Rising Tide: Despite Financial Woes, Is Providence Resurging?

Originally published on May 12, 2016 9:18 am

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza held the first in a series of community meetings Monday to discuss the city’s fiscal challenges. Elorza is trying to build public support for a plan to dig the city out of deficits, projected to grow to tens of millions of dollars if left unchecked. 

Just a few months ago, Elorza sounded more optimistic about the capitol city, while giving his state of the city address in February.

“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together to position Providence for a better future. Make no mistake about it, Providence is beginning a resurgence,” said Elorza.

Across the city’s diverse neighborhoods, Providence residents offer a variety of opinions on the state of the capital. Some agree with Mayor Elorza, but others feel the city has a long way to go.

At Small Point Café in downtown, owner Adam Buck sat at a booth pulling together orders for the week. Today, Buck’s café is surrounded by boutiques and restaurants, but he remembers a time when downtown was not a place for shoe-shopping or sipping coffee.

“I lived here 25 years ago, and 25 years ago the word on the street when I was a young man was don’t go downtown alone, so it’s changed dramatically since then,” said Buck.

Sean Daly stood outside the Arcade on Westminster; it’s a historic mall that was renovated in recent years. Daly works at a large personal security company downtown, and thinks the city needs to do more to bring business to Providence.

“I think that there’s a lot of good things happening, the universities, the arts scene I think is amazing, the development that is going on from a real estate perspective,” said Daly. “But I still think there’s not enough companies downtown, and there’s not enough reason for people to be staying in the city of Providence once they get out of school.”

Rhode Island School of Design professor Taylor Baldwin knows all about the struggle of getting students to stay in Providence. He’s a local artist and he sees a downside to economic resurgence as many artists rely on cheap real estate. Baldwin mentioned a couple of neighborhoods where artists might not always have a home.

“So a lot of the development that’s happened over in the West Side and Olneyville in particular has actually choked off a lot of the cultural development,” said Baldwin. “Some of it has moved to Pawtucket, some of it further into the Jewelry district. I think currently there’s enough real estate opportunities that the arts scene is able to find homes.”

Michelle Freeman serves eggs and burgers at the Elmwood Diner in Providence’s Elmwood neighborhood. It’s a struggling area with some signs of gentrification. New faces mean new business for Freeman, but not all of her customers agree.

“There’s some people [who] come in who have been born and raised, who talk about the hipsters coming in,” noted Freeman. “Which to me, that’s positive energy to me. But for some people change is hard.

But improving a struggling neighborhood is hard, too, and Freeman said Elmwood suffers from crime, drugs and prostitution.

“There’s lots of dealing of drugs. There is a lot of prostitution, believe it or not, same faces every morning, you know, 5:30, 6 o’clock.”

And Freeman sees division between the different ethnic groups in the neighborhood.

“It would be nice if there was more things to have us come together as a community versus live side by side.”

Just up the street from the diner the DORCAS international Institute teaches immigrants English and how to navigate the road to US citizenship. On a break from class, student Mario Jucum says he’s finding plenty of work in Providence in recent years.

“It’s not hard to find a job,” he said “because I plow snow too, so early in the morning, ten o’clock, the people, the customer come out and say hey what are you doing.”

Jucum had mixed feelings about taking English classes.

“I don’t like it but I have to since I live here, so I think this is my future. I have to try my best to learn English very well.”

While Jucum had no trouble finding work, Providence still has an unemployment rate well above the state average and many families struggle to put food on the table. So is the economy improving?

“All depends how you look at it,” said John Vernancio, owner of a cigar shop on Broadway. “From a residential standpoint I would say yes.“

Broadway, a busy street on the city’s west side, has become a hub for students and artsy types. A dozen people sat in Vernancio’s shop chewing the fat in between puffs of their Montecristos and Arturo Fuentes. Vernancio does see resurgence on Broadway, but elsewhere?

“But on the other hand, for a business, the city is anti-business.” He countered, “through regulations and fees, right down to the fact of putting parking meters on Atwell’s Avenue on Federal Hill, they’re preventing people from going to the restaurants and supporting to the businesses.”

Neighborhoods like the West Side and downtown look better than they used to 25, maybe even 10 years ago. But residents and business owners said there are still problems like poverty and crime. Many residents, when asked whether the city was beginning a resurgence had to stop and take a deep breath, before giving a tentative ‘yes.’

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