Recently, I was taking a class up in Boston that required me to spend a bit of time every Monday night in the North End. What struck me every time was not so much the wealth of great Italian food available on Hanover Street – surely Providence can give Boston a run for its money in that department, at least on quality, if not quantity – but rather how busy the streets and businesses are. On a Monday night. Sadly, there isn’t anywhere in our fair city that can boast that kind of volume that early in the week – and that was just one of many busy streets in Boston.
That contrast got me to thinking about Providence’s density problem. Simply put, there just aren’t enough people in this city. We now live in the third largest city in New England, with just about 178,000 people in Providence proper, where not too long ago we were second only to Boston. Now Worcester has a higher population. While some of you may be thinking, That’s exactly why I live in Providence: because it’s not overcrowded, I would counter that cities are supposed to be crowded. If you want room to breathe and stretch out, move to the suburbs. Cities thrive on a bustling, dense ecosystem of businesses, commercial thoroughfares, residents, visitors and workers that is surprisingly delicate. The very things that make cities such interesting, exciting places to be – whether theaters, restaurants, the arts, festivals, parks – can’t survive without enough people around to patronize them. And as with any other business, the rates of return and response are pretty low: if you want to get 10,000 people to attend a festival, you need to be drawing from a population of several hundred thousand. With developers and city leaders clamoring for more housing Downtown, stocks of unsold condos around the city, and the increasing number of boarded up houses on the West End and South Side, the city could easily support a population of 225,000, maybe more.
Of course, Providence will never compare to Boston in terms of density: even if we broke 250,000 you’d still be measuring that against roughly 615,000 in Boston proper alone, not to mention the densely populated surrounding areas like Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, etc. that comprise Greater Boston. But we should be able to compare on a proportional level. There will never be as many people on Federal Hill as there are on the North End, but there are also less businesses on Federal Hill for those people to patronize, so why shouldn’t they be equally busy on a Monday night?
Beyond the problem of population density, we also need to boost the density of activity. In most major cities, a first time visitor looking for a night out can be pointed in the direction of a single well-known thoroughfare where they can be assured of finding a lively, buzzing scene: Philadelphia has South Street; New Orleans, Bourbon Street; Boston, Newbury or Landsdowne or Hanover, depending on your pleasure. But where in Providence could a newcomer find such a concentration of activity? Sure, there are Federal Hill and Thayer Street, but in each case we’re talking about only six to ten blocks, mostly full of restaurants and lounges. What if that visitor was looking for live music? Theater? Dance clubs?
Make no mistake, we have plenty of great offerings throughout the city, but they’re too sparse and scattered to explore without a knowledgeable guide – and a car, which is a whole other problem we won’t delve into here. If there was a more interconnected core of activity, more people from both within and outside the city would congregate there – and people attract even more people, which creates more activity, which keeps businesses buzzing, which makes the city a more exciting, attractive and densely clustered place to live.