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A Lively Experiment

Updated: Aug 16, 2020

This summer, I went back to visit Providence, Rhode Island.

I lived there for 12 years, moving there from Oregon then leaving it for Oregon again. Lucy grew up in Providence, and so did I. It's the place I raised my child, built my career, got divorced, fell in love a few times. Providence also fueled my interest in urban planning and local politics. The city is a wonder, a hurly-burly work in progress run by creative, fearless people.

Once dubbed "The Armpit of New England," a dark eddy of rail yards, shuttered mills, strip clubs and Italian restaurants, Providence is now known as "The Creative Capital." The city has an urban mall, a vibrant downtown, and a series of parks and canals that are home to WaterFire, an urban sculpture composed of bonfires that burn on the three rivers that run through the city center. Providence is full of cool restaurants, breweries, and bars and funky boutique shops — and there are 26 acres of downtown land under development after they moved a highway. So more to come.

I came to know a lot of people making the progress happen — architects and developers, entrepreneurs and non-profit executives, politicians and artists. They taught me the importance of creative thinking and collaboration — of coming up with the crazy dream and creating the team that makes the crazy dream come true. These people also taught me patience. A project may be doomed now, but it may just need time. Rebuilding Providence took a generation.

Creativity and grit, though, aren't enough to build a great city. You need pride. You need love. And you need more than zoning changes and land use policy and development deals. It's also about improving the schools, supporting the arts, and rooting out government corruption.

Providence is still working on it.

I could see that slow, steady progress during my walks there this summer, sweating in my mask as I walked the streets in the heat. There's now a pedestrian bridge over the river, a new innovation center for start-ups. Rhode Island was called "the lively experiment" when it was founded, and it is still effervescent. I am eager to get working in Fairview, our own lively experiment.

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