For many Providence residents, the most consistent reason to go to Olneyville was to “dine” at the famed Olneyville NY System, the Home of RI’s Best Wieners established in the 1930s. The once-vibrant manufacturing center that employed thousands declined rapidly after World War II as factories closed or moved south; as jobs fled, so did the residents, and with the Woonasquatucket River polluted with chemical waste and raw sewage, the problem only worsened. Then, when the Route 6 connector was built, the neighborhoods were divided and a large supply of affordable, working class housing was eliminated. The decline from there was steady; through the ‘70s and ‘80s, vacant factories, buildings, and lots became a haven for drug dealing, drug using, prostitution, and violence, and kept this half-mile zone in the top three most dangerous areas of the City.
In 1988, the Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC) was formed to address the lack of affordable housing and the availability of abandoned properties in the area. This grassroots effort became a pivotal and important part of the neighborhood’s revitalization with stable, affordable, and eventually sustainable housing. In 2012, the OHC added One Works to provide landscaping, and the next year branched out into Health Equity and Wellness with a grant to address social and environmental determinants, followed by a Criminal Justice grant to address crime hotspots in the neighborhood.
Today, under the umbrella ONE Neighborhood Builders, the former OHC has become one of the most respected neighborhood revitalization organizations in the state. They’ve completed 381 affordable apartments, 119 single-family homes, and 50,000 square feet of commercial property. Currently, they have 43 new units and 62 rehab projects underway, including brand-new, affordable, energy-efficient solar homes that generate over $1,600 a year in income for the owners, and are addressing chronic homelessness with plans to double their capacity to 30 apartments.
Through surveys and focus groups, ONE NB found the most pressing issues to economic opportunity were lack of a living wage to meet basic needs and support a family, plus underemployment, transportation challenges, a lack of youth employment, insufficient affordable housing, and low-quality childcare.
Since 2012, the Community Building department has brought more than $2 million into Olneyville, Federal Hill, Valley, and Hartford to launch new initiatives, expand existing programs to improve food access, increase physical activity, reduce chronic disease, and improve the safety of area residents.
“We have established a Health Workers Apprenticeship and expanded their work to assist the COVID-19 response, which will also give participants an opportunity for jobs in the healthcare sector after they complete their apprenticeship program,” adds Executive Director Jennifer Hawkins, who had 20-plus years of community development and housing work in San Francisco, New York, and Boston before joining as Deputy Director in 2011; she succeeded Frank Shea, who led the organization for 16 years.
ONE NB has a diverse board, now chaired by Robert F. McMahon, one of the City’s most highly respected transformative leaders, whose expertise and creativity helped change the Providence Parks system, the San Miguel School, and many other nonprofits.
“We are the backbone agency for the Central Providence Health Equity Zone (CP-HEZ), a multi-year initiative of the Rhode Island Department of Health,” explains Hawkins. “The idea is to address the root causes of health disparities by eliminating systemic barriers to health like poverty, discrimination, racism, insufficient access to good jobs, quality education, affordable housing, safe environments, and healthcare. Life expectancy is 74 years in Olneyville compared to 83 years on College Hill.”