What "The Point" Is

Reconstructing a Cape Verdean narrative in Providence’s Fox Point

by by Doreen St. Félix

"We got letters. The interstate was going to cut us in half.” says Johnny Britto, a Cape Verdean resident of Fox Point. “I went to a meeting and they had a chalkboard. They had my house on it, with a red ‘X’ over it.” The house was on Traverse Street, and it was going to be demolished to make way for Interstate 195.

Truly yours
I-195 has the dipped, oscillating shape of a question mark. Also known as the East Providence Expressway, the 45-mile stretch of road connects Massachusetts and Rhode Island. At the juncture where the highway runs through Providence, it carves into the Jewelry District, South Main Street, by India Point Park, and through the space where 172 homes once stood in the historically Cape Verdean neighborhood of Fox Point.

In 1947, though, the interstate, christened the “Crosstown Route,” was no more than a proposal. The Rhode Island Department of Public Works (RIDPW) planned the highway as an effort to alleviate traffic in metropolitan Providence. It was to be one mile long with terminuses at the I-95 and Benefit Street. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 authorized funds for the expansion of the national highway system. With a $70 million boost in construction money, the city decided to extend the highway into East Providence. This route would sever the Fox Point in two. Compounded by a redevelopment plan that promised to eliminate and replace substandard living areas with “healthful” neighborhoods, residents had unwittingly become sitting ducks for urban displacement.

When the 1966 Department of Planning and Urban Development sent notifications to Britto and his neighbors, fellow second-generation Fox Point Cape Verdeans, they discovered that the East Side Renewal Project was going to “rehabilitate” their community: “Your property is in the area known as the East Side Renewal Project. The Project has recently been approved by the City of Providence and the Federal Government as a renewal initiative that calls for the total upgrading of the area...You will be notified by the field office and arrangements will be made to survey your property by our trained rehabilitation specialists.”

The letters were signed “Very Truly Yours,” by Melvin Susi, then Supervisor of Rehabilitation.

A temporary field office opened on George M. Cohan Boulevard that year. Urban rehabilitation specialists surveyed structures for evidence of degradation. Buildings that did not meet the vaguely defined City code standards were knocked down. Private investors were encouraged to buy homes with potential for restoration; and when the homes were revitalized, the rents for residents sky-rocketed, in some cases more than by 100 percent.

Britto was able to convince the office of the historical significance of his home and the house on Traverse Street was spared.  But the majority of the community was not; 300 families were displaced. Historic preservation, property restoration, commercial incentive, and the expansion of both Brown University and RISD—all enumerated in the East Side Renewal Project proposal—displaced hundreds more.

A community displaced
The 1965 Providence Redevelopment Agency, directed by James F. Reynolds, divided the 333-acre East Side Renewal Project area into four zones. Randall Square was the northernmost section, while the adjacent sections of Constitution Hill-North Benefit and South Main-South Water constituted the central parts. Fox Point was the fourth zone. The agency targeted it as a “deteriorated blighted area.”

To its residents, the area was known as "The Point." Fox Point, the southern-most neighborhood in the East Side section of Providence, is historically defined by its waterfront. One of the trading centers of colonial America, Providence’s port served as a New England connection in the transatlantic slave trade, which operated from the 1580s up until the early 19th century. During the first leg of the triangular trade route, European sailors travelled to Africa to trade guns for workable bodies. Slaves were then sold to sugar plantation owners in the Caribbean and the Americas. The third and final leg was from the Caribbean to the American North East, where the sugar was made into rum and molasses in New England factories. The Fox Point Cape Verdean identity begins along this hypotenuse.

The previously uninhabited island country of the Republic of Cape Verde was first colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th century, and its economy hinged on the currents of the slave-trade economy. The abolition of the slave trade in the 19th century was disastrous to the archipelago. Extreme poverty forced Cape Verdeans to leave the island country in droves.

The early 19th century Cape Verdeans who immigrated to the United States became the first voluntary black diaspora in the country. Providence and other New England towns attracted the immigrants for pragmatic reasons: they worked and lived along the waterfront, taking the jobs no one else wanted.

In the 20th century, Fox Point crystallized as the second largest enclave of Cape Verdean Americans in the country. Justino "Tiny" Andrade reflects on his former community in the 2006 documentary Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican? “The whole community was one big family…There was no such thing as a key. Your doors were always open. Anyone could come in at anytime, that’s the way things were down in Fox Point.”

“Yeah, Manny’s!” Jamal Carvalho seems to remember the bar as if it was he who spent nights there unwinding with fellow longshoremen in the 1940s, and not his relatives who owned it. “People are always surprised when I tell them how long my family has lived in Providence,” says Jamal, a Brown University alumnus who currently lives on John Street.

In the 1960s, the East Side Renewal Project set out to “revitalize” Fox Point. The result is seen in the quaint antique shops, small brunch restaurants, and expansive dormitory space that line the streets of today’s Fox Point. Systematic urban renewal.

Originating with a 1956 College Hill study initiated by the Providence Preservation Society, the city embarked on a redevelopment plan to increase the economic potential of the historically low-income neighborhood. Because most of the Cape Verdeans who lived in the area rented rather than bought properties, they were bought out by real estate speculators who intended to improve and restore buildings. Restoration inevitably led to a rise in property value. The Project’s plan, which cites 19 specific objectives, is over 100 pages long. Only twice does the Agency consider that “additional families, individuals and businesses may be displaced as a result of rehabilitation of structures…in realizing the objectives of this Plan.”

Johnny Britto, who wears a black t-shirt that announces in rainbow letters that he is the “Greatest Grandpa in the World,” remembers the ensuing panic. “Houses were condemned. People got scared and moved out. We’re all scattered now.” Many moved to nearby Pawtucket and Cranston, while others moved farther out into Massachusetts.

Geographically, the neighborhood still exists. It still fills the southern tip of the East Side, wrapped up tightly by the Providence River and College Hill. If you ask someone, “Where is Fox Point?” he will point you in the direction of Wickenden Street. You can still find Fox Point on a map. “But Fox Point, the neighborhood in Providence where I was born and grew up in, that community is gone,” says Dr. Claire Andrade-Watkins, a former resident and historian.

A community reoriented
On a warm February afternoon, Andrade-Watkins has just come from a service at Sheldon Street Church. “I go because when you do work like this, you need something to keep you grounded,” she calls out over her shoulder. A pot of hot water boils on the stove. As she bustles across the room to tend to it, the bouquet of keys in her hand clinks.

Andrade-Watkin’s office is at 150 Power Street, at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America (CSREA) at Brown University. A Visiting Fellow since 2007, she is the founder and president of SPIA Media Productions Inc., which strives for “the documentation, preservation and dissemination of cultural productions from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States.” She is the first Cape Verdean from Fox Point to earn a PhD. She insists that you call her Claire.

Andrade-Watkins is also the Director of the Fox Point Cape Verdean Project. “The elders of my community told me I was the ‘chosen one.’ And I said, ‘What? You’ve got to be kidding!’ But I had it in me. I was born to tell the Cape Verdean American story,” she explains. “My family was one of the first families of Fox Point.”

According to Andrade-Watkins, the purpose of the Fox Point Cape Verdean Project is to tell the story not of a community displaced but rather of the legacy of one remembered. “Fox Point can’t exist again physically,” she says. But through the reconstitution of oral histories, archival research, documentary productions and public exhibitions, Andrade-Watkins is composing what she calls “a narrative of first person history.”

“Our project is to preserve the narrative of the Cape Verdean community as told by Cape Verdeans,” she says. She and her volunteers receive little outside funding, which she attributes to the candor of her work. “We are treading a precarious space,” she says. “We aren’t reconstructing a story that is ahistorical, one that fits neatly into the convenient racial binary of the blacks vs. the whites. That’s not the point. The point is to tell their story.”

Andrade-Watkins began working on the project nearly thirty years ago. “That’s half my life,” she says. Her work spans various media, the most visible being her documentaries. In her first, Some Kind of Funny Porto Rican?, former residents like Johnny Britto and Justino Andrade tell the story of the Point in celebratory and melancholic tones. Two subsequent documentaries, Atlantic Portal and Working the Boats, will chronicle the 21st century Cape Verdean identity and the history of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the first black union founded by Cape Verdean workers in 1933, respectively.

She opens the door to a second room, adjacent to her office at the CSREA. Flyers are tacked on one wall, a rectangular file cabinet propped against the other. Each key on her chain unlocks a compartment of the cabinet; each compartment holds a particular jewel of Fox Point history. Black and white photos have been assembled in stacks in the first drawer. Clearly marked 8mm film reels are in a second.

In a third are certificates of admission to the St. Antonio Society. “We’ve got names, addresses,” notes Andrade-Watkins, as she leafs through sepia-tinted sleeves. The St. Antonio Society, founded in 1934, was Rhode Island’s first beneficent organization, acting not only as a social center but also as an insurance company for Fox Point Cape Verdeans. “My parents were founding members,” says Claire, who is looking for something in another cabinet. The building that housed the San Antonio Society was condemned in 1966, a casualty of the East Side Renewal Project.

“It’s here somewhere,” she says. She pulls out a photograph. “There’s my mother, my father. My grandmother. And there’s my Uncle Charlie.” Her index finger hovers over each face; the Andrades, along with other Cape Verdean members of the Society, stand around a table. “They put the seed in me. I have to tell this story before someone else decides they are just a sea of brown faces,” Andrade-Watkins says. “Before some graduate student reduces us to a pretentious-sounding thesis.”

But the story, Claire recognizes, cannot be completed in her lifetime. “In 2006, there were between 40 and 60 elders left. Since then, about 60 per cent have died,” says Andrade-Watkins. Reverend E. Naomi Craig, an elder and Pastor of Sheldon Street Church, recently passed away on February 1st, 2012. “She was 94,” she notes. An elder’s death is a crucial loss of  “first voice” history. Andrade Watkin’s generation was the last to grow up in The Point. Her daughter’s generation only knows The Point through the stories of their parents. While they will never be able to inherit the homes, she hopes her work inspires young Cape Verdeans to inherit the responsibility of preserving their ancestors’ history.

Above the file cabinet, in black and white, is a 1945 map of The Point. On the map are several clusters of colored pushpins and a concave red line. The line represents the 1-195. The pushpins are homes. “Each pin represents an address we got from the St. Antonio Records,” says Andrade-Watkins. Before they were displaced by the East Side Renewal Project, families lived at each of the points marked by the pushpins.

“I call them memory spots.”

DOREEN ST. FÉLIX B’14 was stilled by it.