Friday, August 6, 2010

On Providence

Benefit Street 32, 2007

I’m trying to cool us off some here. Here in coastal Virginia it’s hot and humid. Probably is where you are, too. (And if it isn’t, you don’t need to tell me.)

When I want to think “cold” I think back to a work assignment that took me to Providence, Rhode Island, in January of 2007. It was really cold, never above 20F the whole time I was there. At night it got down to around 7F.

See if this cools you off some. When I raced out of my rental car to take the picture above, it was about 10F outside. Even with a winter coat and gloves and a beautiful sunny day, I couldn’t stand outdoors for more than a few minutes at a time. I’d been in and lived through colder weather before, but something about the cold and the wind in Providence that morning made me feel as cold as I’d ever been before.

An aside: When I worked for the ad agency, we hired a lot of people who wanted to get away from northern winters. They’d blow down into Virginia boasting about how we didn’t know from cold. Then they’d spend their first January here, when the temperatures hover just above freezing and the wind off the ocean, the bay and the various rivers cuts right through you. A few weeks of that wet cold and those northern refugees ran whimpering back inside to sit by the fire.

Back in Providence, my work was successful. Better still, I got to meet Christine, who those of you who follow Flickr will known as “CA.” We had a wonderful lunch, after which Christine gave me a quick tour of town. She’s a lovely person and an enthusiastic guide.

Chris & Christine, 2007

Providence is one of those cities that’s experienced a real Renaissance in recent years. When I first started going there in the late 70’s, the downtown was pretty gloomy. Streets and parking lots covered a lot of the Providence River. When you stayed in a hotel downtown you were advised not to go outdoors after dark. I won’t even attempt to describe the crazy local politics.

On the plus side, Providence has long been an ethnically rich city. Whenever I went up there to interview people for research studies, you could find four generations of an Italian or Portuguese family still living on the same block. You don’t see that many places any more.

Two of the great assets of Providence are the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University. I don’t know for sure whether they had anything to do with Providence’s renaissance. But they’ve certainly added considerably to the life of the city and serve as bookends for the College Hill neighborhood, adjacent to downtown.

These days Providence is doing pretty well. Being the state capital has steadied things some as the jewelry and toy businesses, both big players in the Rhode Island economy, have moved most of their manufacturing jobs offshore.

Not withstanding the current recession, downtown Providence can be downright busy at times. New buildings are going up. They’ve opened up the river, too, and made it into a backdrop for innovative artistic expression as well as a case study for environmental recovery.

Because I’d never had much time to poke around there, I tried to spend some time on my last day in Providence looking around College Hill. At one time, College Hill was just about all there was to Providence. So there are lots of structures with historical interest. Along Benefit Street homes both grand and spare sit side by side. The house shown above caught my eye not only for the way its colors stood out on a bitter cold day, but for the way it’s spare design manages to be both thrifty and classic.

It was so cold on the day I took these pictures that I eventually had to find something else to burn up a little time before going to the airport. All I need to say about that is that before my plane finally left Providence I had gotten a really bad haircut at a fancy and expensive salon and picked up a “wicked” head cold that took weeks to shake. See how quickly I pick up the lingo?

Nightingale-Brown House, 2007

Benefit Street 46, 2007


  1. These are all wonderful photos, Chris! And a great shot of you. I'll be heading to Brown University this year, and that neck of the woods. I can't wait. Your photos make me want to see it: I've not been before. (I think I'll be in the general area over a weekend and I thought I'd go exploring. Newport isn't far from where I'll be, I think.) Hope it's not THAT cold when I get there.

  2. Can't believe it was that long ago. Time to revisit, I think, maybe when it's not quite as cold.

  3. Okay, Chris, I won't tell you but let's just say I spent the best part of 50 years in Tidewater weather and moved up here to get away from the three H's in the summer and that killer wind coming off the Chesapeake Bay in the winter.

    Great shots, as always!

  4. I haven't been since I was a child, and would love to go back. ( but too damn cold to EVER consider living there!!!) My dad was from Providence, grew up there. His dad arrived there alone as a teen via Ellis Island from Lithuania, and his mother did too. Yes, one of those ethnic neighborhoods...where my aunt continued to attend a catholic church where the mass was still given in Lithuanian....
    Proudly, my dad, the immigrant's son, attended Brown on a scholarship at 16 ( he was a brainy guy), living at home, working at his uncle's fruitstand in summers.... a real American tale.