Tuesday, November 07, 2006


It has been exactly ten years since I graduated from RISD and eight years since I moved away from New York City and the United States altogether. And to say that both places have changed since then is like saying that Filipinos "kinda" like pork. Back then, New York City still had porn on 42nd street, all restaurants still had smoking sections, CBGB's was still the center for rock and roll, and the World Trade Center Towers still stood. Meanwhile Providence (above), although charming, was an undeniably grey backwater rather unworthy of being on anyone's tourist map much less relevant enough to be used as a backdrop for such TV series as "Family Guy" and naturally, "Providence". Today, New York City is still an exciting albeit somewhat milder version of what it once was while Providence has taken an extreme turn towards gentrification. Now whether these cities have changed for the better or for the worse - I still have to decide. So allow me to reflect...
I was amazed to see that the capital of a state once nicknamed the "armpit of New England" has finally gotten it's act together. Up until when I graduated college in 1996, the city had the reputation of being the closest thing to a third world country that one could find within the New England corridor. Rife with pollution, crime, derelict structures, historic site demolitions (above), retarded urban planning and a local government plagued with scandal, all seemed completely hopeless for the city. Former Providence "mayor for life", Vincent Albert "Buddy" Cianci Jr. (below, left), held onto office for almost twenty years and was rumored to have mafia ties. After being indicted in 2001, he currently is serving time for racketeering, conspiracy, and witness tampering charges - among others. But despite the odds which included an apathetic civil sector, an abandoned city center, and a corrupt government system, in just a little over a decade, Providence has miraculously shed it's tarnished image and has emerged as a shining example that proper coordination between the government, the private sector, and the arts community can completely transform a society. And all this was brought about by the most unlikely of pioneers, the controversial "Buddy" Cianci himself.
Despite Buddy's colorful/questionable political career, many credit him as the man who initiated the reinvention of Providence. It was he that began the reversal of decades of misguided city planning and it was no mean feat. Aside from having the political will to implement zoning and historic structure protection laws, he initiated the uncovering (above) and restoration of two rivers (the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck) that had been paved over in the 1950s. From 1992 until 1996, over 1,150 feet of roadway, asphalt, and concrete was removed (below) from over the river and a tree lined promenade and park were constructed in order to connect both sides of Providence through a green central core. Today, it stands as an amazing feat of American engineering, creating one of the most charming urban riverscapes in the United States (below, center).
And thanks to his vision of supporting the arts in order to create commerce (the mayor even offered artists income and sales tax exemptions as long as they move their studios and galleries into the downtown area), Providence is now reaping the rewards. Increased real estate values, a construction boom (above), and a thriving tourism industry thanks to Providence's version of the Mardi Gras "Waterfire" (below) are only few of the amazing changes that I noticed during this last visit. The once derelict and endangered historic areas of Providence (below, middle) now has it's 19th century architecture protected by a pro-active preservation society while designer furniture and clothing boutiques now line streets where crime and pollution once reigned supreme (below, bottom). It seems that thanks to Buddy's initiatives, Providence has successfully transformed itself from being a lackluster collection of abandoned brick buildings into one of the United States' most progressive and forward thinking small cities, complete with protected heritage architecture zones and an openly gay mayor.
Now to ponder whether Manila could emulate Providence's pioneering efforts is a moot point. The last time we let art and culture become part of our social engineering efforts was underneath the leadership of former Metro Manila Governor Imelda Marcos and look where that got us (and unlike then, Providence still kept it's moral core intact by eventually JAILING Cianci DESPITE what he had done for the city). Nevertheless, the lessons to be learned from Providence are real and substantial. Arts, culture, and especially architecture are undeniably integral to the development of any society's soul. Providence is proof of that. Providence has also proven that it's possible to correct past mistakes and set a city back on the right track. And if a tiny town like them can do it, why can't we?

Next. New York City.