By the time you read this, Atwells Avenue should no longer be a disaster area. The road won’t be torn up for blocks, and driving through Federal Hill won’t feel like an obstacle course of orange cones and gesticulating traffic cops. The new fountain in DePasquale Square will be finished, replacing partitions and piles of bricks. You won’t see signs that shriek, “YES, WE’RE OPEN!” because this will be obvious.
But if you witnessed this chaos – any time in the past few months – you will appreciate how far Federal Hill has come. You’ll understand how catastrophic 2020 has been to this world-renowned entertainment district, and you’ll marvel at the fact that its restaurants have even survived.
“I was in a state of crisis before we even got to COVID-19,” says Rick Simone, event professional and executive director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association. “I was contacted in December of last year by the city and National Grid for a meeting about infrastructure changes.”
Major changes. The main gas line beneath Atwells Avenue had to be replaced, along with individual lines connected to homes and businesses. To do this, workers would have to shut down the street at 11pm and labor all night; the project would take 13 months to complete.
Meanwhile, the iconic fountain in DePasquale Square was in the process of a complete renovation. The fountain is among the most recognized monuments in Providence, and the square is the jewel of Federal Hill nightlife. Rebuilding it is like removing the Eiffel Tower to have it polished.
Then came coronavirus, and restaurants were forced into hibernation. The plight of the local dining industry is well known, but on Federal Hill, there was one silver lining: Less traffic on Atwells meant workers could rip up the road during the day. The quarantine accelerated the gas line replacement by five months. Contrary to expectations, Atwells would receive a thorough facelift by mid-summer.
“We’ll be working with the city to replace all the sidewalks in the same corridor,” Simone told us last month. “By the time this is done, we’ll be looking at infrastructure that will last another 60 or 70 years.”
The cornerstone of Federal Hill is its old-school Italian eateries, with cloth napkins and traditional dishes. Ambiance is half the joy of eating here. But Simone was amazed at how many restaurants adjusted to the new normal. As one of many examples, Massimo was a case study in adaptation. “They really found a way, right away, to adapt to the takeout mentality, and make it family style,” says Simone.
In mid-June, the Commerce Association announced that al fresco dining would commence on Friday and Saturday evenings throughout the summer. Today, Atwells Avenue closes to auto traffic, and visitors dine in the open air. The list of participating restaurants is a litany of famous names: Andino’s, Angelo’s, Pane e Vino, Roma Ristorante, Venda Ravioli, and so many more.
Even the fountain was finished by the end of June, bringing that famous piazza back to life. The logistics may be different – with spread-out tables, Plexiglas shields, and servers wearing masks – but the Hill retains its character.
“All of our guys up here are resilient, optimistic people,” says Simone. “It seems that that resiliency is coming through.”