But that was before New England's third-biggest city uncovered and recharted its downtown rivers, building a series of arched bridges and pint-size (but still very pretty) Parisian-style quays. That also was before such magazines as Newsweek and Bon Appetit began trumpeting Providence's art scene, its carefully restored colonial houses and its top-of-the-line Italian food.
Now, Brown students stroll in Waterplace Park along with a mix of locals and tourists, watching kayaks, canoes and two replica Venetian gondolas glide past. Lights blink on inside Providence's little cluster of office towers, and during the summer, restaurants set up tables outside and vendors hawk Del's--a frozen lemonade with seeds that you can't find anywhere else.
Laid out long before the automobile turned American cities into strip malls, Rhode Island's capital city is compact and easily explored by foot. In a day or two of tramping on brick sidewalks, you'll stumble upon vestiges of the city's 18th-century heyday as a thriving seaport. More than a few of its historic homes were built for merchants and sea captains. Some have odd Oriental trees and bushes for decoration, species that were originally brought here in trade from China and India.
You also can find plenty of evidence of the city's tradition of cultural eclecticism. Founded by settlers fleeing Puritan censure of their religious beliefs, neighborhoods such as College Hill, which includes Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design, are painted in bright, tropical colors (as opposed to the green-and-white or brown-and-white decors that are de rigueur in buttoned-down Boston and Connecticut). Settled by waves of Italian immigrants, many neighborhoods retain a distinctive European feel.
It's not unusual for people to visit Providence, or even move here, because they are tired of places where the job and housing markets are forever booming but an evening out means a trip to the new cineplex and T.G.I. Friday's or the Hard Rock Cafe. Providence is one of the most out-of-the-loop metropolitan areas you can find. Because of a chronically sluggish economy, it's often passed over by the big national chains. More striking, it has missed out, again and again, on waves of urban renewal that have flattened historic neighborhoods and downtown buildings in cities such as Hartford, Conn., and Worcester, Mass., with "projects" that include shopping plazas and high-rise housing.
Now, all of a sudden, the city is rubbing its eyes and realizing that being the poor cousin that focused on fixing up the old--because it couldn't afford the new--has paid off handsomely. In the late 1960s, city planners would have loved to have remade College Hill's Benefit Street, a mile of Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival plaque houses that, at the time, was in disrepair. Luckily, it never happened, and the clapboard homes were restored and repainted in soft pinks, oranges and ochers.
My wife and I stroll there in the early evening, when the carriage lamps are glowing, and stop at her "perch," a little wall in front of the birthday-cake shaped First Unitarian Church. Although there is nothing monumentally historic in view, everything is made of brick or stone or iron or sculpted wood. The spot makes us feel as if we are in a provincial European town because the sense of history comes from small objects, such as a fence, hand-lettered sign or pair of lions marking the entrance to a copper-roofed club.
If we were to strike off from here, almost any direction would take us past something "significant." There's the John Brown House, an elegant mansion built by the patriot and China trade merchant and, of course, Brown University, which his family endowed. These sites are not far from the First Baptist Church in America and, along the way, the Providence Athenaeum, an old subscription library where Edgar Allan Poe worked on his eerie poems and stories in gas-lit rooms.
But we stay rooted in this spot--sometimes until night comes--and eventually walk home on a side street since we don't want to break the spell. Providence is best, we think, when you're not looking for anything in particular to admire. We pass houses with awnings rolled out and hear the sounds of radios broadcasting the Red Sox game through screen doors. Here and there, we get glimpses of downtown. The buildings are set at angles to each other, but the skyline is dense and resembles a city in a children's book. The Fleet National Bank tower, an Empire State-style, art deco skyscraper, is the tallest structure you can see.
When you shop or eat out in Providence, you come face to face with oddities that don't often show up in bigger, more bustling cities. I keep telling out-of-town friends to get here soon because I am concerned that some of these things may vanish, Brigadoon-like, in one of the fogs that occasionally settles in from Narragansett Bay.
If you're poking around, for example, on Federal Hill, the city's Little Italy since the late 1880s, you'll find clothing stores that know nothing about a Nike swoosh logo, but instead fill their windows with mannequins dressed in 1950s-style shirts, underwear and "slacks." On Atwells Avenue, the neighborhood's main drag, small family-run groceries are wedged in beside larger establishments full of dusty-looking furniture and appliances. There often is a van or truck selling fresh fish to the sounds of opera from a beaten-up cassette deck. Ice chunks and a few lost mussel and clam shells litter the sidewalk.
The smells of food are all around, so it is likely you will be drawn into a place like Scialo Brothers Bakery, which is so impossibly Old World it seems as fine and brittle as a pastry cookie. The window displays are reminiscent of a wedding feast or a fancy Easter table your great-grandmother might have set. A spring-hinged door bangs behind you when you enter, and a tiny lady in slippers will take your order for brick-oven Italian bread, cannoli or lemony sponge cake that is the best around.
Or, you may end up at Angelo's Civita Farnese, a simple neighborhood eatery that critics ignore but is of interest as much for its atmosphere as it is for its ravioli or eggplant Parmesan. Wine is served in juice glasses. Your order is punched into a colored cardboard ticket that you take up to the register. The closest thing I've ever found to Angelo's was a railroad-workers cafeteria in Rome, but that didn't seem half as quirky or friendly.
Providence is a city full of people who argue about restaurants, so it isn't easy to find clear consensus on where to dine. Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. has his own favorites and is constantly wracking his brain for ways to promote the city as a regional, if not national, capital of Italian and Mediterranean cooking.
For one thing, Cianci sells his own brand of marinara sauce in supermarkets with the proceeds earmarked for the Providence school system. Even Cianci's detractors admit that it's a reasonably fresh-tasting concoction, perhaps because of the carrots and red onions the mayor tosses in for some extra zing.
For another, Cianci recently helped organize a contest pitting a few home-grown Providence bistros against a group of better-known and much more stylized competitors from Boston. Diners from both cities were urged to visit as many of the entrants as they could and cast ballots for their favorites. Lo and behold, it was announced in the newspapers that Providence had "won"--but there was no ticker-tape parade because who could say whether the pro-Boston vote had been dampened, just a touch, by lack of interest.
If dining here and visiting the neighborhoods hasn't convinced you that Providence is an intriguing and somewhat strange small city, there's always "Water Fire." This thoroughly eccentric but now more or less mainstream entertainment draws huge crowds and begins shortly after dark along the city's elegant new riverfront. Dreamed up by a local artist, the event features crackling and spitting bonfires built in a series of iron baskets installed in the middle of the Providence River and along one of the two smaller rivers that feeds into it.
The quay begins near the big, blocky Old Stone Bank building at an arched bridge with a ship's mast full of snapping flags. The courthouse and a tall World War I monument will be on your right if you walk along here, where teams of workers in small punts load up the river baskets with pine logs and set them ablaze. Soon, a necklace of fire curves into the distance, sketching out the route of the river ahead and creating flickering glimpses of students paddling rubber rafts and tourists leaning over both sides of the banks.
Water Fire is memorable because of the sparks showering the water, the scent of wood smoke and the echoing music that is piped in from hidden speakers. Sometimes it's Gregorian chants or haunting space-age sounds, which seem to pour out of the flames.
Continuing along the walkways, you'll discover the little dock where the owner of two painstakingly exact replicas of Venetian gondolas plies his trade. Marco and John, the gondoliers, learned their craft on Venice's Grand Canal and can expertly row you along to Waterplace Park, a round reflecting pool and steep, landscaped amphitheater that is the site of concerts and festivals.
It is here, in the park, that people who remember Providence in the dreary "old days" feel most at sea. I've watched middle-aged couples--maybe Brown alums visiting for the first time in years--looking closely at the big, white paving stones of which the amphitheater is built. It's as if they're trying to figure out how this urban monument has turned up here, in a place where there once was only railroad tracks, buried waterways and garbage and weeds.
They might wonder, who designed the riverwalks? Who built the bridges that allow boats and bonfires to illuminate the long-dark water? And who on Earth thought of the gondolas?
My wife and I don't ask such questions anymore. We buy ourselves green-and-yellow striped cups of Del's and drink them slowly--in celebration of the fact that gondolas and Parisian quays now are part of the landscape in our New England home town. Come up here, we keep telling our friends. Come soon, and you will see for yourselves.
Peter Mandel is a freelance writer living in Providence and the author of several books, including "Red Cat, White Cat."
Where to Stay: The stately and elegant Providence Biltmore (Kennedy Plaza, 401-421-0700 or 1-800-294-7799) has held its own in the heart of the downtown since 1922. Some of the rooms are as spacious as small suites. Rates: $120-$275.
Old Court Bed and Breakfast (144 Benefit St., 401-751-2002), really a small hotel, offers the perfect location on Providence's historic College Hill. Rates: $120-$140.
The State House Inn (43 Jewett St., 401-351-6111) is a historic delight with four-poster beds and fireplaces in some rooms. Rates: $109-$119.
The Cady House Bed and Breakfast (127 Power St., 401-273-5398) has no sign out front but it's only a few blocks from Benefit Street on College Hill. Filled with folk art and rugs from around the world, it has a lovely garden. Rates: $75-$100.
Where to Eat: It's impossible to talk about dining in Providence without mentioning Al Forno (577 S. Main St., 401-273-9760), which the International Herald Tribune has called "one of the world's 10 best casual restaurants." It's known for its creativity with grilled meats and pasta, but we found the service sort of smug and the lines impossibly long (the restaurant doesn't take reservations). Dinner entrees start at $15.95.
A tiny bistro, New Rivers (7 Steeple St., 401-751-0350) manages to blend French, Italian and regional American flavors without a jarring effect. Although you're in close quarters, you feel cozy, not cramped. Entrees start at $14.95.
Walter's La Locanda Del Coccio (265 Atwells Ave., 401-273-2652) is the most interesting of Providence's many fine Italian restaurants. Specialties include entrees prepared in terra-cotta cookware and light, brothy dishes that are nothing like the tomato-based, parmesan-draped staples you might expect. Moderate. Entrees start at $14.
Rue de l'espoir or "the Rue" (99 Hope St., 401-751-8890) is a neighborhood favorite of the artsy Fox Point/Brown/RISD set. Although it sounds French, the Rue is really eclectic American at heart, with a twist of Asian and Italian flavorings. Entrees start at $13.95.
India (123 Dorrance St., 401-278-2000) offers a unique approach to Indian cuisine. Fresh grilled swordfish, chicken and lamb shine through every sauce. Entrees start at $6.95.
What to See: Take a walk on Wickenden Street in Providence's Fox Point neighborhood. Side streets offer glimpses of the Narragansett Bay while art galleries and antique shops vie for your attention. Every third Thursday of the month, year-round, is Gallery Night when a free "Artrolley" runs you back and forth.
At the corner of Benefit and Power streets on College Hill, tour or just gaze at the imposing brick John Brown House (401-331-8575), which John Quincy Adams once called "the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent."
If you're a movie buff, spend an evening at the Cable Car Cinema at 204 S. Main St. (401-272-3970). Independent and foreign films are the specialties of this local haunt, where half the seats are couches and a gravel-voiced folk singer performs before shows.
The Providence Athenaeum at 251 Benefit St. (401-421-6970) is one of the nation's oldest subscription libraries. A block away on Benefit is Rhode Island School of Design, a fortress of high culture--because of its excellent RISD Museum of Art at 224 Benefit St. (401-454-6500)--and of street culture, because of the art students who spread out sketchpads on the steps of nearby brownstones.
One of the city's most frequently visited landmarks, the First Baptist Church in America (75 N. Main St., 401-454-3418) has the fresh-painted simplicity of a schoolhouse.
Brown University (45 Prospect St.), the nation's seventh-oldest college, has the prettiest campus in the Ivy League. Its oldest building, University Hall, housed George Washington's troops during the Revolutionary War.
As noted, a good time to walk the quays of Providence's new riverfront is during an evening when a Water Fire lighting is scheduled. All are held on Saturday nights, usually two or three times a month, from April to October. For a schedule, call 401-272-3111. To reserve a ride on one of the Venetian gondolas, call 401-421-8877.
Federal Hill, the city's Little Italy, is best approached through the stone arch gateway at the beginning of Atwells Avenue. (People argue about the concrete object hanging a bit ominously from the top of the arch. Some say it's a pineapple, meaning "welcome to the neighborhood." Others insist it's a pine cone, symbolizing the greatness of Italian culture.)
Information: Rhode Island Tourism Division, 401-222-2601 or 1-800-556-2484, http://Visitrhodeisland.com; or Providence/Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, 401-274-1636 or 1-800-233-1636, http://providencecvb.com.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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