Friday Flagging: Providence

Each week I take a look at the flags and associated civic symbolism. This week, after many delays totally throwing this project’s timeline into chaos, I take a look at my home city, Providence.

About Providence

I wrote up a nearly 4,000 word history of the city. So you can read that there. It’s a big city.

What has Providence Got Now?

Providence has a coat of arms. Here’s a really poor version of it from the Tercentenary Commission.

Here’s the Commission’s emblazonment:

Argent, the landing of Roger Williams proper. On a silver shield the landing of Roger Williams depicted in proper colors. This device was officially adopted as the city’s seal in 1845, and was placed on a shield on the seal, so that it became the arms of the city. The previous coat of arms of the city is now the coat of arms of the Board of Aldermen.

It’s true this has been the city’s seal. In fact, I found multiple versions of it:

What about that previous coat of arms? Well, as best I can tell, there are references to the pre-1845 seal as a set of stars or estoiles, similar to the arms of Portsmouth.

Sadly, there’s not a lot of Board of Aldermen material available digitally, so it may take some time to confirm this.

Providence’s mayor has a seal as well. It was used prominently by Buddy Cianci, and as a result, seems to have become associated with his administration. Afterwards, its use has been dropped. Very fortunately, at some point in his youth, my brother received a lapel pin from the mayor (or his staff) bearing the seal.

There’s a fair amount going on with that seal, not least of which is the fasces, which was a symbol of office in Roman times that came to be associated with republicanism in the 18th and 19th centuries, before ultimately becoming associated with fascism in the 20th century.

After Cianci, Mayor Cicilline sought to close the book on the Cianci era, and created a new visual identity and branding effort for the city:

Logo of the Creative Capital
Logo of the Creative Capital (Shamelessly taken from schwadesign.com)

The city, which had once been known as “the Beehive of Industry” and during the Cianci era “the Renaissance City” now became “the Creative Capital.” The logo cost $200,000, and at the time was poorly received, largely because it was designed by an outside firm (and the cost). A second, Providence-based firm made it orange, and that’s the form it’s existed in ever since. One complaint about the P is that it looks like a parking sign, a problem not helped by a local business which is using the P for its own logo and also using it to indicate where where its parking is.

The P was quietly dropped during the Taveras administration, who preferred to used the city seal; possibly this was due to tensions between Taveras, who likely wanted to draw a line between himself and his predecessor (much like Cicilline had done with Cianci). However, Taveras’ successor, Elorza, revived the P, and the visual identity commissioned nearly two decades ago lives on today.

As a side note, I have read that in Portuguese municipalities, generally, there are city arms that are inviolable, and then there’s the city logo, which is typically redesigned whenever a new government takes power.

Providence also has a flag. I don’t have a great image of it. The below is from CRW Flags of the World, which writes that this version was created by David Martucci for the North American Vexillogical Association’s 2002-2003 ranking of United States municipal flags (it placed 119th).

The article in Raven tells us that the Providence flag was officially designed by Alderman E. Merle Bixby, who brought up the lack of a city flag in 1914 after watching a Providence Police color company carry the US and RI flags, but not one for Providence. A committee solicited designs, but didn’t find any of the proposals acceptable (somewhere, there is a file of flag designs from 1914). In 1915, Alderman Bixby designed the above.

Look. This is not a good flag. This is a seal-on-a-bedsheet (aka, a SOB). It’s indistinguishable from Nebraska, or any of the dozen-something states that use a SOB. Take a walk around Providence. Where do you see this flag? The City barely even flies this. It’s routinely replaced on poles by better, more important flags. On the design merits, it simply fails at being a flag.

Symbolically, the scene may be historically resonant, but it’s also a bit much to stomach, given that within Williams’ lifetime, the Narragansetts would be utterly destroyed as a political force, and the settlement he founded would later be the market where many Narragansetts were sold into slavery. Providence is only now entering a truth and reconciliation process to examine its past with Native peoples. We need to ask if this is really an appropriate symbol for the City to fly as it navigates that process?

Interestingly, Raven reveals that, in ordinance, the City Council also has a flag:

It is white with two narrow dark blue stripes, one at the top and one at the bottom of the flag (the blue stripes represent the old Providence Plantations, which ran in narrow strips of land from the river). In the center is a dark blue disk with the seal of the Providence City Council embroidered or painted on it in gold. Encircling the seal are 15 gold stars, one for each ward of the city

Now, it’s possible this was actually the Board of Aldermen’s flag; the reference to the “seal of the Providence City Council” – which as far as I am aware is simply the same as the City’s, suggests that. But reading it at face value, that suggests something that looks like this:

Is that a good flag? Not really, it’s a seal on a slightly better designed flag. I could also be quite wrong about shades of color. This is also hampered by the fact that there’s not a good vector version of the Providence seal available online anywhere, and I have no desire to create one, so it all just kind of looks really bad.

Indeed, a bit like Charlestown, I’m going to completely skip the typical vectorization phase of this project, and just dive straight into the flag redesigns.

Except for one small thing. I thought I’d create a vector version of the extremely hard-to-find mayoral seal:

Redesigning Providence’s Flag

Design 1

Providence’s arms don’t lend themselves to a flag very easily, but at least I can try the logo. I had a pretty good idea ahead of making it how this would turn out. It’s like a bad sports team’s flag. There are ways to incorporate lettering into flags (see some of my Cumberland redesigns), but I didn’t achieve that here.

Design 2

This flag is intended to simulate the side of a factory, the reason so many of Providence’s residents would end up here over the course of the history. Providence has 25 official neighborhoods, and this flag represents each one with a window. Windows can be added or removed as neighborhoods change.

Designs 3a, 3b, 3c

These three flags are all color variations on the same design: a seven-point embattlement on the hoist representing the seven hills the city was built on (a few have been levelled) with a twenty-five point star in towards the fly. The embattlement is intended to recall the Dexter Armory, while the star stands for the neighborhoods, and also for Providence’s position as the state’s capital.

These is done in three color variations: Design A uses red for the industrial history of Providence, blue representing water for the city’s maritime past, and yellow for the wealth. Design B swaps red out for white, and I can’t say I have a particularly good reason for that, but simply that white contrasts well against purple. Purple is a rarely-used color in flag design, but it basically represents prestige and power, and that works well for Providence. Finally, Design C pulls the orange from the current civic branding.

Designs 4a & 4b

These two designs draw on the design of the City of Chicago by picking five events in the city’s history to memorialize: first, the founding of Providence; second, riots that led to the city founding; third, the Dorr Rebellion and the action at the Armory; fourth, the Hurricane of 1938 which flooded Providence; and fifth, the Blizzard of ’78. Each design uses seven stripes for the seven hills, while using red to represent the city’s industrial history and green to represent its green future. The two blue lines represent the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket. Design 4a uses bezants, old coins to represent the city as a center of wealth and prosperity, and Design 4b uses estoiles to connect to (what I hope was) the old seal of Providence.

Design 5

Design 5 uses a version of a heraldic design called “vair” to represent the twenty five neighborhoods, with industry and wealth represented in the colors. A blue seven-pointed star in the canton denotes Providence as the capital of Rhode Island.

Design 6

This flag was more of an exercise born from the suggestion to use the Crook Point Bridge. I’m not sure how long that can work as a symbol, given that it may come down soon, but this is how I would represent it on a flag.

Design 7

Riffing on North Providence a bit, this uses the indented line from that town’s arms to represent the seven hills (as North Providence uses the line to represent two hills in that town). The colors are red for industry, white for the winter snow, and blue for the Providence River. The star represent Providence as the capital of Rhode Island.

Design 8

Going a lot more simple, this flag uses five seven-pointed white stars to represent the five events listed above. It uses a single blue triangle in the field to represent the city as a hilly place, with a mass of red behind to represent the city’s industrial history.

Designs 9a & 9b

9a & 9b draw on the flag of Providence’s sister city Guatemala City a bit. That flag features a blue border with sea shells, where here I’m using a red border (no points for guessing why red). There are twenty-five bezants on border, signifying the neighborhoods as the wealth of Providence. 9a uses Design 8’s stars, representing the mentioned five events. They’re placed ahead of three lines representing the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck, and Seekonk all running into the Providence River. Design 9b removes the five stars and drops the Seekonk to use a more simple pall design (that Y shape).

Wrapping Up

Providence was pretty difficult, and it took a lot longer to get this out than I had anticipated it would. I don’t think I ever found something I thought was great here. Providence’s first mayor remarked that the city was “too heterogeneous” back in 1832, and while I wouldn’t say it’s “too” heterogeneous, it is definitely heterogeneous. That makes a unifying symbol like a flag harder to achieve, and you can see why the city might’ve rejected all the submitted designs in 1914 to arrive at Bixby’s unimaginative seal on a bedsheet.

My goal for the next couple of weeks is to make up for lost time by getting through both Richmond and Scituate! Let’s see if that’s doable!

As always vote in the poll:

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