Tale of Two Cities: Providence

Providence is considered by many people and travel magazines to be one of the most charming cities in America. It was rated #3 by Travel & Leisure magazine (after 2 southern cities):  http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/americas-most-charming-cities/18

With its Colonial-era past, renowned arts scene and compact ambiance, the Rhode Island capital easily charmed its way into the top 3. One hot zone for quaint is Wickenden Street, home to antique stores, art galleries and longtime local roaster Coffee Exchange, a representative of city’s bronze-medal win for coffee. To lose yourself in the quaintness, take a seat near one of the fireplaces at The Duck & Bunny, which offers afternoon tea, gourmet cupcakes and crepes—and even labels itself a “snuggery.” Or, take the self-guided walking tour of Benefit Street—with restored waterfront homes, churches and museums—offered by the Providence Preservation Society.

The magazine considered many factors: “To highlight the most bewitching cities, we combined the rankings for interesting architecture, pedestrian-friendly streets, quaint bookstores, a sense of history and a friendly atmosphere…  …old neighborhoods that have found new life, with cobblestone streets as well as cool shops and little cafes. Otherwise, in some winning cities, charm means easy access to public art, or food truck pods where locals gather around the fire pit with guitars. One cozy city even has a self-proclaimed “snuggery.”

For me, what makes Providence a top charm city are all of the above and even more: the many ethnic neighborhoods with great restaurants, the waterfront parks, the uncovered rivers, the antique homes (especially on Benefit Street), the vibrant culture of Latino and Black neighborhoods, the hip shops of College Hill (at Brown University), and a downtown that feels real, because it integrates the 1800’s with the 21st Century.

Downtown features two unique shopping sites:

  • The Arcade is America’s first enclosed mall (1828), built in Greek Revival style. Ground floor has shops and restaurants. Top two floors have micro-apartments


  • The Providence Place mall is a recent addition that spans a river, links with a hotel, and has multiple restaurants along the street, with outdoor seating —the opposite of Stamford’s mistake. 

WaterFire is a key reason for the charm of Providence.  Rand McNally describes it well (excerpt below): http://blog.randmcnally.com/2011/04/27/waterfire/

WaterFire  features 100 flaming braziers, on three rivers in downtown Providence. After dusk, silent, black-garbed figures  light and tend the fires. This happens many Saturday nights from late spring to early fall.

Spectators line the nearby seawalls or even float along the water on their own boats. Barnaby Evans, an urban artist, first created WaterFire in 1995, and fostered its growth ever since. 

WaterFire engages many senses –special musical soundtracks, the scent of burning wood in the air, and the sight of sparks slipping into the water, the jazz concerts, other live music (like samba or swing), and dance lessons offered on some nights.

Providence Waterfire. Created by Barnaby Evans, a sculpture of “site-specific artworks.”

You can see in the above photo an amazing achievement by the city, namely how two rivers that run through the downtown were uncovered and moved. During much of the 1900’s these rivers were covered with traffic circles, railway tracks, and parking lots, hiding the water below. Now a circular lake and amphitheater – Waterplace Park – leads to a stone lined canal. Graceful bridges span the rivers, which are flanked by cobblestone sidewalks,eateries, and trees.

It all started in 1983 when a team of planners and citizens hired architect Bill Warner. He designed the waterfront reconstruction. Within a year and a half, the team had secured city, state, and federal funding, and by late 1987 the actual work began.

See the following article for a fascinating insight into how all this was achieved and how the wonderful results revitalized the downtown.

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