Cover Story | ESM 40

Our East Side: Then and Now

Some thoughts on 40 years of change in our community

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What a difference a day makes or, in this case, 14,600 days as we celebrate 40 years of covering the East Side.  Change is inevitable… whether we like it or not and, while East Siders have fond memories of times past, new memories are being created every day. There have been a lot of changes in the past 40 years. Everyone has his or her favorite memory of days of yore, like sledding at Moses Brown, now a footnote in East Side lore.  Or how in the days before national chains, all our local merchants knew your name and what your spouse would like for a holiday gift.  And there are still a few among us who refer to the Eastside Marketplace as the First National or the IGA even as they go to the Almacs that is now Whole Foods.

What has not changed is the intense devotion, passion and loyalty that morphs and maintains that great quilt we know as the East Side. For every group of new residents that pass through, some staying on for generations, some abandoning us for suburban schools but pledging to return, there is pride and an emotional connection to our neighborhoods, to the grand achievements in historic preservation, to the diverse housing stock, to the commercial corridors with their different styles and shopping and to a lifestyle with a true sense of stability.  Yet amidst our rather small geography, there are still seven different shopping areas, with some similarities and a lot of uniqueness.  Plus an historic downtown just a stone’s throw away.

“It’s not the way that it used to be,” the last generation would say, a statement that has been eerily repeated each decade. Hopefully, the specialness of the East Side will still be preserved when this story is updated 40 years from now.

Property Values
We’ve always been the wealthiest area of the city, and the disparity between this area and the rest of the city has widened markedly during the last 40 years. Downtown has risen to become the second wealthiest area with all of the new apartments and condominiums.

The East Side itself has distinctive neighborhoods – Blackstone, Wayland, College Hill, Fox Point, Hope and Mt. Hope.  Many people have lived in different neighborhoods over their lifetimes… I am up to four.  Each neighborhood has different housing stock, characteristics and lifestyle with a great deal of overlap.  What’s most interesting is that a similar demographic manages to cross most of the neighborhoods. The East Side is the most affluent part of the city with higher property values, lower unemployment and higher income levels than the rest of the city.  Approximately 20% of the city’s 175,000 people live on the East Side.

Fox Point, Hope and Mt. Hope have seen steady gentrification over the last 40 years.  A two-family home off Hope that sold for slightly less than $50,000 in 1980 recently sold for $315,000, a 530% increase!  Younger buyers have driven this market and multi-family homes that have become condominiums have also fueled the growth.  Condominiums were an anomaly 40 years ago and now make up a good portion of the market.

Blackstone, Wayland and College Hill have seen similar and even larger increases.  College Hill, based on housing, continues to remain the most expensive area of the city.

The biggest change on the East Side has been in property values… and taxes.  Some property values have increased between 300-800% since 1976, but there have been several ups and downs with major rises in the early ‘80s followed by a crash in the late ‘80s.  A 400-500% increase appears to be a reasonable average.  Taxes, however, have only gone up… a lot.  The biggest increase was during the Cicilline years when they jumped over 100%.  A statistical evaluation is underway and this will likely show higher East Side values that will come with a greater tax burden. The only time they don’t go up is in an election year.

The City of Providence began on the East Side as College Hill and was the site of the first permanent colonial settlement in Rhode Island in 1636 (Roger Williams lived here!).  The first road, Cat Swamp Lane, now Olney Street was built in 1684 and the expansion across the East Side began with large farms. Growth was steady, but there were issues. Butler Hospital, one of the oldest psychiatric institutions in America, was built in 1844 in a picturesque idyllic
setting “to remove patients from every day stress.”  This was followed shortly by Swan Point Cemetery which, along with the City, commissioned Blackstone Boulevard that was originally intended to create better access to the cemetery for the rest of the city.  Considered one of the finest examples of planning by Horace Cleveland and landscape architecture designed by Frederick Olmstead, it took 12 years to build and when completed surrounding land values tripled. 

Traffic Issues
Some of the physical changes on the East Side over the last 40 years have been dramatic.  Most notable would be that Blackstone Boulevard, rightfully placed on the National Historic Register, now has a special bike lane and a large contingent of daily walkers and runners (but surprisingly few bicycle riders).  It was a long battle, largely driven by non-residents of the East Side, but supported by a mayor with statewide ambitions, and while most residents still harbor mixed feelings, the change has been accepted.  

As we go to press, a community meeting had just been held over a traffic calming proposal for Blackstone Boulevard that had been in progress for several years and was not known to the majority of the East Side. The complete lack of transparency infuriated residents. Over 200 people attended, and it could only be described as an incredibly embarrassing presentation by the City Public Works Department who were eloquently, passionately and articulately castrated by speaker after speaker.  It left an extremely bad impression of how the City is run, especially given its precarious financial situation. But the turnout and intensity of the support for the Boulevard left people proud of their neighborhood.  

Other recent changes have been the traffic bump-outs on Hope Street that seemed to have increased congestion and infuriated bicyclists. Parking meters, added to increase revenue on Thayer Street and Wayland Square, have crippled business and Hope Street is next. Plus, almost all of North Main Street has seen major demolition and vacancies, though the addition of LA Fitness may help as well as the arrival of the East Side’s first electronic signs.  

Driving has increasingly gotten worse on the East Side (especially around Moses Brown and Wheeler) and institutions have grown steadily over the years (but have also created frustrating gridlock in their surrounding neighborhoods when school opens and closes). Ironically, Thayer Street, which has always been gridlocked, has seen a reduction in congestion with the addition of the new parking meters that seem to be keeping customers away.   

Brown University has continued to expand their footprint on the East Side, but after a contentious and costly battle with the neighbors over its oversized Life Sciences building on Thayer Street, they have come to the realization that much of its future growth will take place off the East Side in the Knowledge District. To their credit there has been more transparency since the showdown and hopes are that a new period of harmony may be at hand.  There will always be issues, of course, as evidenced by resident feedback over Gilbane’s huge new student housing apartment complex between Thayer and Brook Streets and the school’s science building addition at Hope and George Streets. What has been incredible is that with every new building, parking is further reduced. Most of the parking at the Aldrich Dexter sports complex is gone, and 40 years ago there was barely enough parking on the Brown campus. With every new building, the problem has only gotten worse. The solution, which has been talked about for decades, is a parking garage, but with no community or political pressure resolution remains elusive.  

Neighborhood Digs
New architecturally indistinctive houses have been built on just about every vacant lot on the East Side and there have even been several teardowns, replaced by much larger homes. Condominium conversions have slowed but have had a major impact on the real estate scene. The Pitman Street area has seen the most major new construction with three apartment buildings and a condominium complex.

Vartan Gregorian School in Fox Point and Martin Luther King in Mt. Hope remain two of the best elementary schools in the city, positions they have held for decades. Nathan Bishop received an impressive facelift in a major push to revitalize the East Side’s only middle school.  While the environment has greatly improved, the jury remains out on whether the education quality has followed suit.  A strong parent association continues the good fight though, we’re told.  

Commercial areas have seen dramatic changes. Over the last 40 years, the East Side has seen a steady exodus of locally-owned stores, some replaced by chains and others falling to the changing lifestyle.  There used to be four men’s stores on the East Side, and now there is one.

The character of Wayland Square has changed from local stores catering to shoppers in the neighborhood (the carriage trade) to a much more upscale feel with restaurants and chains bringing in much higher rents but pushing out many of the locally-owned stores. An entire block was vacant for several years forcing long-time tenants out of business or scrambling, it is now being replaced by a national chain.

The Food Scene
Hope Street, driven by restaurants at night and Seven Stars by day, has become the East Side’s commercial mecca. The area has become the trendy place to shop, see and be seen. And with a proliferation of restaurants up and down the street, home cooking on the East Side has to be in decline over the past four decades.

The shift began in the ‘70s when Thayer Street became a Brown and high school student area with mostly fast, or near fast, food, bars and stores catering to the young. The Gap made a run and then was replaced by City Sports, which just recently departed. Long-time favorite Adesso went out and it took years for a replacement that came in the form of a chain. You don’t see as many East Siders shopping on the street, but the Avon Cinema is still hanging in.

By far, the area of the East Side that has seen the most dramatic change has been Mt. Hope or, as the newer residents prefer, WoHo. The area battled the Miriam Hospital’s expansion, took some small victories and ultimately welcomed higher rents from hospital employees while the commercial corridor has become the hottest restaurant and trendy shopping, area of the East Side. Many two-family homes, the mainstay of the area, have been condominiumized as property values have doubled and tripled. The ability to walk from your home to grab a bite or shop makes this a great area. The weekly (in good weather) farmer’s market at the north end of Hope and the Boulevard has exploded and is easily the largest regular East Side gathering.

A Half-Dozen Mayors
Mayors.  We’ve seen six over the last 40 years and the East Side has played a critical role in each election. Three have been East Siders (we count Joe Paolino, because his father lived here). Buddy Cianci was mayor back in 1976 and he brought a new spirit and energy, and over his terms he probably did more positive things for the city over the last 40 years than anyone else. The East Side’s love/hate relationship carried him to multiple victories as well as a likely career-ending defeat last year.

Ironically, it was the East Side that elected Buddy Cianci in 1974 as a Republican reformer. He brought strong ideas, vision and leadership to a city that was a mess, and while he wasn’t always PC enough for many East Siders, he got things done. For over half of the last 40 years he was our mayor. Joe Paolino served between Buddy I and II and many of the management improvements that his administration made continued. During the administrations of these mayors, East Siders saw streets plowed from curb to curb, potholes filled and adequate police protection.

John Lombardi served as a caretaker mayor for several months and made efforts to engage the East Side, which didn’t return the overtures. David Cicilline was elected with the strong support of his East Side neighbors. East Siders set up Angel Tavares’ victory and turned down Buddy III for Jorge Elorza.   

Since the turn of the century, things haven’t been going as well as one might like with potholes, inadequate snow plowing, taxes and crime still dominating conversations. Taxes have gone up over 100% for most East Siders during this period and remain the highest in the city, while an increasing number of critics complain the few services the East Side relies on have gone from excellent to middling to the current “Are you kidding me?”  

But It’s Still Home to Us
Revered East Siders like Antoinette Downing and Mary Elizabeth Sharpe, who were responsible for two of our areas most beloved characteristics – preservation and trees – have long since passed, and while much of their efforts have survived, the need for vigilance remains. Over the last month, the RI Department of Transportation has been deforesting South Main Street, clear-cutting most of the trees. When questioned, the RIDOT supervisor’s incredible comment was “funny, how trees and sidewalks don’t work together.”

Still, when everything is said and done, the East Side remains very much what it always has been: arguably the best urban residential area between Boston and Washington. It’s pretty. It’s sophisticated. It’s diverse. It’s liberal.  And it’s populated by residents who continue to take special pride in calling the East Side of Providence home.

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