Walking Tour of Providence, Rhode Island
The river divides Providence into two eras. The east bank was built when tall ships were king, and cargoes from China, Africa, and beyond cluttered the wharves. In the mid-1800s the city began to shift westward, riding a manufacturing boom that established its urban core. With railroads taking the place of ships, the river was almost entirely paved over, replaced by Crawford Street Bridge, a thoroughfare known to history as the widest span ever built and to residents as the most congested.
To the relief of the city’s residents and visitors, that’s no longer the case. Like most New England cities, Providence saw its manufacturing base crumble after World War II and watched as urban decay set in. Starting in the 1970s, urban planners and nonprofits began imagining ways to turn the city around (a process they now refer to as “the Renaissance”). Resurrecting the rivers was high on their list, though it wouldn’t be until 1995 that Providence’s Riverwalk took full shape.
Starting a few blocks south of the fork and following the west branch around the northern limits of Downcity, the Riverwalk is a series of grassy enclaves and bench-lined promenades along the water’s edge. A handful of graceful bridges with ornate railings and streetlamps span the river. The scene has a very European feel, helped in part by La Gondola‘s Venetian-style vessels wending their way up and down the river, each with its own striped-shirted pilot and live musician serenading its passengers.
Across the river, the effects of the Renaissance have taken root in the once-blighted center of Downcity, though Providence’s rebirth is still a block-by-block battle. On Empire Street, for example, the Trinity Repertory Company and AS220 anchor the neighborhood’s cultural scene with traditional theater and avant-garde art–while just a block away the old “gentlemen’s clubs” are still doing good business. What was that about taking the good with the bad?
The poster child for Downcity’s restoration is Westminster Street, a short stretch of ultra-hip shops that are breathing new life into the abandoned department stores that once did business there. Craftland is a must-visit boutique featuring locally created clothes, jewelry, and art–much of which has a distinct pro-Ocean State message, such as the T-shirt warning “Don’t Mess with Rhode Island Either.” Across the street, Small Point Café attends to the neighborhood’s caffeine needs, while Symposium Books keeps alive the legacy of the cool independent bookstore.
As any urban planner will tell you, it takes more than building a few parks and bridges to jump-start a city. Businesses won’t open without foot traffic, but people won’t come downtown until there’s something to do. Providence found a solution by appealing to one of mankind’s most primordial impulses: If you want to draw a crowd, set something on fire.
WaterFire is the brainchild of multimedia artist Barnaby Evans. First put on in 1994, it was intended as a one-time occasion but has since become Providence’s signature event, with a number of celebrations each year from late May through early October.
From a performance standpoint, there isn’t much to see. At my first WaterFire, my girlfriend and I staked out a prime spot in Waterplace Park, a circular basin at the western edge of the Riverwalk. The air was tinged with smoke as boats carrying dark-clad torchbearers lit scores of braziers along the river. Classical music blared from the speakers as a slightly larger boat entered the basin. A buff, shirtless man performed a fire dance as the boat made a loop and then vanished back the way it had come.
“I think that’s it,” my girlfriend whispered. “That can’t be it,” I replied. “That’s just the intro.”
It turned out we were both right. The real show is what happens all around the canals. The side streets are filled with food vendors and performers; dance floors emerge along city byways, accompanied by the rhythms of tango or swing. All along the Riverwalk, people stroll arm in arm as the warmth of the fire battles the cool night air around them. And at every promenade, people sit along the benches and just stare into the flames, transfixed like children around a campfire.
It’s a quiet moment—a chance for visitors to discover and for residents to remember just how unique Providence is. It’s a city unafraid to rise from the ashes and move steadily forward, one rebirth at a time.