Providence, Rhode Island: my gritty little city


When I first got to Providence in 1978, most of downtown was being ripped up, in preparation for a walking mall on Westminster Street. I took a stroll on my first Sunday here, not knowing that Sundays in New England in the 1970s were pretty much business-free, because of the blue laws still in effect in those days. The city looked like Sarajevo in the 1990s, or Dresden after the firestorm.



It’s 2011, and they’ve dug up downtown again. For what seems like the seventeenth time in thirty-three years.



Providence has some lovely neighborhoods. Partner and I live at Wayland Square, a residential district on the East Side of the city, and there are some really charming houses around us, as well as some really pretty grandiose mansions. And the Brown and RISD campuses are fun and interesting. But much of the rest of the city looks perpetually bedraggled, like a dog just come in out of the rain. Downtown (locals call it “Downcity,” just to be unique) always looks that way.



There are hints and glimpses of terrific architecture: it’s great fun to look up when you’re downtown, to admire the fanciful decoration on many of the buildings. The O’Gorman Building has a facade decorated with peacocks, their tails running down to street level. The Conrad Building has an gilded onion dome like an Orthodox church. Trinity Rep (which the AIA Guide to Providence Architecture calls “delicious”) is an alabaster jewelry-box, built in the 1920s as a showroom for fancy Packard automobiles. The old Providence Journal building has an exterior like a French chateau.



But, at street level in Downcity, not much is going on. There are Hello Kitty outlets and handmade-soap stores and hipster cafes and SPACE FOR RENT signs. Businesses come and go.



But here’s one of the reasons that I love Providence:



There’s an old used-bookstore on Mathewson Street called Cellar Stories. You have to climb a steep flight of stairs to get to it. Know why? Its original downtown location, back in the 1980s, was in fact in the downstairs section of another building. The owner / proprietor and I have known each other for decades – not as friends, not on a first-name basis, but as regulars, people you know by sight. A couple of months ago I remarked that this was the – what? – third location for the store?



“Well,” he said in his deep imperturbable voice, “There was the downstairs place. And then we moved again down on Richmond -”



His wife – I think she’s his wife, I don’t know – looked on, laughing. This is a typical Providence conversation: reminiscing about where things used to be.



But it was important, for him and for me, to remember.



That’s not just the store’s past. That’s our past, man.



And, in Providence, the past and the present are the same thing.



Or something like that.



About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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