There’s Something About Providence 5
Providence producer John Masius might just as well be speaking of the Renaissance when he describes his show’s take on the city, “One of the things that we did when we went back to shoot was to create postcards of the city. It’s pretty much always fall in Providence, and that’s by choice. … It was by design. It’s the idea of selling this place to the rest of the country.” In other words all the difficult parts – neighborhoods like Smith Hill, Olneyville or South Providence – aren’t going to be included. To be fair to both Masius and Cianci, Providence isn’t Hill St. Blues, and tourists aren’t going to come to see working class folks living working class lives. And those tourist dollars – should they materialize in significant numbers – will fill a lot of local pockets.
But there is also a lot more to the city than the colonial and collegiate East Side and the revamped riverfront. The Providence beyond Providence is a gritty place with a slightly sleazy heart. As Chip Young puts it, “Providence just remains some bizarre dream where you’ve got McDonalds almost attached to Trinity Square [Repertory Theater], then you’ve got the Satin Doll [strip club across from] Trinity Square.” Until recently on Route 95 the first billboard people saw on driving into the state from Massachusetts was for The Foxy Lady – the Providence strip club Mo Vaughn was coming home from when he had an accident that was later found definitively not to have been caused by alcohol.
Indeed, The Providence Journal’s offices serve as an odd demarcation zone between what the city fathers want you to see and what may be more representative, says Bob Kerr: “We’re sort of in the middle here in the Journal. One side you look out you see the new mall and the Westin Hotel and on the other side the old core downtown.” The view of the core downtown from Kerr’s office includes the Police Department headquarters and the Sportsmen Inn with neon silhouettes of naked women in the windows and a sign advertising that it rents rooms for very short periods of time.
“He’s pushing this artist district and it may be wonderful, says Kerr. “It may be all loft apartments and art galleries, eventually. But right now its still a pretty scary place come 5:30. It empties out and it’s not very pleasant, there have been some killings down there and it’s got a long way to go. There’s this little showcase down here that’s fairly tightly bordered and beyond that you’ve still got a lot of problems.”
And not even the city’s biggest cheerleader can find an attractive side to some of those problems.
The city’s median income is the next to lowest in the state ($22,147). It has 40 percent of all the families in the state with children under 18 who receive welfare, while having just 16 percent of the state’ s population. Its property tax rate is the state’s highest (and Rhode Islands’ tax rate is the fifth highest in the nation) and will likely continue to go up: Nearly 40 percent of the property comprising the city’s tax base is owned by tax-exempt organizations – universities, hospitals, etc. And, under the current homestead exemption, the property assessment on residential buildings with six units or less is reduced by 35 percent. All of which has meant there is little money for the schools, no matter what Cianci might say to the contrary.
“Our big challenge is education, which we’re addressing rather nicely,” Cianci says, pointing out that, “We have some of the technologically best equipped schools in America in Providence. We’re building smaller schools and we built some almost 300 classrooms in the last several years.” This picture is too rosy to actually bloom, unfortunately. While the mayor’s statements are true, the public schools are a mess and have been since he first took office. In a state which has consistently lagged behind the rest of New England when it comes to test scores, Providence scrapes the bottom of the barrel in nearly every academic category.
The schools themselves face more than your average challenges, points out Chip Young. “One third of the students in the public school system were not in this country three years ago, so you’re dealing with an incredible mix of people. That’s southeast Asians and Hispanics and all, coming in here who maybe don’t speak any [English] and they’re constantly getting rolled through on that kind of a new wave.”
Add to that an evaporating pension system, a shrinking population and labor force, and, this year, an annual budget already strained by unplanned expenses and you have a very shaky Renaissance.
Still for the man who, as he will be the first to tell you, on September 23rd at precisely 9:26 a.m., will be the longest serving mayor the city has ever had, this is all just one more reason to come to work in the morning. “Even though we have come a long, long way, I’m still challenged. [Without that] I wouldn’t stay here, I wouldn’t run for re-election – which I will probably do next time – because I’ve got to finish that waterfront. We’ve got a mile and a half … of land over there that’s got to be reclaimed that’s going to be a relatively easy project. We want to cover Route 95 and make use of that land there. We can take on something like this now. We’ve got experience. We’ve got money. We’ve got reputation, so we can do all this.”