Cover Story | ESM 40

Remembrance of Things Past

RISD professor and East Side native Mike Fink reflects on life on the East Side


Most of us have milestones marked clearly along the road of our lives.  Many of mine have taken place right here on my beloved East Side. The first ones took place around the Summit Hill area where I grew up and went to Nathan Bishop and Hope before moving on to college. One of the most memorable, certainly, was the birth of my first child, not long after East Side Monthly was born. By then I lived in College Hill, just a stone’s throw from Prospect Terrace. Reflecting back on these moments, I can’t help but look at the various neighborhoods of my own birthplace from a fresh perspective.

Just what is the East Side, anyway? Does it consist of the noble homesteads from Blackstone Boulevard up to Hope Street? Or of the fine, but considerably older and more venerable estates, between Thayer and Brown?  How about the elegant but rather cramped Colonial and once workingman dwellings of Fox Point? My childhood haunts, down from Hope along Rochambeau to North Main, had its own history, mixing farmsteads and tenements. There are the tree-named alleyways and then the numbered rows of bungalows from First and Second all the way from Third to Twelfth.

A New, Brighter East Side

I’ve been walking our East Side streets seemingly forever. So how have these places changed in my lifetime?  Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is everything has gotten more attractive. It’s also impossible not to notice how increasingly painters now vary the color scheme of homes that used to vanish into a void of dull hues. And then there are the grassy areas between the sidewalks and the streets, so many now re-discovered and re-defined as gardens.  The urban maples have been replaced by graceful fruit trees that blossom in the spring, burn brightly in the fall and produce little sweet fruits that bring in birds throughout the summer months and even the wintertime. People now use brick and cobblestone to protect and frame their beds of flowers that invite butterflies to the front yards. Even the freshly installed fences and walls add distinction to the look and style of the collective East Side. In short, “colorful and individualized” has replaced “subtle, understated and uniform.”

Memories of Home
In my early days, families tended to cluster together, often sharing houses. An example: a very personal one. Uphill from the house that I watched as a three-year-old, going up from the basement to a tall brick gable and chimney, there was on Summit Avenue a series of stucco structures right around the corner from what was then the Summit Avenue School. Now, it is part of the Miriam Hospital complex. Back then many of these structures came in pairs, almost like duplexes. My grandfather lived in one with two broods from two marriages – two families all living under roof – while my grandfather’s brother with his four children – two boys and two girls – lived next door. Thus became the Fink family compound.

Over time, the family members all flew their coop, married and passed away. So what has become of those twin abodes? Well, my grandfather’s place was bought by one of my students. It looks pretty much the same but inside it contained all sorts of treasures in the basement and attic that have been given to me for safekeeping: photographs and broken lamps, memorabilia only I could identify. My student even asked me to deliver lectures to the guests about the history of this portion of the East Side, and to watch old movies in the basement, which she had converted into a studio and classroom. 
And what about that next door twin estate? That one has been totally transformed and given a quite fabulous new look – painted a golden yellow, with a brand new fancy fence and a grove of the most promising saplings that will burst out come April showers and May flowers.

The More Things Change...
This, in short, is what has become of the East Side of my birth. Many things have survived and been lovingly maintained. Others have been dramatically reshaped. Others sadly have just disappeared. The old RI Auditorium is now a parking lot, but the Highlands assisted living building nearby sports a welcoming garden with many birdfeeders and a few patios that hold souvenirs and conversation pieces, some of which I helped provide from my treasure chest of old memories.

A quiet chat in one of the East Side’s many coffee houses has remained an essential staple of life over the years, though my hangouts may change. The Wayland Manor stands proud and pleasant, and from their lobby you can drink either coffee or wine at L’Artisan Café and Bakery with its Parisian outdoor terrace, or the diner across the street on Wayland Avenue or at the East Side Starbucks at which you can peruse the books you may have purchased from Books on the Square. And then of course there’s Seven Stars and Coffee Exchange, both more meeting places with coffee cups to go than those of my memory, but just as beloved by its loyalists.

But to me, at its core, the East Side and Providence has always been a place of refuge. With Roger Williams, it became a beacon for those seeking religious freedom. With Slater Mill came economic opportunity. With our fabulous institutions of higher learning came a vision for still grander growth. Whether seeking a sanctuary of safety or gender acceptance, the welcome mat has always been extended here, our streets Benevolent, offering Hope… or Friendship.

Life here has its own unique pace, quite a bit slower than a New York, a San Francisco, a Chicago. But it maintains a pride in its heritage coupled with an appreciation of our diverse communities, an enduring commitment to its arts, an appreciation of the joy of a good meal, well prepared, and of the importance of fellowship with our neighbors. Yet through it all we have never lost our quirky character and particular personality.   Please don’t tell anybody about us, we’re fine just as we are. Our ESM whispers our secrets, but in a low tone with a courteous, “shh.”

Mike Fink is a longtime professor at RISD, born and raised in the Mt. Hope area. He sees his role as being a historian of the changes in our East Coast landscape and especially enjoys haunting our bars, pubs and coffeehouses.


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