Building Exclusion into College Hill

by Stephanie Hayes

published December 5, 2014

The old saying goes, ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ But what if the right tool for the job is a hammer, and the only tools you have are a badge and a gun?

— Building Our Way Out of Crime, by Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky

In 1999, the majority of the Olneyville residents surveyed by the US District Attorney’s Office said they refused to leave their homes at night for fear of their safety. In 2001, three murders occurred in the half-square-mile region. In 2002, Olneyville had the third highest violent crime rate of Providence’s 25 neighborhoods—a striking statistic given the amount of vacant land in the region and large drop in residents it had seen in the preceding decades. In 2003, Olneyville responded by adopting the “Building Our Way Out of Crime” approach.

Championed by community experts Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky, this strategy subscribes to the hotly-contested “Broken Windows Theory” of crime, which holds that physical deterioration breeds delinquency, disorder, and even violence. Consequently, well-maintained homes and the swift removal of graffiti are thought to deter crime by suggesting that a community cares and illegalities will not be tolerated. This approach therefore advocates for strong police-urban developer relationships, arguing that the physical revitalization these groups enact can deter crime.

Adopting this approach, Olneyville law enforcement paired with community leaders in an attempt to deter crime through environmental design. In the space of a few years, the vacant lots and abandoned properties near Aleppo Street, which had become hubs of prostitution, drug dealing, and violence, were filled with affordable public housing. The nine acres of brownfield—the sad, hazardous remains of the Riverside Mill, which burned down in 1989—were converted into a bike path. Better roads were built, and parks and playgrounds were constructed. By 2006, the crime “hot spots” that had once hogged police resources demanded their fair share of policing, and individuals had begun to “self-police and take pride in their neighborhood,” explained Lietuenant Dean Isabella, commander of the District. In the space of a few years, Olneyville effectively “built its way out of crime.” Crucially, it did this while keeping the low-income members of the community in the area and maintaining its ethnic diversity; according to the local nonprofit Providence Plan about 58 percent of residents are Hispanic, 22 percent are white, 14 percent are African-American, 7 percent Asian, and 2 percent are Native American.


Now, Thayer Street is adopting a similar approach—at least that’s what the Thayer Street Planning Study would have you believe. The study, conducted by the City of Providence Department of Planning and Development, states that the recent alterations to Thayer Street are modeled after the redevelopment of the area of West Philadelphia surrounding the University of Pennsylvania. Like Olneyville, this region had high rates of violent and property crime and underwent significant redevelopment and remarketing to become “University City.” Although never explicitly labeled as such, the neighborhood took a page right out of the Building Our Way Out of Crime playbook in the late 1990s. Following the shooting of a UPenn student, the university paired with local police and redevelopers to limit crime through urban redesign. Sidewalks were widened, public parklets were added, new restaurants and retail sites were installed, and the region’s motto became “kick litter in the can.” Affordable housing units were replaced with large apartments and higher-rent housing, and many long-time residents were displaced as the median household income raised dramatically. Yet, when it came to crime, it was deemed a success. The rates of violent crime reduced significantly and professors of UPenn who had been scared off by the region’s violence returned to live in the area. Locals unaffiliated with the university often refer to this process as the “Penntrification” of West Philly, whereby the entire community is being made in the image of the wealthy Ivy League university.

On a superficial level, the recent changes to Thayer Street are exactly like those that occurred in University City. There are the freshly painted pedestrian crossings, the parklet outside the Brown Bookstore, and the widened sidewalks in front of Blue State Coffee and City Sports. Thayer even has a foil to the fancy skyscrapers being erected in University City: 257 Thayer. This multi-million dollar, 95-unit housing development occupies almost an entire block in the center of Thayer Street and required the demolition of nine existing residential structures.

Relating Thayer to the area around UPenn seems like an attempt to use crime reduction as a means to justify redevelopment. There’s one major fault with this: unlike Olneyville and the area now know as University City, Thayer isn’t struggling with crime. Far from it. “There’s very little crime on Thayer,” said Lieutenant Ryan, commander of the District, “because it’s such a vibrant, busy area.” Although the District as a whole has seen decreases in violent crime and drugs and weapons offenses since the redevelopment, Lt. Ryan explained that these statistics have little connection to the bustling Thayer Street, where the most common problem is disorderly conduct when locals leave clubs and hookah bars on weekends. When it comes to crime, Thayer Street and West Philadelphia in the ‘90s are worlds apart.

In spite of this, the Providence Police have plans to increase their presence on Thayer Street when the redevelopment is complete, Lt. Ryan explained. He added that a cohort of recent police academy graduates will hit the streets in mid-December, and many will be tasked with performing foot patrols of Thayer. When asked why more police are needed when Thayer has so little crime, Ryan unhelpfully explained that the District as a whole has been strapped for officers. So, why fix what’s not broke? Professor Stefano Bloch of Brown University’s Urban Studies Department offered a compelling view, during a class called Crime and the City. “Police often provide more protection and frequent areas where people have higher degrees of capital,” he said. When it comes to Thayer, it sounds accurate. When 257 Thayer is complete and higherincome residents move into the area, the economic capital of Thayer will rise—and, according to Lt. Ryan, police are prepared to respond.

We don’t even need to wait to until mid-December or the completion of 257 Thayer to witness changes in policing. The context of redevelopment already appears to have altered law enforcement’s perception of what constitutes criminal behavior on Thayer Street. A few months ago, you couldn’t walk past Ben & Jerry’s on Thayer Street without being solicited for change by a homeless person. The same was true of the sidewalk in front of Au Bon Pain. These men and women were fixtures of Thayer Street. In my experience, none of these panhandlers hassled passersby, nor did they block foot traffic. But now they’ve disappeared. In a similar vein, one vendor who often sells jewelry on Thayer Street explained that he’s been asked to move on a number of times in recent months, in spite of his possession of a vendor’s permit. These relatively sudden changes suggest that with higher-income housing and parklets has come a decreased tolerance for quality-of-life crimes like panhandling and loitering. This shift proves the particularly subjective nature of these kinds of low-level crime. Certainly, Thayer Street is not the only region noticing this. In recent weeks, there’s been much discussion in The Providence Journal about what constitutes aggressive panhandling as opposed to lawful panhandling. Although there are specific criteria for what constitutes an aggressive or unlawful offense—including following a potential donor, blocking their path, or continuing to solicit someone after they’ve rejected a request—a number of authorities interviewed by the ProJo suggested that panhandling arrests often don’t meet these standards.

Importantly, this intolerance for quality-of-life crimes may not be entirely the result of police efforts, but due to the actions of local residents. As Lieutenant Dean Isabella, Commander of District 5, said of his experiences in Olneyville: “When people believe they live in a tidy neighborhood they think differently, they tolerate less. Unlike those neighborhoods that are broken down with blight and public safety issues, in the tidy environments, people begin to self-police.”

In short, with stricter policing and increased criminalization, Thayer Street is building its way into crime, rather than out of it. Formerly permissible acts are now punished. Crucially, this trend not only narrows the bounds of permissible actions, but of permissible actors. By criminalizing acts like panhandling or sitting in public spaces—acts homeless people must perform in public in order to survive—communities criminalize the very existence of homeless people. As Don Mitchell writes of anti-homelessness legislation in his article “The Annihilation of Space By Law”: “In other words, we are creating a world in which a whole class of people simply cannot be, entirely because they have no place to be.” The saddest part is that the people who punish quality-of-life crimes (read: enforce anti-homelessness legislation) believe themselves to be helping the community. As Mitchell writes: “[T]hey see themselves not as instigators of a pogrom, but rather as saviors: saviors of cities, saviors of all the ‘ordinary people’ who would like to use urban spaces but simply can’t when they are chocked full of homeless people...”


This intolerance for quality-of-life crime signals a broader shift to privileging the exchange value of space over the use value—or, more simply put, profit over people. It’s becoming more and more true that you can only occupy space on Thayer Street if you can pay to do so. This is most apparent in the city’s plan to implement parking meters and regulations on Thayer Street, of which Bob Azar, Director of the Providence’s Department of Planning and Development, informed students at Brown University last week, when he visited a class called Crime and the City. Even the little public parklet outside the bookstore can be seen to have ulterior economic motives. On the surface, it converts two parking spaces— a possible source of city income—into an open public space that seats 8-10 individuals. One glance at The University City Annual Report for 2013, however, suggests that the area’s developers view the parklet differently. The caption beside a photograph of the parklets installed near UPenn boasts not an increase in community well-being but a 40 percent increase in sales at Honest Tom’s Tacos. Perhaps it’s a cynical view, but Thayer Street’s new parklet might be intended to serve as nothing more than extended seating for the nearby Blue State Coffee and Chipotle. At the very least, we can be sure it wasn’t built to serve the homeless population of Providence. To borrow from Mitchell again: “As troublesome as it may be to contemplate the necessity of creating ‘safe havens’ for homeless people in the public space of cities, it is even more troublesome to contemplate a world without them.” Thayer is becoming such a world.


Thayer Street is not West Philadelphia, that’s for sure. However, we can make some predictions about the future of Thayer using University City as a model. Following the trajectory of West Philly, Thayer will presumably become far less diverse. Already home to some of the highest rents in Providence, Thayer threatens to become the terrain of exclusively high-income residents, big spenders, or those with high cultural capital. This exclusion could even extend to who can occupy these streets on a temporary basis. Another interesting consideration is Brown University’s injection of significant funds into the re-development, which is sure to become a source of town-andgown tension. Azar’s claim to students at Brown that Thayer was an example of “organic development” is a cringe-worthy attempt at deflecting responsibility. His assurance that the university has the same weight in the decision-making process as all other stakeholders is also a tough line to swallow in light of the gentrifying influence other Ivy Leagues have had on their surrounding areas. Brown has long been criticized for influencing the surrounding area, but perhaps locals will take inspiration from the residents of West Philly and lend it a new name: the Brownification of Providence.