Providential revival in a New England downtown

04/13/2013 12:00 AM

04/11/2013 5:00 PM

Even at the tender age of 18, I was smitten with Providence’s charming and historic East Side, particularly mile-long Benefit Street, still touted by tourism officials as “the most impressive concentration of original colonial homes in America.” But way back then, in the summer of 1972, the advice had been universal: “Stay away from downtown,” a blight-stricken, commercial-industrial hodge-podge all too reminiscent of my native Cleveland.

Now that I live in Connecticut, I find myself regularly escorting visitors to Rhode Island’s capital and largest city. Mandatory on each tour are a few hours spent enjoying Providence’s infinitely improved Victorian-era downtown, now rebranded as “Downcity.”

And I’m hardly alone in singing the praises of America’s self-proclaimed Renaissance City. Last year, the readers of Travel + Leisure ranked Providence their twelfth favorite overall city, and — thanks to WaterFire, its trademark son et lumiere spectacle — their fifth favorite “Summer Destination.”

To be sure, Providence has certainly cleaned up its act with a $500 million revitalization. Nowhere is that more evident than at Waterplace Park, the terraced and landscaped resurrection of the Woonasquatucket River, buried for nearly a century under a rail yard but now graced by a series of aesthetic, wrought iron pedestrian bridges and plied by Venetian gondolas.

Rising behind Waterplace Park to the left of the impressive white marble state capitol is Providence Place Mall, a Gothic-inspired, retail behemoth on the site of a former parking lot, while in front of it, once-derelict Union Station (built in 1898) now houses offices and upscale restaurants. Nearby stand a new convention center, the new Dunkin’ Donuts Center for concerts and special events, and the renovated Veterans Memorial Auditorium, home of the Rhode Island Philharmonic and Festival Ballet.

Providence’s revival, however, consists of more than just an extensive facelift. Knowing that they also needed to breathe life into their re-creation, local politicians enacted avant-garde arts legislation and lured suburban restaurants back downtown with full-course tax breaks. The results couldn’t have been much better: readers of Travel+ Leisure rated Providence fourth in “Theatre/Performing Arts” and No. 1 — yes, No. 1 — in “Food/Drink/ Restaurants.” Throw in that still charming and historic East Side and Federal Hill, one of the nation’s most vibrant Italian neighborhoods, and you have a serious alternative to Boston for an urban New England getaway. (It also ranked sixth most “Gay Friendly”).

For starters, Providence is infinitely more manageable and walkable. Two days is enough to see the major sites and there is no need to rent a car, unless you also want to make the 30-mile run down to Newport.

Plan on spending most of your daylight hours on the historic and hilly East Side, where, in the spring of 1636, Roger Williams, an Anglican minister whose free-thinking ways had resulted in convictions for heresy and sedition in Puritan-ruled Salem, bought a tract of land from the indigenous Narragansetts and named it in honor of “God’s merciful Providence unto me in my distress.”

Among the sites you’ll want to take in is the First Baptist Church in America, a magnificent white wood house of worship built in 1774-75 by Bostonian craftsmen forced to find work elsewhere after the British closed their port in response to the tea party. Other must-sees are the opulent three-story brick mansion of colonial-era merchant and slave trader, John Brown, now maintained by the Rhode Island Historical Society, and the deceptively expansive Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum.

No exploration of the East Side is complete without a leisurely stroll through the ivy-laced campus of Brown University and along Thayer Street, its funky commercial adjunct.

Come evening, however, you’ll want to join the crowds Downcity where it sometimes seems that all of Rhode Island comes to unwind, dress up, and be entertained. Dozens of hip, trendy, and romantic dining options await your alimentary selection, to be followed afterwards by an equal number of pubs, music venues, and nightclubs.

Culture buffs can take in Broadway shows (at off-Broadway prices) at the Providence Performing Arts Center and top-notch dramatics at the Trinity Repertory Company.

And everybody turns out for WaterFire.

The brainchild of Rhode Island School of Design’s Barnaby Evans, WaterFire began humbly enough in 1994 with just 11wood-burning braziers, each rising a foot above the water in symbolic representation of the fragility of life. Now as many as 100 light up the Providence, Moshassuck, and Woonasquatucket Rivers, accompanied by piped-in classical music.

Not surprisingly, WaterFire is now seen primarily as emblematic of just how far Providence has come since its own recent dark ages. For locals and visitors alike, nothing could be more providential than that.

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