Cover Story

20 Reasons We Love Providence

In honor of our 20th anniversary, we look back at how far the city has come in the last 20 years

Posted

1. We’ve Gone From Renaissance City to Creative Capital
It’s impossible to remember Providence in the late ‘90s without thinking of Buddy Cianci. When he dubbed us The Renaissance City, the then-mayor knew about second chances all too well. Together, the city and the mayor embraced rebirth and reinvention, and it seemed there was nothing that was out of reach. Rivers were moved and lit on fire, after all. The excitement was evident in and around the city. A TV show called Providence, extreme sports competitions like the X Games and Gravity Games, a skating rink, a mall – the city was on the verge of something. You could just feel it. Providence’s renaissance was fueled by a relentless drive to put the city on the map alongside other great cities. Buddy paid the ultimate price for doing it at any cost, but the city kept its head up and looked ahead. Nearly two decades and three mayors later, Providence was reborn again, this time as the Creative Capital. While there’s still excitement about what’s to come, there’s also pride in what we have become – a great city - in just 20 years.

2. Our Commitment to Weirdness
What other city has its own resident alien rock band? Big Nazo might be our city’s most exotic oddballs, but they’re hardly the only ones. What Cheer? Brigade and Extraordinary Rendition Band put a punk and glam rock spin on what it means to be a marching band, while annual celebrations of eccentricity – like AS220’s Foo Fest and The Wilbury Groups Fringe Festival – keep us weird all year. We even get to claim the father of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft (yes, he’s a problematic figure, but we’ll gladly condemn his views while celebrating how his myths and monsters inspired cooler heads in modern sci-fi and horror fiction). Plus, one of our favorite citizens is a giant, inanimate blue termite... so yeah, we’re weird. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

3. Our DIY Sensibility
The Industrial Revolution was born here (fine, technically Pawtucket) so making stuff is in our city’s DNA. Our artists and artisans are continuing that legacy every day, whether it’s metalsmiths at The Steel Yard forging functional works, DIYers making snarky t-shirts to sell at Craftland and Rhody Craft, or brewmasters at Long Live Beerworks, Trinity and Revival who are making the kind of beer they want to drink. It doesn’t matter the scale, the artists in this town are scrappy, resourceful and 100 percent committed to what they’re making. “Creative Capital” isn’t just smart branding, it’s a fact.


The Steel Yard – Photo by Michael Cevoli

4. Because 20 Years Looks Good on Us
The city really doesn’t look a day over 381 years old. In fact, the ambitious developments of the last 20 years have drastically changed the city landscape, and repositioned Providence as a destination to live, work and travel to. Seedy establishments like the Sportsman’s Inn and The Satin Doll were shown the door to make room for hip hotels and fine restaurants. Towering luxury apartments were built downtown, and old mills were converted into cool living spaces in Olneyville. Art institutions like AS220 and the RISD Museum completed expansions that inspired more commercial growth. Brown and RISD stepped off the East Side to develop academic and residential space downtown and beyond. Retail districts like In Downcity were created and mobilized. City parks not only became safer, but also became hubs for farmers markets and neighborhood concerts. Providence Place and the skating rink transformed the center of the city, and pedestrian bridges created a synergy between the RI Convention Center, the Dunk and the mall. And so on. The hustle in Providence is the real deal. Luckily it just makes us look younger and younger.

5. We’re Innovative - and Innovating
Dubbed the “Startup State” by Forbes, Rhode Island is making its name in the innovation biz in every field under the sun. We’ve got the Business Innovation Factory, which tests business and social system models, restaurant management platform Upserve, startup accelerator Betaspring, and business and community network Social Enterprise Greenhouse. On the healthcare front Annie De Groot’s EpiVax is taking a groundbreaking approach to developing life-saving vaccines, while Nabsys is pioneering electronic mapping to analyze genomes. We’re even innovating our innovators: the Rhode Island Foundation chooses two recipients of the Carter Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Innovation every year - and gives them $300,000 to train all their energy on improving and increasing civic engagement in the state. Everywhere you look, people are connecting, creating and making the state more incredible. It must be that ocean (state) air.

6. We Rock, On a National Level
The music scene here is a thrilling mix of genres and styles held together by a strong, supportive community, some members of which we’ve been lucky to share with the rest of the country. Bands like Lightning Bolt, Brown Bird, Deer Tick, Roz and the Rice Cakes and Downtown Boys have made the 401 proud. As gatekeepers for the wide world of music, Lupo’s (it’s The Strand now, so get used to it, Guy Who Still Calls The Dunk The Civic Center), The Met, The Columbus Theatre, Fete, Alchemy and Dusk are constantly bringing in everyone from national headliners and the next big band to fringe performers and underground favorites. And though WBRU is off the airwaves (RIP 95.5 FM) we’re hoping its newest digital incarnation will continue its 50-year tradition of fueling our collective teenage angst.


Roz and the Rice Cakes – Photo by James Jones

7. We’re Artsy
For a small city, we have a big love of the arts - and we show it by supporting a huge number of incredible organizations. Take AS220, where you can see an art show, rock out to live music, and learn contemporary African dance. Or PVDFest, the dazzling showcase for music, performance and visual art that takes over downtown each summer. Gallery Night offers the opportunity to visit 21 free galleries and museums a month. FirstWorks brings in unusual, international acts to Providence's stages.  Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival premieres new, independent films each year, culled from thousands of submissions. Now, Providenizens can go to The Vets to hear the RI Philharmonic Orchestra and watch Festival Ballet; visit PPAC to see a gem of a venue, the national tours of Broadway productions, and all manner of special events; enjoy groundbreaking live theater and a beloved resident acting corps, courtesy of Trinity Repertory Company; and observe the next generation of arts-lovers take shape through dynamic groups like New Urban Arts and Girls Rock RI

8. Being Boston’s Underdog is Working For Us
The reality of Providence is that we will always have to deal with the shadows cast by our big brother to the north. While we like to think we can compete with Boston, the truth is they are bigger and can outspend us many times over. But we do have a secret sauce: We’re creative. We’re cool. And we’re cozy. Sure, the fireworks on the Fourth along the Charles are nice, but they’re not WaterFire. And yes, Harvard has produced more Nobel laureates, but can it match the elegant pageantry of Brown’s graduation day on College Hill? Our food options here are more creative and certainly more affordable than Boston (a city, by the way, that was once known mainly for its baked beans). No one should be surprised that after deciding to relocate its headquarters to Boston, GE was still willing to move a significant crew of techies and creatives into Providence. Sure it’s a crumb, but it keeps us in the conversation. Our quality of life and more reasonably priced real estate will do the rest.

9. We’re Smart. Like, Really Smart.
Imagine that the Brain (the fictional, genetically altered lab rat companion to Pinky) had finally succeeded in taking over the world. Chances are, he would have chosen Providence as its capital. We’ve got a world-class arts institution in RISD, academic firepower roaming the halls at Brown and JWU’s culinary program churning out the restaurateurs of tomorrow. The ranks of the brilliant and talented are crawling with lucky recipients of a Providence degree, including RISD alums Kara Walker, Seth McFarlane, James Franco and Airbnb cofounders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, along with thousands of distinguished Brunonians like Emma Watson and Ted Turner.


Brown University – Photo by Savannah Barkley for Providence Monthly

10. Our Vibrant LGBTQ Scene
We love how brightly the LGBTQ community here shines. RI Pride provides, in addition to year-round programming, an annual summer highlight with PrideFest and the Illuminated Night Parade, attracting tens of thousands to join in the celebrations for 40 years now. Youth Pride offers free counseling, discussion groups, workshops, and more at their drop-in center. For nightlife, see hopping Snow Street bars like Alley Cat, the Dark Lady and Providence Eagle, and hot spots like The Stable, The Village, EGO and Mirabar. For glamour galore, check out local celebrity drag queens like Sabrina Blaze and the monthly drag brunch at Massimo. We’re lucky to have had the Providence Gay Men’s Chorus serenading us since 1995, with a not-to-miss holiday concert coming up this December. Don’t forget that, in 2003, David Cicilline became the first openly gay mayor of a state capital here. And, though we were late to the party, RI finally legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. No wonder PVD consistently ranks highly on national lists of gay-friendly cities.

11. For Movies, PVD Is a BFD
This is a movie geek’s town. With Cable Car and the Avon, we’ve got two outstanding art house theaters, and the Columbus has been screening cult and indie classics through its Film Club series. But this is a movie maker’s town, too. Just ask Woody Allen, the Farrelly Brothers, whoever the hell thought Underdog was a good idea, or Chad Verdi, the local producer who helped bring Vinny Paz’s story to the big screen last year. Add the fact that the Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival is an Oscar qualifier and Providence starts to feel like an indie sleeper hit of a city: we’re flying under the radar and earning accolades from everyone in the know while Hollywood’s distracted by superheroes punching each other in the face.

12. We’ve Got Skin in the Game(s)
When it comes to sports, though modestly sized, Providence has always been a city that punches above its weight. Having been revived under the inspired leadership of its homegrown coach Ed Cooley, the Providence College Friars basketball team has regained its status as a national basketball power. Its hockey team has done even better, becoming national champions just two years ago. We’ve got the P Bruins, and our beloved PawSox remain a five-minute ride away in Pawtucket, at least for now. And with the Patriots just a short drive up the road, it’s no wonder we’re catnip for sports junkies. It’s why the Dunk now attracts so many NCAA regional championship games on a regular basis. More important, it’s also given us the chance to show the rest of the country we can throw a downtown block party with the best of them.

13. The Waterfront
Having a Dark & Stormy on the deck of The Hot Club is the unofficial start to any Providenizen’s summer, but cocktails aren’t the only thing to love about our waterfront. The Providence River is the centerpiece of downtown, and not just during WaterFire. Any given day, you’ll see gondolas gliding up and down the water, people kayaking and taking boat tours, tables full of diners on waterfront patios at places like Capital Grille and Cafe Nuovo, and people just sitting in Waterplace Park, taking in the greatness of our city.


Hot Club – Photo by Mike Braca

14. Our Favorite Sport Will Always Be Politics
While fans love hanging at the Dunk, the true bloodsport in Providence is our unparalleled, bare-knuckle, political free-for-alls. Crimetown provided ringside seats for a national audience to observe the antics of our local politicos, including the irrepressible Buddy Cianci, who was loved and hated on both sides with equal ferocity, and whom one newspaper described as the city’s longest serving mayor “who was propelled by demons and the proud owner of the least-convincing toupee in political history.” Given that two of our city councilmen have been indicted in the last two years, we’re comforted knowing there seem to be plenty of up-and-comers in the system to keep us entertained.

15. We’ve Given a Lot of Awesomeness to the World
See: religious freedom (thanks Roger!); coffee milk; the first food truck, Haven Bros. (s/o to the Murder Burger); Broadway legend George M. Cohan; Miss Universe Olivia Culpo; GI Joe, My Little Pony, Mr. Potato Head and the rest of the Hasbro universe. You can even attribute the start of the American Revolution to us, with the burning of the HMS Gaspee years before the Boston Tea Party. So you’re welcome, America. Providence made you a country.

16. Our Commitment to Historic Preservation
Even in 2017, most of us have at least a working knowledge of the city’s high (and low) moments in history. That’s because, as a city, we really take care of it. We support preservation through organizations like Providence Preservation Society and the RI Historical Society. We turn our aging landmarks like the Arcade into modernized living spaces. We party in the Lippitt and John Brown Houses. We have a bright green Independence Trail all over town marking our great moments in history. Just one thing, Providence: can we please add a building to that standalone facade on Weybossett? It’s just weird.


Al Forno – Photo by Melissa Stimpson

17. Because We’re the Food Town
Providence’s best-kept secret isn’t really a secret at all. We don’t just have great food, we have the best food. It’s better than Boston and just as good (and much more affordable) than New York. Not only do we have some big claims to fame - Al Forno invented grilled pizza, and Pot au Feu was the first French bistro to open in the country - we also have Johnson & Wales turning out class after class of future star chefs, and Farm Fresh RI bringing a steady stream of locally grown food to our plates.

18. Because Downtown Is a Real Neighborhood Now
Every city’s “Downtown” plays multiple roles: commercial hub, showcase for tourists, urban playground, and gathering place for both people on the go and those with nowhere in particular to be. Providence is no exception. There’s excitement and buzz – nationally acclaimed restaurants, major developments, and a little thing called PVDFest. But, there are also lingering problems: nonprofits and sweetheart deals hobble the tax base, the battle for the soul of Kennedy Plaza is ongoing, and the city’s tallest, most iconic building remains a towering void in the cityscape. Fortunately, with an increasing number of residents and perhaps more stakeholder groups than ever dedicated to downtown’s success, it’s closer than ever to becoming something it’s always struggled to be: a neighborhood.

19. We’re Redefining “Know A Guy” Culture
It’s all about who you know in Providence - but now more than ever, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because of our size and our two degrees of separation, it’s generally pretty easy to ask the right people for help when you need it. That’s especially true with the rise of community-oriented organizations like the Providence Lady Project and Leadership RI. Even the Hope Street Merchants Association is an exemplar of how people and businesses can band together and really make a difference in a neighborhood, just because they care enough to do it.

20. Because the West Side Wasn’t Always the Cool Part of Town
Is the West Side a thriving neighborhood enjoying the full flower of a 20-plus year revitalization, or a gentrified hipster rebrand of the West End? The short answer is yes. One the one hand, the restaurant and bar scenes are booming and the historic Victorian architecture has been restored to its past grandeur, thanks in large part to the Armory Revival, which doubled down when it was a neighborhood that was hard to love. Meanwhile, rents are creeping steadily upwards as a new generation of residents “discovers” the West Side without necessarily considering the folks who have been there the whole time. Regardless of one’s feelings about the socioeconomics, we can all agree that it remains one of Providence’s most dynamic, diverse, and vibrant neighborhoods – and likely will be for years to come.