THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


A Winding Path

by Harry August

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published November 17, 2017


Providence is a divided city. Physical barriers—both natural, such as the Providence River, and manmade, like the I-95 highway system—work to separate and isolate the people and neighborhoods of Providence, forcing residents to cross 11-lane highways and long bridges to walk from one side of the city to the other. The construction of I-95 especially divided the city. “When I-95 was rammed into Providence, Upper South Providence became detached from Downtown,” C.J. Opperthauser, training manager for Grow Smart Rhode Island, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable and equitable economic growth in the state, told the Independent. He marks this as a decision that isolated the predominantly Latinx neighborhood and discouraged investment in the area.

To help bridge these divisions, this month Providence is launching “City Walk: Connecting Providence Neighborhoods,” an initiative to improve the connections between nine Providence neighborhoods, from India Point to Roger Williams Park. According to the plan’s website, the City Walk route, which runs about 4 miles end-to-end, will receive investments in pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure, thus improving transportation safety and encouraging celebration of the culture and diversity of neighborhoods along the route.

However, Dwayne Key, chair of the South Providence Neighborhood Association and a member of the City Walk advisory board, told the Indy that “those who live here can’t see the benefits of this project—I can’t see it solving any of our needs.” Key stressed that the plan is more likely to improve the experiences of those outside the neighborhood than meet the needs of South Providence residents. Key’s claim negates much of how City Walk’s proponents frame the stakes of the project, especially in its ability to connect the area to the infrastructure and development of the rest of the city. But the project’s success for the people of South Providence might lie instead on the city’s ability to incorporate the already present—and pressing—residents’ concerns into a plan that has existed, in some form or another, for over a decade. 

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The idea of an east-west pedestrian corridor was not drafted by the city, however, but instead originated in 2006, when I-195, one of Providence’s biggest physical barriers, was relocated outside of the Jewelry District, freeing up 20 acres of land for redevelopment. While the area has attracted some investment, such as the recent $220 million renovation of an old power station into office space, most of this I-195 land remains undeveloped. In fact, around 60 percent of the Jewelry District’s land is covered with surface level parking lots, said Phoebe Blake, Chair of the Jewelry District Association’s Planning & Zoning Committee, and 15 of the 19 available land parcels remain available for purchase on the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission website. 

The concept of an “East-West Greenway” first emerged in the midst of this I-195 relocation process as part of the Old Harbor Forums, a joint initiative of the Providence Planning Department, the Providence Foundation, the American Institute of Architects RI, and the Providence Preservation Society. The original idea focused more narrowly on the I-195 land and the Jewelry District, extending only to the beginning of the South Side, as opposed to its current inclusion of Broad Street to Roger Williams Park. In the decade since, the plan has been expanded and refined in what Blake described as a “very slow” process, one that required organizations like the Jewelry District Association and the Providence Foundation to rely on private fundraising and advocacy before the City of Providence took ownership of the project a year ago. 

After securing money from both private and public organizations—such as Brown University, the Colosseum, and the Providence Foundation—as well as pro bono landscape design work from architect Ron Henderson, Blake and Beaudoin spearheaded a 79 page vision paper for the project released in 2014: “City Walk: Connecting Providence.” The report is based on two principles: first, that City Walk “connects eight Providence neighborhoods via a network of pedestrian spaces and bicycle routes” and second that it “improves equitable access to urban assets.” If City Walk is successful, Blake told the Indy, “people will feel comfortable in any neighborhood.”

The report dedicates 10 pages to suggesting improvements to the Clifford Street Bridge, a two lane, 500-foot long overpass that spans the 11 lanes of I-95  and demarcates South Providence from the Jewelry District. The bridge is a concrete tundra: poorly lit, devoid of any color, and subject to the noise pollution of cars flying by underneath. Because it’s so exposed, the bridge becomes “especially crappy in bad weather,” said Opperthauser. An appendix to the 2014 Plan contrasts the lack of investment on the Clifford Street bridge with the India Point and (forthcoming) Providence River pedestrian bridges, both of which enhance access between higher income neighborhoods and, correspondingly, have received pedestrian design enhancements. Through improvements like “green thresholds and buffers,” “pedestrian scale lighting,” and colored surfaces, the plan suggests that the Clifford Street bridge can become a “gateway” between two disparate neighborhoods that currently have little interaction. There is disagreement, however, about the ability of bridge developments to unite neighborhoods that are divided by more than just barren infrastructure. As Phyllis Gingerella Wade, an Elmwood resident, said to the Indy, the barriers between neighborhoods in Providence are not only physical but demographic, and often founded in racism, such that it will take far more than infrastructure to work towards the idealized, unifying goals of the project. 

Blake told the Indy that the 2014 Report, which was produced independent of the city planners, is still “quite preliminary,” and Ellis described the report as “more of a visionary document” than a detailed engineering and planning document to guide the city’s actions. The city included support for the idea of a City Walk in its 2010 “Providence Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan,” and the report, according to its introduction, “is a call for action to get City Walk moving.” By the time of the document’s release in 2014, the project had been swirling around for almost a decade and its advocates were exhausted, said Blake, with most of the plan still yet to see any concrete improvements.

“Recently, new life has been breathed into the project,” said Opperthauser, as the city took ownership over the project in the past few years as they applied for and received large funding sources for the project. Of the total funding, $1.875 million comes from the State Transportation Improvement Program, $500,000 comes from the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program, and some other funding is available as part of the city’s cultural programming budget and from a recent bicycle infrastructure improvement grant, reported the Providence Journal. 

Now that the project is finally gaining steam, “it’s about taking a step back and getting better feedback, and making sure it’s fleshed out the way it’s been promised,” Opperthauser said. While the organizers of the 2014 City Walk study did speak to residents of the South Side and incorporate public input into the report, Blake said, it was still produced as a private effort separate from the city’s planning department. The team is now conducting more formal community meetings to present their mission and hear feedback on the plan. The city's "standard for whether enough outreach has been done” is high, said Ellis. The first of these meetings will take place at the Southside Cultural Center on November 28, 2017 at 6 PM. 

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On the corner of Broad and Oxford Streets in South Providence, a mural called “La Plaza Del Arte y Las Culturas” is displayed on the side of a grocery store, depicting a street filled with people: a child playing chess with her grandparents, an artist painting a canvas, a man selling ice cream, and a woman riding her bike down the middle of the pavement. In the mural, there are no cars in sight. 

The circulation of traffic on Broad Street, on the other hand, provides a stark contrast to the pastoral scene painted beside it, with cars and trucks fighting for space on the store-lined, two-lane road divided by a centerline painted with the colors of the Dominican Republic. The street, which runs from downtown through the South Providence and Elmwood neighborhoods, is one of the city’s most dangerous for transportation: a study commissioned by the city found that the street accounts for more car crashes with pedestrians and bicyclists than any other corridor in the city.  And while many residents did acknowledge the challenge of traveling without a car, “it’s not so much of a challenge that you don’t want to go out into the community,” Renay Omisore, a resident of South Providence who also works on Broad Street, told the Indy.

Broad Street is a major transportation vein, serving as the fastest way to get downtown to much of South Providence and Elmwood, especially for those who cannot afford cars, Opperthauser told the Indy. In fact, more than 40 percent of residents of South Providence walk, bike, carpool or take public transit to get to work, according to a city report. Furthermore, as Alex Ellis, city planner and project manager for City Walk told the Indy, many of these bicyclists are high school students riding to school and adults going to the central businesses areas of Broad Street. As a result, Opperthauser told the Indy, City Walk “is going to be a commuter route—it will help with employment opportunities for people in South Providence.” 

Beyond this transportation importance, Broad Street has a huge cultural significance in Providence. Two-thirds of the population of the neighborhood are people of color, many of them born outside of the United States, and the neighborhood is home to countless Caribbean grocery stores, restaurants, and celebrations. Accordingly, the city has begun to recognize the neighborhood's importance to Providence’s Latinx culture, with Mayor Elorza (the son of Guatemalan immigrants) branding the street last April as the “Latino Corridor of Providence.” Recently the City has launched a “Celebrate Broad Street” initiative that will market art and cultural events happening along Broad Street. Phyllis Gingerella Wade, who works on Broad Street, told the Indy, “it’s a cool hub for community serving organizations—people use the area to access a lot of services.” For example, Broad Street is home to organizations like the Southside Cultural Center, the African Alliance of RI, and Youth in Action. 

Beyond just “celebrating” the culture of Broad Street and South Providence, however, the planners of City Walk must also recognize the structural discrimination the community has faced—and incorporate those needs into the plan. As outlined in the city’s South Providence Neighborhood Plan, the neighborhood was primarily Irish immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, but as these families became more prosperous and moved to suburbs in the 1950s, South Providence saw a decline in both its population and economy. “This out-migration, in turn, led to an increase in the supply of cheap, poorly maintained rental housing,” the report writes, leading to a cycle of speculative home purchases, high debt loads, and plummeting property values that still affect the neighborhood. Upper South Providence, for example, has one of the lowest median family incomes in the city and twice the unemployment rates of the city average, according to the report. As Key told the Indy, in “everything from development to housing policy to snow removal to road paving to schools, South Providence was always put last.” 

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As part of the upcoming community outreach process, the city has an opportunity to address the many issues residents have with the project, especially with regards to avoiding potential gentrification that might result from connecting neighborhoods with vast disparities in income. Providence has a long and troubled history with gentrification, with a trend of low-income households being priced out of neighborhoods like Fox Point and the West End. By eliminating barriers between the East Side and the South Side, City Walk could contribute to this tradition by driving up housing prices in the South Side. 

This is an especially important concern for residents of the South Side, like Gingerella Wade, who told the Indy she moved to the neighborhood after being priced out of her last apartment. When asked about these concerns, Blake said to the Indy, “I don’t know if there’s anything we can do [to prevent gentrification from occurring].” This viewpoint, however, ignores the fact that gentrification is not a forgone conclusion of the City Walk project, and can be limited, if not altogether avoided, with a deliberate and community-driven planning process. 

When the Indy asked about these concerns, Ellis emphasized that gentrification is “something [the City] is taking very seriously,” and added that “the equitable way to invest in the safety of our streets is to make them safe for people without means.” Furthermore, he said that "the answer is not to not invest, it’s to do so conscientiously and respectfully, giving residents a leading voice." Accordingly, the city will be holding focus groups, conducting stakeholder interviews, and employing local residents to attend community events and gather feedback about the project, in addition to the aforementioned community meeting. Crucially, the city must then be able to effectively incorporate this feedback into City Walk, and ensure that people’s concerns are actually met. And because some residents have criticized not just the minutia but the core idea of a pedestrian corridor, the city must be willing to reframe aspects of the entire project.

Opperthauser also addressed the concern for gentrification, but stressed that the City Walk will in fact be beneficial to neighborhoods along the route. “This kind of thing is always seen as a harbinger of gentrification—and often it does precede gentrification,” Opperthauser told the Indy, but “people probably won’t move into the neighborhood just because there is now a bike path.” While a bike path alone might not drive up housing prices, the circulation of people into South Providence, and the commercial activity and development that City Walk planners hope the project will deliver, must be considered as at least part of the much broader relationship between urban renewal and gentrification. “Ultimately,” Opperthauser concluded, “this is being built for people in that neighborhood who would like to bike or walk more safely.” 

Under the assumption that bicyclists are predominantly white and wealthy (based on the perception of biking as a leisure activity which might be expensive to maintain), one can imagine that the bike path will be used to facilitate access to South Providence from the East Side and perhaps drive up the cost of living in those areas. Many surveys, however, have found that bicycling is used far more as a means of transportation by people of color than by white people. For example, a 2014 People For Bikes study found that at the national level, Hispanic people are about 50 percent more likely than white people to regularly ride their bikes for both transportation and recreation. These findings are supported by 2017 Providence bike count data, said Ellis, in which high numbers of people were recorded biking by certain intersections in the historically disadvantaged South Side. This ridership data supports the idea that City Walk will in fact “improve equitable access to urban assets” by reducing the barriers to residents of the South Side from resources in other parts of the city accessible by car or bus. 

The 2014 City Walk report stresses that the plan will “advance economic development,” but more than transportation infrastructure will be required to turn this area into a transportation corridor that actually benefits the South Providence community. For example, Key suggested that in addition to bike lanes, the Plan incorporates initiatives to make bicycles more accessible, such as free bicycles (like a similar program in Boston), repair stations, bike clinics, and programs that encourage people to get active. 

If the community outreach process is successful, and City Walk is implemented in a way that does incorporate and address meet the needs of Broad Street and South Providence, the project could lead to improvements that do in fact connect neighborhoods and address inequalities. Within the constraints of the funding, which comes from transportation-specific sources (and thus cannot be applied to any community project as desired), City Walk must balance needed infrastructure development with resident’s concerns about affordability and gentrification. Much of the debate thus rests on what impact the development of City Walk will actually have on Broad Street and South Providence, something that will be determined by the effectiveness of the city’s outreach process. The need for a more connected Providence, however, is clear: “You can’t celebrate your diversity if you stay in one community,” Omisore told the Indy, “[City Walk] is an opportunity for our city to grow.”

HARRY AUGUST B’19 enjoyed walking from India Point to Roger Williams park with his mother while researching this article.