Cover Story

A Changing Thayer Street

One writer reflects on the street's quirkier days as the heart of College Hill continues to evolve

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Gradually, over the last 15 years, business by business, Thayer Street has been losing its edgy, eclectic, independent spirit. Two, three, four decades ago, Thayer was the mecca for counterculture-loving college students, families, angsty teens and selective shoppers, who drove and took the bus from all over the state and even Southern New England to hang out during the weekend. The departures of iconic pizzeria Nice Slice and tucked-away record store What Cheer Records + Vintage are simply the most recent in a long exodus of small businesses. Was this inevitable, a sign of changing times? Are these businesses leaving voluntarily? And what does the future hold for Thayer Street?

Lois Hollingsworth opened Sunny Days in 1980 and its sister store, upscale dress boutique Zuzu’s Petals, in 1991. Between the two shops, she had a presence on Thayer Street for 25 years (Sunny Days closed in 1995). Hollingsworth recalls a particular Friday night two decades ago, “before the bars got a little rough and we were open in the evenings. I remember looking out and seeing all of these different age groups – students, yes, but also older and middle-aged.” It was “just so vibrant. I thought, this is such a unique situation. It was great to be a part of it.” At the time, a few people owned several buildings, but there were many other landlords involved, housing myriad businesses under their roofs: little markets, women’s clothing stores, bead shops, florists, pizzerias and other quirky small businesses.

“Now, it seems like a giant fast food court with a few big box stores, and restaurants and bars at night,” Hollingsworth continues. “Our customers gradually stopped coming.” Hollingsworth closed the Zuzu’s Petals on Thayer Street a year and a half ago, and now focuses on her Barrington and East Greenwich locations. She cited rising rents as a deterrent, but they alone did not precipitate her leaving; over time, the street had become too student-centric, rather than “a cool eclectic street with businesses that catered to other ages as well.” And those new parking meters were “the last straw.”

LunaSea, a skater and snowboarder haven, opened in 1991, and was joined by Nice Slice pizzeria in 2005. As retail skate businesses nationwide began to die off, owner Rob Murphy teamed up with his friend, skateboarder and RISD graduate Al Read, to gradually transform the shop into a full pizzeria, which became a popular hangout – including for Read’s classmate, street artist Shepard Fairey. Fairey is known worldwide for designing President Obama’s 2008 campaign “Hope” posters, but it was his irreverent OBEY (officially “Andre the Giant Has a Posse”) designs that started it all; LunaSea was one of the first shops to carry his T-shirts.

Read was on Thayer Street long enough “to see things change.” Before cell phones became ubiquitous, the street was “the analog social network: where you went to see people, to run into friends and socialize.” Although some of the changes to the street reflect nationwide trends, including the impact of online shopping on the retail industry, and local developments, like the opening of the Providence Place Mall in 1999 that drew customers downtown, Read can also delineate specific reasons for moving.

First, the $25 million student apartment building, 257 Thayer Street, moved in behind Nice Slice, demolishing nine residential structures over an entire city block. The construction, Read says, “seriously inconvenienced our business; sidewalks and streets were closed.” Once finished, the building felt “like a big dark cloud right over our shoulder, and hasn’t really helped us since opening.” Vacancies left by the closing of Tedeschi’s and CitySports “cut down on a lot of the foot traffic and vibrancy,” and newcomers like The Flatbread Company and Chipotle increased the competition for customers. Nice Slice went four years without a lease, with landlords holding them “at will/in limbo” until selling the building to another landlord-developer, who produced a new lease agreement that “would require us to grow in the next five years,” Read says.

“We just don’t see that kind of growth happening on Thayer Street,” he continues. And “we had day-to-day problems they weren’t resolving. They didn’t negotiate; it was just, ‘you guys can do this or else.’” Nice Slice relocated to Westminster Street on the West Side in April.

Community response to the initial 2012 proposal for the student apartments compelled the city’s Department of Planning & Development to commission an extensive study, with funding support from Brown. With the help of a team of consultants, the group produced “a detailed assessment of the current challenges facing the District’s future,” along with “proposed solutions” that would harness the District’s “potential.”

The report was greeted positively by the College Hill Neighborhood Association (CHNA) and the Thayer Street District Management Association (TSDMA). CHNA president Josh Eisen says that the association is “working hard to avoid disreputable tenants to prevent problems with underage drinking and other violations like we saw a few years ago with Shark Bar and Grill,” and employing “increased oversight and forethought when meeting with prospective new retail and service industry tenants.” The group “is excited,” however, “by the way Thayer Street is growing and evolving.” TSDMA Executive Director Donna Personeus highlights the “significant increase in new businesses coming to Thayer Street,” stating that neighborhood feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive.” “We believe these new retailers reflect the vibrancy of Thayer Street,” she says.

Brown’s top priority, according to Brian Clark, the university’s director of news and editorial development, is that the commercial district be “an attractive, clean and safe retail corridor where members of the University community can visit and local merchants can thrive.” He lists improvements that have been made since the 2014 study: street trees, a bike repair station, a parklet, outdoor furniture, sidewalk expansion, Big Belly receptacles, and repaving – intended to serve “as a catalyst for new businesses coming to Thayer Street.”

“We continue to work closely with the TSDMA and local landlords to attract new and exciting businesses,” says Clark. “While the district has seen its share of turnover among tenants – a common, nationwide trend in the retail industry, where new concepts routinely replace older ones – Thayer Street continues to attract a diverse array of retailers.”

It’s tough to argue with concerns about cleanliness, student safety and the prevention of illegal activities – and national trends certainly have an impact locally. But there’s more to this story: In recent years, a handful of landlord-developers have been quietly buying up the commercial district, building by building, and now, under the auspices of the new neighborhood plan, are insisting on higher rents and other requirements that some current tenants are unable or unwilling to meet.

“Their interests are chains, and dollars per square foot,” says Read. “They don’t care if we stay or go; they figure ‘We can get someone else in who will invest $200,000 in the property and pay a higher rent.’” (According to a local resident, who requested anonymity, landlords prefer national tenants because they provide “a lot more financial security.”)

Chris and Jennifer Daltry have been buying, trading and selling records and music in Providence under the name What Cheer since 1998. They relocated from Wayland Square five years ago, hoping to help “bring some of the old Thayer Street back.” A few years into their lease, What Cheer’s building was purchased by a landlord they’d been trying to avoid.

“It’s kind of a recurring story on Thayer,” says Chris. “People rent from someone, then somebody else comes in and immediately makes it prohibitively expensive; they move somewhere else, then that building is bought up by the same people… ultimately squeezing out anyone who can’t pay their rents.”

The Daltrys question whether these changes have been as “inevitable” as some claim: “The city is more exciting now, but also a lot of what used to make it cool has disappeared. Some of these landlords and developers probably see this as ‘Well, this is just what happens,’ but they have a part in that without necessarily realizing the significance of what we had and their role in changing it,” says Chris.

“I think they’re just waiting to jump on properties and do their thing with them.”

Chris and Jennifer also felt that the local merchant’s association “put up a wall” against their concerns because “they’re all essentially involved in the restaurant end of things, and they don’t realize the importance of retail. You need a mixture,” says Chris. The TSDMA and CHNA “want everything to be neat and tidy, too,” says Jennifer. “They spend thousands on not just graffiti removal but to have people tear down fliers – which used to be part of what made Thayer Street fun. You would read about shows and events.”

Growing up as teenagers on Aquidneck Island in the mid to late 90s, my peers and I knew Thayer Street as the place where the cool kids hung out, full of the smell of incense, the sound of motorcycles revving, and little businesses stuffed between homes. There were record stores, palm readers, vintage, bohemian and punk clothing sellers, funky coffee shops and eateries, tiny boutiques selling assorted novelties, and a computer gaming cafe. The vibe was edgy but also welcoming, creative and academic; I remember punks, hippies, sweat suit–wearing co-eds, trendsetters and conservative dressers all mingling together. People sat and chatted in doorways, on stoops and on corners; they came to Thayer Street to meet up. It really was an “analog social network.”

You can still see vestiges of the old Thayer Street in some tenacious hangers-on: Kabob and Curry, Spectrum India, Pie in the Sky, East Side Pockets, the Army Navy Surplus store. But how long will they be able to stay?

The profusion of empty storefronts on Thayer aren’t a problem for landlords, says Hollingsworth, because “unrented spaces are write-offs. It’s not in [the landlords’] best interests to foster a great little area for shopping. They’re looking for a very different bottom line.”

We reached out to a couple of prominent East Side property owners for their thoughts on the changes that have come to the area. Neither responded to our requests for comment.

Many recent Thayer Street refugees like NAVA and Rockstar Body Piercing have found new homes on Wickenden and Hope Streets, in Fox Point, downtown and on the West Side. Providenizens clearly support their independent small businesses, and landlords in other areas want them. Ironically, Jennifer Daltry shared that a friend attended a recent CHNA meeting where attendees asked, “How can we make Thayer Street more like Westminster, with so many cool little restaurants and shops?” And despite their criticisms, not a single business owner I interviewed was happy to leave.

“When we opened, I thought we would always be there,” says Hollingsworth. “We didn’t leave because our rent was very high, although it was; we would have stayed had the street not been changing.”

“We miss being part of the Brown community,” says Read. “We identify with it and we feel pushed out, and it’s a big loss to all of us. As much as we like the West End, we still have our heart and soul on the East Side.”

Ultimately, perhaps the 2017 version of Thayer Street is merely a reflection of new priorities for students, shoppers and the neighborhood. Perhaps the businesses who embody that edgier, countercultural vibe simply don’t belong there anymore. Speaking for myself, I am grateful that some of these places are finding other homes in the city, and I miss those who are gone.