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Dan Lawlor: Providence’s Most Forgotten About Neighborhood

Saturday, November 10, 2012


"Valley is an interesting neighborhood hidden among larger, more well known sections of town. I think being surrounded by the suburban-esque family neighborhoods like Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant, a bustling commercial district like Federal Hill, the counterculture hype of the West End and the struggling areas that grab attention like Olneyville and Manton Ave. each lend to Valley's lost child vibe." - Anna Myers, Artist

My family has been in Providence for about 100 years. My late, great paternal grandparents grew up in Smith Hill and Valley, my wonderful maternal grandparents in Olneyville and Fox Point. From even before my family arrived, Providence has been a city of working class neighborhoods.

The Valley factory buildings, and the union jobs in them, have long been closed. Some factory buildings have been rehabbed into office space. Today, one of the former cornerstones of Chalkstone Ave, the Castle Theater, sits idle, empty. Similarly, down the block, several storefronts, including the old Costantino for Mayor Headquarters, are vacant. Positively, several new restaurants, including the delicious Los Andes, have opened alongside such mainstays as Tommy's Pizza. For Myers, "The best parts of the neighborhood are the small businesses alive because of the strong and vibrant Mexican community living in the surrounding homes... (Try Dos Gallos or Chilangos if you haven't!)”

Jean Pettengill, a Smith Hill resident in the late 1980s, remembers a rough neighborhood with some good places to eat, including, "of course, Little Chopsticks." She said, "We moved there because of the proximity to the CHEAP studio space in The Foundry and the artist community...there was a thriving artists group there at the time; Barnaby Evans, Neil Drobnis, Liz Norkus, Gail Ahlers, Brenda Wrigley, lots of jewelers, glass blowers, painters. In fact, there's still a group that has a holiday sale."

Pettengill recalls, "It was somewhat dangerous as memory serves... Where we lived there had been a gas station that was held up, and other businesses robbed. We had a big dog that walked with me wherever I went, so I never had a problem, but having just moved from Philadelphia, it felt a little safer."

Myers writes, "Now I live on the East Side and while I enjoy walking around my Fox Point neighborhood, I miss the feeling of being around lots of families. In Valley, there were always kids running around their driveways or walking to the bus stop. It is definitely a place where people seemed settled unlike the ever changing Fox Point population."

My father mentions, “There have been a lot more shootings in the streets in the last few months. You hear about people being shot. A few shots were fired around the corner. The other day some people tried to rob the gas station- though they weren't very good at it, and were caught as soon as they left the store. Somebody overheard them planning and called the police.”

An anonymous resident describes the area as whole: “dirty, under kept, noisy and full of disrespectful folk.”

In Valley, in particular, residents are surrounded by a few foreclosures, vacant buildings, and uncut grass patches in the sidewalks. In some areas, entire roads, streets, houses and people have been underserved. The Park on Regent Ave, for instance, looks like it could use a new playground.

The occasional gun shots on side streets or at local gas stations threaten the peace and possibility. Bullets hit the River Ave. Shell Station over the summer. Two men were killed in the area toward the end of October - 36 year old Sandi Fahnbulleh and 40 year old Joel Wills .

Mayor Taveras has said, “We will not accept violence in Providence, and taking guns off our streets has to be a community effort. We need everyone to be fully engaged in the effort to bring peace to our neighborhoods.”

A partnership between the Mayor and the Police Department, “The Illegal Gun Tip Line - 1-855-776-7100 - offers anonymity and cash rewards up to $1,000 to people who provide information that leads to the acquisition of an illegal, functional firearm.”

James McBride, a local musician and Chalkstone resident, mentions, "I say it's home and a place with lots of potential if folks would all take pride in the neighborhood as many do. I love the convenience of having everything I need a few paces away. We've got stores galore including fast food and fine dining all a few blocks from each other." McBride, aka Mr. Deep Positivity, has organized a series of positive rap concerts (“ Nonviolent Verses”) for elementary school students with middle school students, and with his program has performed in Washington, DC for a National Earth Day competition.

Mcbride reflects, "It would help if we started having annual neighborhood celebrations and got to meet our neighbors. We could spend part of that time building relationships and also voicing any concerns we have."

Some residents have organized at their local churches for neighborhood groups. In the past, some have formed groups to support area parks. Others have discussed a community newspaper. A relator and elected officials are trying to find someone interested in the Castle Cinema property. People are looking for ways to problem solve.

Toward the end of her life, a person was shot in the head behind my late grandmother's apartment. While the family was scared, she was not about to move. Providence was her home. She rode the bus everywhere (she never owned a car), she was a loyal patron of downtown stores throughout downtown's ups and downs (she particularly enjoyed the Arcade and the Buck a Book, the later destroyed for an upscale condo tower that was never built). Grandma would go to her local hairdresser, eat in local diners, and support her neighbors. She was as Providence as they come.

This is Providence. We can't shrug off challenges as people live in fear and resignation. We can't let some neighborhoods be forgotten. Like many of us are already doing, let's rebuild, connect and go forward.


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