Op-Ed: What’s Next for Wickenden?

Revisiting the street’s storied past in the midst of future developments


There’s only one place in Providence where you can walk out of a high-end eyeglass store, cross the street to your car, and now clearly see that you’ve parked in front of a sex shop and a tattoo parlor! Wickenden Street in Fox Point – with its mix of quirky shops, superb ethnic restaurants, an old-style hardware store, a James Beard-nominated pizza place, and several of the state’s best coffee shops – represents a unique part of the city’s tapestry.

Our own Yankee Doodle Dandy – the entertainer, playwright, composer, lyricist, actor, singer, dancer, and theatrical producer George M. Cohan – has a statue that sits at the top of Wickenden, and he’d probably be perplexed by many of the changes facing his street, including the latest residential proposal.

Fox Point’s colorful history began with its proximity to the waterfront becoming the home of a vibrant Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrant community, many of whom earned their living servicing ships from all over the world that unloaded their wares at India Point. Even today, some of the houses on the street are still painted in pastel colors, a long-standing Portuguese tradition.

Hard-working immigrant families were on both sides of Wickenden Street, which was the major East-West connector. The proximity to the wharfs brought many “dive bars” and establishments catering to the transient visitors, earning a “tough, rough and tumble” reputation. The national spotlight arrived in 1964 when Manny Almeida’s Ringside Lounge brought boxing to the corner of Wickenden and Brook streets with a prominent neon sign. The lounge drew boxing champions like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Rocky Marciano to Fox Point throughout the 1950s. Another “contender,” Cape Verdean George Araujo grew up in Fox Point, had a great career, and then coached the Army Olympic Team; the park at Preston and Ives streets honors his legacy.

Hundreds of Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants who called Fox Point home, with many homes holding three and four generations, held off gentrification for many decades. But when the East Side housing market exploded, buyers came to Fox Point from the more expensive sections of the East Side. Gradually, street after street of long-time residents sold out and left. 

Like the original residents of the area, however, the shops on the street have hung tough. For every new upgraded watering hole, an equally determined old hang-out or eatery stayed. Rents have remained affordable and there are few vacant storefronts. The result is an eclectic and diverse potpourri of options for nearby residents and tourists who have supported the area over the years.

Even more changes are coming. A new, large apartment building now towers over Hope and Wickenden streets, the Duck & Bunny building remains a hole, and now a developer wants to add 62 apartments at Brook and Wickenden streets with very limited parking. The developer is looking for a height variance to make it a five-story building.

Reaction has been loud and pointed, largely concerning its height, design, and lack of compatibility with the neighborhood. But the reality is that something will be built, so the question becomes what do the neighbors there want.

Providence Preservation Society executive director Brent Runyon warns: “Without a historic district overlay, there really is no protection for the existing small buildings that contribute to the charm of Wickenden Street. But since the Providence City Council generally requires 80 percent owner ‘agreement’ to create a new district, the process is not any easy one.”

The Fox Point community must come together and decide what they want their neighborhood to be, before it’s too late. The current mantra for more height and density certainly is appropriate in large swaths of Providence. But here? Should variances be handed out like candy to developers? And how important is style and appearance in the equation? These are questions that need to be dealt with all over the city, as well, since some of the more interesting housing stock still exists on the city’s West and South sides.

Providence certainly needs more housing. Our growing student population needs to have places to sleep. But do they all have to be tall and, too often, bland boxes? And if we don’t deal with this now, then when?


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