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Providence City

Providence City Hall is located at 25 Dorrance Street, Providence RI 02903; phone: 401-421-7740.

Morris Brown House, 1793, National Register, Providence, RI, Rochambeau Avenue

Photo: Morris Brown House, ca. 1793, 317 Rochambeau Avenue, Providence, RI. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. Photographed by User: Kenneth C. Zirkel (own work), 2012, [cc-by-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed March, 2013.

Providence: The Texture of Urban Development [1]

The city of Providence has a special sense of place, a unique physical character evocative of its 350-year history yet clearly part of the present. One of the oldest of America's cities, Providence has been built and rebuilt by her citizens many times creating a complex layering of different generations' building needs, plans for civic growth, and architectural tastes. Providence's streets and neighborhoods are not museum set-pieces; they exhibit all the variety which a long history and a diverse population have created. This lack of uniformity is part of Providence's charm, for the city's social, economic, and architectural history can be read in the physical form of individual buildings and in the differences among neighborhoods. Providence's topography and historic roads are keys to the city's particular atmosphere, for the land and the roads have influenced the overall pattern of development more than have plans or conscious decision making.

Providence's topography — its hills, plains, and bodies of water — is a product of millions of years of geologic evolution. Situated at the head of Narragansett Bay and at the confluence of the Seekonk, Moshassuck, and Woonasquatucket Rivers, the city spreads over a topographical basin. Its low center, at the confluence of the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers, is enclosed on the north by Smith Hill. The steep north-south ridge of College Hill and Mount Hope separates the Moshassuck River Valley from the Seekonk River, the city's boundary to the east, dividing Providence into east and west sides. Federal Hill rises gently west of the central basin and falls steeply to the Woonasquatucket River. The land farther north and west of the rivers rises sometimes gently, sometimes abruptly, to an undulating upland, reaching a maximum height of more than 200 feet at Neutaconkanut Hill on Providence's western border. In the southwest a low rising plain extends from the shore of Narragansett Bay.

Water plays an important role in the city's geography. Providence Harbor is the north end of Narragansett Bay. The harbor's two main tributaries are the Seekonk River, navigable to Pawtucket, and the Providence River, the name given the tidal stream south of the coming together of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers. These rivers and harbor were Providence's principal link to the world for most of its first 200 years. During the nineteenth century, the rivers saw intensive industrial development. Neglected in the twentieth century, they nevertheless remain a prominent topographical feature of potential scenic value.

Notes on Neighborhood Names
From the "Providence Plan" website:, a joint co-operative of the State of Rhode Island and the City of Providence.

Alternate Neighborhood Names – an explanation of how the official Neighborhood boundaries, established by the Planning Commission in 1977, relate to other commonly used names for areas within the City of Providence.

East Side: This area includes the neighborhoods of Blackstone, Hope (Summit), Mount Hope, College Hill, and Fox Point.

Jewelry District: Just south of Downtown and formerly within the Upper South Providence neighborhood, it is nestled within the curve of I-95 to the south and I-195 to the north (I-195 is currently being redirected south of the Jewelry District, then it will become part of Downtown)

North End: A vague term used sometimes by the real estate industry, it seems to apply mostly to the neighborhoods of Wanskuck and Charles.

Southside: This is the often-used term for Upper and Lower South Providence, Elmwood, and West End. The Southside has its own profile.

Summit: Essentially another name for Hope, although the Summit Neighborhood Association serves a larger area.

West Broadway: An officially recognized neighborhood with its own association, West Broadway spans the southern part of Federal Hill and the top third of West End.

West Side: A fairly vague term for the area including West End, Olneyville, and adjacent parts of other neighborhoods.

The pre-eminent urban center and capital of Rhode Island, Providence is a medium-size, post-industrial, Northeast city. The 1980 population was 156,804, a decrease of over 22,000 from 1970 and 100,000 less than its all-time peak in 1940. Just over four-fifths of this population is white, while over ten percent is black, and slightly more than one percent is Asian. Far more significant — although statistically unrecorded — is the ethnic composition of this population. Large immigrant groups of Irish, Italians, Portuguese, Armenians, Russian Jews, and, more recently, Hispanics and Southeast Asians comprise important and distinct segments of the population. Not only are these groups present in Providence, but they also retain their ethnic identities, even after several generations. While ethnic neighborhoods are now less strictly defined than in years gone by, several maintain their flavor: Fox Point continues as a Portuguese stronghold, while Federal Hill is a center of Italian culture. Providence today is ethnically pluralistic, dominated neither by one ethnic group nor by a homogenous population.

Providence's buildings and structures are situated across this landscape in a pattern of distinctive neighborhoods. The site of the earliest settlement here coincides with the center of today's city, and the earliest roads — North and South Main, Angell, Olney, Weybosset, Westminster, and Broad Streets, some of them pre-existing Indian paths — fan out from this settlement. Providence's radiating road pattern, tempered somewhat by topographical peculiarities, established the organizational framework for the city's expansion beyond its original settlement. Beyond the central business district, which follows an irregular grid pattern, the street system follows no particular plan: grids of varying sizes and plats of straight parallel blocks are flung randomly across the landscape, and only rarely is the street pattern related to the topography. The railroad tracks follow the riverbeds of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck through the city, and limited-access highways are superimposed on the city and only occasionally follow the railroads or shorelines. Perhaps the most telling aspect of Providence's urban character as a metropolitan center is its lack of apparent borders: the city spreads seamlessly across political boundaries into Pawtucket. North Providence, Johnston, and Cranston.

Providence is a city of old buildings and old neighborhoods. The area on and around Main and Benefit Streets, where settlement first occurred, retains an impressive number of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century buildings. Immediately west of the Providence River is Downtown, a nineteenth and early twentieth-century commercial district which culminates at its eastern end in a compact cluster of tall office buildings. To the north and west of Downtown, the rivers are lined with industrial buildings. South of Downtown and along the west side of the Providence Harbor are docks and warehouses. Beyond the commercial center and industrial corridors, however, Providence is largely a residential city, a web of neighborhoods, each distinct in character yet difficult to delineate. The neighborhoods represent irregular, concentric bands of growth from the early core. The earlier nineteenth-century areas are located closer to the center, though those on the west side have been somewhat eroded by highway construction and urban blight. Later development in the nineteenth century is generally farther from Downtown, and the great variety of building types erected contributes to the unplanned, patchwork effect of the city. Only in far-flung areas like Mount Pleasant/ Elmhurst and Blackstone/Wayland that developed in the twentieth century are the buildings somewhat more uniform in type and scale. Scattered irregularly across this residential landscape, various public buildings were erected to serve area residents: schools, churches, and fire and police stations. Most of these buildings were standing by 1940, and they share a general consistency of scale. Only a few areas have been radically changed since 1940, most notably in the industrial corridors along the rivers, along the shorelines, and in random, isolated spots across the city. This new development introduces buildings of scale and siting vastly different from what came before; these redeveloped areas are disjunctive elements in otherwise varied, but related, patterns within the texture of urban development.

Providence in the 1980s looks far different from the small settlement that Roger Williams and his band established in the seventeenth century. This transformation from wilderness settlement to metropolitan center has been drastic, but incremental. The earliest buildings lined the east side of North and South Main Streets along the Great Salt Cove, a sprawling tidal estuary formed by the Providence River. Unlike many other New England settlements, there was no central common space around which the town was organized nor any sort of formal plan. This unplanned quality has remained a constant factor in Providence's metropolitan development and reinforces a certain intimacy of scale throughout the city; such texture is at odds with the grand schemes of most urban planning.

Providence's location at the head of Narragansett Bay made it attractive as a port, and much of the city's development in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries took place because of or in response to maritime activity. The west side of North and South Main Streets — followed by India Point and the west side of the Providence River — filled with wharves and warehouses. The income from sea trade provided the means for construction of the mansions for merchants as well as dense residential development in Fox Point for sailors, chandlers, and other tradesmen.

During the nineteenth century industrialization played a leading role in the transformation of the small maritime community into a large city. The Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers were built up with mills, creating a meandering industrial corridor through the heart of the city in addition to isolated factories. Moreover, the industrial economy demanded growth and proliferation of banks, insurance companies, brokerages, and law offices located Downtown. Providence had centered around Market Square in the eighteenth century, but the large-scale central business district of today is the product of Providence's emergence as the commercial and retail center for an industrialized metropolitan area.

The factories required an increasingly larger work force, and succeeding waves of immigrants from Britain and Europe came to Providence because of employment opportunities. Much of the growth in population from nearly 12,000 in 1825 to over 267,000 in 1925 was due to immigration. These new citizens of Providence needed places to live, shop, learn, and worship as well as to work, and the ring of neighborhoods surrounding the Downtown and industrial corridor developed during this century. At first, immigrant groups occupied the cast-off housing of residents of longer standing, then often moved to newer two or three-family dwellings removed from the deteriorated inner-city slums. As each successive group achieved some financial stability, later immigrant groups replaced them in the worst housing, and the earlier immigrant groups moved up and out. The lowest level of cheap housing has since disappeared, but the sturdier tenements of the nineteenth century remain in significant numbers, a physical reminder of the rapidly changing socio-economic profile of the city during these years.

Changes in transportation systems during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have had considerable effects on the city's form. The coming of the railroad in the 1830s first established rapid overland links with other commercial centers in the region. In the late 1840s the consolidation of the rail lines in Union Station, on the north side of Downtown, underlined the importance of the area as the state's commercial center. Its route through the city, along the Woonasquatucket then north along the Moshassuck, encouraged further industrialization of this corridor and improved shipping connections for the mills and factories already in this area. Streetcars began to operate in Providence in 1864, and by the end of the nineteenth century a new mass-transit system extended throughout the city and beyond its borders. The streetcars encouraged residential development beyond walking distance from Downtown or factories. Importantly the streetcars followed existing streets and so reinforced development trends already established. In the twentieth century the automobile diminished reliance on public transportation and made residential development practicable ever farther afield in previously rural areas of outlying towns and often at the expense of Providence's inner-city areas. The automobile also strained the city's existing infrastructure, requiring both road widenings and the creation of parking space. Finally, the interstate highway system skewered the city from north to south in the 1950s and 1960s, generally ignoring the established transportation corridors and requiring massive demolition and disruption.

Providence's settlement and early growth did not follow a formal plan, nor did the city attempt to control its growth through the adoption of a master plan until the twentieth century. This attitude was common among American cities in the nineteenth century, and most so-called planning efforts were limited in scope — though not necessarily in impact. The earliest of these here was dealing with the Salt Cove. For a hundred years, residents built wharves and filled in land as convenience dictated. In the 1840s, however, an overall plan was needed in order to construct railroad lines into Union Station, and the cove was reduced to an elliptical basin with a tree-lined promenade along its circumference. Other nineteenth-century efforts were primarily landscaping: the laying out of Roger Williams Park and the creation of Blackstone Boulevard. The reworking of the cove lands at the end of the nineteenth century illustrates the increased attention to planning: it included filling the Cove Basin and re-routing the rivers, moving the railroad tracks, constructing a new Union Station above the existing grade, site work for the new State House just north of Downtown, landscaping of the enlarged Exchange Place in front of the station, and, ultimately, the linking of the State House with Downtown.

The City Plan Commission was established in 1913, but it had little effect in its early years beyond achieving the adoption of a zoning code in 1923 and a building code in 1927. The zoning code as first adopted reinforced existing conditions rather than directed future growth. In 1944, the City Plan Commission was reorganized. For the first time a paid professional staff was hired, and a master plan and new zoning ordinance were adopted. The Providence Redevelopment Agency, created in 1948, had a considerable impact on the city during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s clearing deteriorated areas and creating new industrial, commercial, and residential areas. Another urban renewal project was College Hill, a landmark study in historic preservation, published in 1957, which led to the restoration of the city's oldest neighborhood.

Providence retails and increasingly exploits its historic setting, unlike other cities which have inadvertently lost, ignored, or destroyed the evidence of their past. Although the mid-twentieth-century has been a time of increasing similarity among many American cities, Providence has not lost its landmarks, its uniqueness, and its special sense of place.

  1. Woodward, Wm. McKenzie and Sanderson, Edward F., Providence: A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources, 1986, Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, Providence
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