45 miles S of Boston; 55 miles NE of New London
Providence delights in its sobriquet, "Renaissance City." No question, the city is moving on up, counter to the trend of so many small and midsize New England cities. Prosperity is evident in the resurgent downcity business center and the emerging adjacent neighborhoods dubbed the Arts & Entertainment and Jewelry districts. More recently on the rise is the West Side, a former industrial enclave adjoining Federal Hill, the city's "Little Italy." All are attracting creative young people and the eating places, shops, bars, and various entertainments they crave.
Rivers have been uncovered to form canals and waterside walkways; distressed buildings of the last century have been reclaimed; and continued construction has added a new hotel behind Union Station as well as Providence Place, a monster mall that brought national department stores here for the first time. The Arts district has its own boutique hotel, too.
Much of the credit for Providence's boom, grudging or exuberant, went to the ebullient six-term mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, Jr. But he was sent to prison, caught in an FBI probe into the bribery of local officials. A 97-page federal indictment charged Cianci and others with racketeering, extortion, witness tampering, and mail fraud. Called Operation Plunder Dome, the investigation revived Providence's reputation for tolerance of corruption at high levels. Buddy tried to laugh it off, right up until the verdict. Now out of jail, Buddy's back, without his famed toupee but with his own radio talk show and a spaghetti sauce available for purchase.
Still, continued local pride in the city's revitalization is palpable. A burgeoning dining scene includes ambitious new restaurants that are nearly always less expensive than their counterparts in Boston and New York. College Hill is a National Historic District, the calendar is full of special events, and the presence of the young people attending the city's 12 colleges and universities guarantees a lively nightlife.
Roger Williams knew what he was doing. Admired for his fervent advocacy of religious and political freedom in the early Colonial period, he obviously had good instincts for town building as well. He planted the seeds of his settlement on a steep rise overlooking a swift-flowing river at the point where it widened into a large protected harbor. That part of the city, called the East Side and dominated by the ridge now known as College Hill, remains the most attractive district of a New England city, second only to Boston in the breadth of its cultural life and rich architectural heritage.
College Hill is so named because it is the site of Rhode Island College, which started life in 1764 and was later renamed Brown University. The Hill is further enhanced by the presence of the highly regarded Rhode Island School of Design, whose buildings are wrapped around the perimeter of the Brown campus. In and around these institutions are several square miles of 18th- and 19th-century houses, Colonial to Victorian, lining often gas-lit streets. At the back of the Brown campus is the funky shopping district along Thayer Street, while at the foot of the Hill is the largely commercial Main Street.
While most points of general interest are found on the East Side, the far larger collection of neighborhoods west of the river has its own attractions. The level downtown area is the center for business, government, and entertainment, with City Hall, a new convention center, the best large hotels, some small parks and historic buildings, and several venues for music, dance, and theatrical productions. To its north, across the Woonasquatucket River, is the imposing State House, as well as the Amtrak station. And to its west, on the other side of Interstate 95, is Federal Hill, a residential area bearing a strong ethnic identity, primarily Italian, but increasingly leavened by numbers of more recent immigrant groups.