Providence, Rhode Island

As it acts to build on its distinguished past, preserved in its many old buildings, the city tries to forget its notorious past, preserved in its reputation for political corruption

PROVIDENCE envisions a renaissance that plans for the future but remembers its past. It's a selective memory, though: There's another past that people would rather forget, one that is tainted with political and financial scandal, scandal that has fueled the fires of reform.

Rhode Island is the smallest in the union and the second-most densely populated (New Jersey is first). Sixteen percent of its people live in Providence, population 160,700 - about the size of Salt Lake City or San Bernadino, Calif. Rhode Island would fit into Kansas 63 times, Texas 200 times.

The thing that most distinguishes Providence from other cities is historic preservation. Rhode Island has some 20,000 historic places, (12,000 are nationally registered). ``Considering we're the size of a California county,'' says Al Klyberg, director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, ``that's an incredible number.'' Historic homes abound

Walking down Benefit Street through the surrounding area of College Hill in Providence, one sees scores of homes displaying plaques with the names of original owners and the year they were built: ``William G. Angell House, Alpheus Morse, Arch., 1869''; ``Built by John Jenckes, 1774.'' Architectural styles range from late Colonial and Federal to Greek Revival and Colonial Revival.

North Main Street has the oldest Baptist church in America. Further downtown, the Arcade is the country's oldest indoor shopping center, built in 1828. The list goes on.

Another very visible aspect of the city is its concentration of colleges and universities, including Brown University (seventh oldest in the country), the world-renowned Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Providence College, Johnson & Wales University (known for its culinary arts), Rhode Island College, and others. An estimated 6,000 students graduate each year from colleges and universities in greater Providence. On a warm fall day, Brown and RISD students study outside or walk to class toting books and water bottles or insulated travel mugs, today's college accessories.

Down the hill, behind Kennedy Plaza, the feeling is quite different. At a sign that marks the future juncture of Memorial Boulevard and Steeple Street, cranes are visible in all directions. Bulldozers plow; construction workers mill about. Among the many projects in the works: the Rhode Island Convention Center, scheduled to open next month; the ongoing Capital Center project involving the redirection of the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers, and a pending Providence Place retail mall. Riverfront and city planners say people will be able to travel through the city by water taxi in the future.

Historian Klyberg calls the waterway dig ``a great turnaround,'' noting Providence's history. Intersected by several rivers and situated on Naragansett Bay, Providence has always been a transportation hub, he says. ``This re-beautification just emphasizes that.''

To Vincent Cianci Jr., the mayor of Providence, things just couldn't be better. ``We've got over a billion dollars of construction going on, all within a several-block area,'' he boasts. Mayor Cianci, affectionately known as ``Buddy,'' is certainly one of the city's more colorful characters. He was elected mayor in 1974, convicted of assault (he believed the man was his estranged wife's lover) and forced to resign in 1984. He became a popular radio talk-show host from 1985-90, and mayor again since 1991. To this reporter, he has been described as ``a charmer,'' ``quite a politician,'' ``a character,'' and ``a good salesman,'' by people in Providence.

In an interview in his City Hall office overlooking the Capital Center project, Mayor Cianci took pleasure in promoting Providence, a city ``on the move,'' saying: ``You're not going to get a more livable city than this.''

``Providence is an education center, a service center, and a health center,'' Cianci says. ``It is also a place where we have some very stable neighborhoods. Providence is a very distinguished city because of our age, because of our appreciation for our architecture, and because of the old families that are here - plus the wave of immigration that gives us tremendous diversity and gives us tremendous strength.'' Immigrants `an opportunity'

The city has long featured strong ethnic neighborhoods, the largest being the Italian-American neighborhood on Federal Hill. The more recent wave of immigration that Cianci speaks of has brought an increasing number of Hispanics and Southeast Asians (mostly Cambodians and Laotians). ``It's a challenge and also an opportunity,'' Cianci says.

In addition to the revitalization program and an effort to keep everything ``inextricably linked,'' Cianci cites other pressing issues on his agenda: improving education, maintaining the middle class, and rehabilitating neighborhoods. ``We are always in a constant state of trying to improve ourselves,'' Cianci says. ``We have a great consensus-building attitude here.''

Like any urban area, Providence is not without such problems as poverty and crime. But it is also saddled with the ugly reputation of the state as a haven for organized crime, widespread political corruption (including 21 people convicted from Mayor Cianci's first administration), and the banking and credit-union crisis triggered by a $15.8 million embezzlement in 1990.

The embezzlement exhausted a private bank-deposit insurer, setting off a crisis that caused Gov. Bruce Sundlun (D) to close 10 banks and 35 credit unions. The embezzler was convicted in April.

More recently, Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Thomas F. Fay resigned after being indicted on charges of ethics violations. A time of hope

But people like Phil West, executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, say that despite all of that, this is a hopeful time for Rhode Island - a state with the motto ``Hope.'' ``We now have the strongest ethics program in the United States,'' says Mr. West, vice chairman of Right Now!, a coalition that pushes for higher standards of ethical conduct. ``The whole climate has changed, essentially,'' West says. ``It's a cleansing. Purification has to happen before you have healing.''

A longtime political observer in Providence is not so optimistic. Rhode Island is so small that everyone rubs elbows and asks for favors, he says.

Aesthetically speaking, Providence will be a better place in five years, he observes, but ``in terms of whether or not it's going to be clean [politically], don't count on it. We're all sort of jaded around here.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.