On Providence

Aerial Shot of Providence
Aerial photo of Providence and surrounding areas by Doc Searls (via Flickr)

Online, there’s an account called “OurPVD” which says its purpose is to “Increas[e] awareness about an oft-misunderstood place”. As we enter the election for our next mayor, I’ve thought a lot about that account’s name and what it means. What does “our Providence” truly mean?

I was born and raised in Providence during its Renaissance. Grandiosity was all the rage then, often for its own sake. Gondolas appeared in the river, we learned a lot about our similarities with Italian cities – Providence, like Rome, is built on seven hills (though I believe a few were demolished). As I grew older, the Renaissance faded, and we found a new moniker to suffice. By then I had departed to college in North Carolina, and the goings on in Providence were far from my mind.
Why then did I come back? That’s a question that’s been asked of me many times in the years since I returned. And it’s hard to answer. It’s hard to put into words, but I’ll try.

The simplest way to say it is that our Providence is great. It’s filled to the brim with people of all types who want to build things. We found a swamp and built mountains of steel and concrete. In place of a forest of trees we made a forest of factories. When strife and hatred burned our town down, we rebuilt a city. This is the greatness of our Providence.

We even moved rivers. I know one man claims credit for doing so, but examine your heart and find if you truly believe that one man can change the course of a river. One man can stand in the middle of the stream and thrash and flail about and make a lot of splashes; but alone, all that effort will go to waste. Many hands move rivers, build mountains, lay roads. Many people build a city.

Our Providence is more than a slogan; more than the Beehive of Industry, more than the Renaissance City, more than the Creative Capital. Our Providence is a city of dreams and hope. You merely have to look at the Columbus Theatre. Where sensibility might have demanded it be torn down into a parking lot, today it is a vibrant center of culture. Even in the travails of what is now known as 111 Westminster, you can see that same sense of hope.

Today there are many who fail to understand what it means to live in our Providence. You can read their misunderstandings on the editorial pages of the daily paper that takes its name from our city. Some live outside our city, but others live inside its boundaries. It’s safe to say that you can even be a former mayor of this city and not really have a firm grasp on what it truly is.

The evidence of this all around us. You can stand on Exchange Street and look north to Waterplace Basin. Right there seems to be where the heart of the city should be, with that magnificent fountain and its stone steps and beautiful bridges. And yet you only need to look south and see where that heart truly is – there in Kennedy Plaza. Where there’s a bustle of activity in the shadows of skyscrapers, beyond the line of food trucks, and on the doorstep of City Hall.

When Presidents like Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy would speak to the people of Rhode Island, that is where they chose. Those who fail to understand where Providence’s heart is are seeking to rip it out. And it fills me with dread to imagine Kennedy Plaza as deserted as Waterplace Basin has been my whole life.
But you need only look to City Hall and the State House to restore our hope. When Rhode Island chose to house its government, it built gradiose homes for them. We must have known back then that the governments that would inhabit those structures were not worthy of them, perhaps couldn’t be worthy. But we built them any way. We can hope, and struggle for, the day when the governments in City Hall and the State House are worthy of their homes.

Our Providence is the crown of the Narragansett Bay, the lynchpin between the west side of the state and the eastern parts of the state. It is a city of hope. Let whoever becomes our next mayor consider this, and let them consider that this a city not for their enrichment or those of their close associates, but for the enrichment of all the people from the Seekonk to the Woonasquatucket and from Roger Williams Park to Wanskuck Park.

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