.

In a sense, the men are from another world. They are Hmong refugees from the war-torn jungles of Laos, employed by the city as maintenance men on a special clean-up crew that has turned the once-filthy city into the sparkling embodiment of urban revival. But if Providence has given them a new life, they in turn are breathing new life into the city the way generations of European immigrants fueled the city's industrial expansion at the turn of the century. They and the work they do are symbols of the renaissance of Providence, a rejuvenation that has seen vast physical improvements seed a parallel regeneration of spirit.

Since 1978, $50 million has been pumped into downtown. A total of 42 buildings have been rehabilitated. Restoration has spread to countless homes in the residential areas surrounding the city. A consortium of private companies saved the landmark Biltmore Hotel, vacant for five years, with a $16 million renovation effort. Cooperation between city government and local businesses saved the historic Ocean State Theater two weeks before the wrecking ball was set to swing. Pedestrian malls have been rebuilt downtown, the 104-year-old city hall is being restored, ground is being broken on an auto-restriction zone in the central square, an enclosed shopping area known as the Arcade has been developed. Plans are moving ahead on a $100 million office park known as Capital Center on 60 acres of property that will link the downtown with the Statehouse. There is more construction downtown than there has ever been in the city's history.

But a roll call of rehabilitation projects doesn't describe the depths to which the city sank, nor the angst of a community as it was losing its grip on economic prosperity. ''When I came here, the downtown was just plain seedy. Providence felt like a dying city,'' says Susan Grams, an archivist at city hall who came to Brown University in the mid-'70s and stayed on after graduation. ''Now the idea of survival is a foregone conclusion. Today the question is, 'How good can we make it?' ''

Located at the head of Narragansett Bay, the capital city of the smallest state has a distinct European flavor. The downtown is laid out around a large open platz, or city square, ringed by the Biltmore Hotel, city hall (its gray and ornate exterior looking conspicuously Germanic), train station, federal building, and rows of 19th-century brick stores mixed in with 20th-century office towers. Surrounding the downtown are the three hills of Providence, residential for the most part, staring down on the central city like spectators.

Despite the rush of activity here, the revival is going largely unnoticed, for Providence has always suffered an image problem, especially in New England. For Bostonians the city has never been more than a place to stop for lunch on the way to the sailboat races at Newport. For New Yorkers it's one of those occasional large towns that loom up alongside the highway on the road to Cape Cod.

The tendency of fellow Easterners to dismiss Providence as a waymark on the road to somewhere else has always aggravated residents. They are also the first to admit that the city's charms are not highly evident to those whose tour of town is confined to the interstate highways that ring it.

But even the locals must foot some of the blame. A commission that conducted a two-year study of the state concluded that the No. 1 priority should be to improve the self-image of Rhode Islanders, that residents were their own worst critics. What the study didn't say - and townspeople do - is that in days gone by the self-depreciation was fully justified; Providence was indeed a dull and dirty city.

George Kellner, an associate professor of history at Rhode Island College, concurs with the commission. ''There isn't a consistent image here. Otherwise Providence wouldn't be struggling for identity, struggling for recognition. The city has no clear ring, no rallying cry, no catchy slogan. The city has no clear idea of where it's going.''

The fact that Providence has no singular claim to fame - be it Broadway, Brahmins, or Brotherly Love - is a major reason for its identity crisis. Providence has history, but it has no Paul Revere. Providence has ethnic groups, but it has no Chinatown. Providence has sports, but it has no Yankees. If Providence were a football team, it would would have a no-name defense, no superstars.

But for all the self-doubts, there are a lot of true believers here, too. Chief among them is Kaye Owen. As chairman of ''City Celebrates 150,'' the group organizing the current 21/2-month-long celebration of Providence's incorporation as a city, she is a one-woman booster club.

''Providence is the best-kept secret in the nation,'' she declares forthrightly when finally cornered in an anteroom off the mayor's office in city hall. She is in the midst of a day of rededication ceremonies for the 104 -year-old structure that is undergoing a painstaking seven-year refurbishing. Designed in the manner of the Louvre in Paris, the interior of the four-storied building is laid out around a stair court, which rises 60 feet to a barrel-vaulted skylight. The prolific ornamentation includes paneled and incised wainscoting, etched-glass lights in many of the doors, polished granite columns, and cast-iron balusters with brass hand rails.

Most impressive, though, is the Council Chamber, one of the largest rooms in the country to be done in the highly decorative Second Empire style. When renovation architect Irving B. Haynes began the project, acoustical tiles and layers of paint covered the original gold leaf and intricate multicolored designs on the walls and ceiling. Working tirelessly aboard his scaffolding near the top of 40-foot walls, restoration artist Robert Dodge, the ''Michelangelo of city hall,'' mixes paints to duplicate the long-lost formulas for the myriad of colors originally used to decorate the room.

Amid all the splendor, Kaye Owen inspires, admonishes, and exhorts a reporter into believing in the city the way a football coach might rally his team at half time. But mostly she exudes reasoned praise, while acknowledging the challenges the city faces - from labor disputes to a dwindling tax base. ''This has been very exciting,'' she says of the City Celebrates festivities. ''People want to be on the team.''

And joint effort, more than any other factor, is the key to the revival of Providence. ''There has been an extraordinary cooperation between the public and private sectors,'' says Bruce Sundlun, ''and I don't use that adjective lightly.'' Mr. Sundlun is president and chief operating officer of Outlet Company, a broadcasting and retailing company headquarted in Providence. An unflagging devotee of Providence and its potential for growth, Mr. Sundlun has spearheaded the city's turnaround. He grew up in Providence, but only recently returned after a career in government and private business in Washington. ''The most enthusiastic supporters of Providence are middle-aged executives who come into the state from the outside,'' he says. ''You can't transfer them back out of here, they love living here.''

On the public side, the election of Republican Mayor Vincent A. Cianci and the disassembly of the political machine that had run the city prior to his election contributed to the turnaround. The downtown had decayed terribly under Mr. Cianci's predecessor, who created jobs in outlying neighborhoods at the expense of downtown, where there were few votes. But without a political machine , the Republican mayor's only means of generating political capital was by doing something highly visible, by making things happen. The restoration of downtown, then, was at least in part a byproduct of that political strategy, according to one local observer. Of course, being one of the few Republican mayors in the Northeast during the Ford administration didn't hurt, either. Providence received a full 10 percent of all urban redevelopment funds granted nationally during the Ford years.

Still, the cohesion enabling Providence to move forward shouldn't be mistaken for homogeneity. Each of the ethnic groups has strong ties to its own culture. No politician in the city-state of Providence and Rhode Island would think of forming an administration with anything but a balanced ticket - one Irishman, one Italian, one French-Canadian, and so on.

But in the city itself, the lines have blurred in the last 15 years. Each of the old, distinctly ethnic neighborhoods is suffering a different fate. Worst off is the southern edge of the city, until the mid-'60s a predominantly Irish neighborhood, now a mixed bag of nationalities and income groups. Rhode Island School of Design students live here, along with graduates who have formed a minor artists colony in the renovated lofts of old commercial buildings. Many of the older homes that were left vacant in the great out-migration of the '60s (when Providence was losing population at a greater rate than any other city in the country) are still run down. Their lack of a distinctive architectural style makes them unlikely candidates for renovation.

At the other extreme is Federal Hill, still a closely knit Italian community. With an Italo-American as mayor, this area has seen an influx of funds that has turned it into a veritable showcase of urban redevelopment. By pouring money into the community, the mayor has been able to keep middle-class Italian families from moving to the outlying suburbs, which in turn has helped the Italians to supplant the Irish as the predominant ethnic group in the city.

The future of the Portuguese community, on the east side of the city at the lower end of College Hill, seems to lie midway between the fortunes of the South Side and Federal Hill. Less closely knit than the Italian community, it is being squeezed by the blocks of gentrified homes spreading out from around the hub of Brown University.

The top of College Hill, where Brown is located, is almost a city unto itself. It could easily be mistaken for a small New England college town but for the backdrop of towering office buildings. The modern cement structures of the university fit quietly, though not quaintly, in with the narrow lanes lined with clapboarded Colonial homes.

Although Brown as an institution may be the most readily identifiable component of Providence, it has often stood aloof, its position in the community ambivalent.

At his office on the college quadrangle, Brown president Howard Swearer greets a visitor in his shirt sleeves, his tie yanked down past his top, unfastened button. With a boyish face and casual confidence, he is the adult preppy personified. ''Brown and Providence have grown up together,'' he says. ''There may have been times when the city and the university were at odds, but that is changing. I think it's hard for some people to understand that our reach goes far beyond this city; we are a truly international university.''

A recent state report suggested that for the continued well-being of both, Brown must tie its fortunes to that of the city. It has only begun to do so. The relationship will have to draw considerably closer if the city intends to use Brown as the source of skilled workers for the high-tech industries the city and state are hoping to attract.

Providence has not had the advantage of a number of cities in New England that have rebounded with the help of tax dollars from high-tech industries. The town has pulled itself up by its bootstraps. ''What resources do we have?'' asks Ken Orenstein of the Providence Foundation. ''New England is always a place that has lived on its wits.''

And that is exactly what Providence has done ever since Roger Williams founded the city in 1636 with a group of religious refugees from the Puritan society of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For over a century the town grew up along the east bank of the Providence River before homesteaders began to settle in the marshy lowlands along the west bank, in what is now downtown Providence. It wasn't until the end of the Revolutionary War that Providence eclipsed war-ravaged Newport as the commercial leader of the state and its most populous city. In the early years, up until 1830, the fortunes of Providence were closely tied to the sea. The transformation of Providence from a major shipping port to the economic hub of the most industrialized state in the nation was swift and thorough. Whereas the population stood at 15,000 in 1824, by 1930 it had risen to 253,000.

''What has happened geographically is symbolic of what's happened economically,'' says Mac Woodward, principal historic preservation planner for the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission. ''As industry became the key, Providence turned its back on the sea. Shipping was pushed further and further downriver. Boats used to dock right in Providence, but then the land became too valuable for warehouses.''

It's been over a century since Providence divorced itself from the sea. The only remnant of that past association is an accusatory finger of an estuary pointing at the heart of downtown. But the long-forgotten Atlantic may be the key to the city's future prosperity.

''If there is ever an oil strike on George's Bank, Providence will become the Houston of the Northeast,'' says Bruce Sundlun of Outlet. Providence is uniquely suited to handle an oil-related boom, because of an old Navy base nearby that was closed down in the 1960s. ''The Navy left the state with a legacy of infrastruture that is extraordinarily capable of servicing the oil companies,'' says Ken Orenstein of the Providence Foundation.

Be it high-tech or the high seas, the exact course Providence's revival follows will be charted by a recently created 15-member commission. It is charged with the undeniably arduous task of developing a fresh economic blueprint for the state. Arduous because studies done two years ago cited the same problems studies done in the 1950s and 1920s pointed up.

For one, the city's tax base has shriveled like a stale pie. Some observers fear a Massachusetts- or California-style tax revolt if the situation isn't rectified. For another, even as the downtown evolves into a major financial center, the retailing situation is as bad as it's been in two decades.

Right now Providence resembles a tiring long-distance swimmer nearing his goal: The city has the determination to go on and has proven its ability to endure. Nevertheless, it has to keep stroking to stay afloat.

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