Class warfare in Olneyville

By IAN DONNIS  |  May 24, 2006

Asked about this debate, Deller, Providence’s Planning & Development director, blames the federal government for retreating from supporting affordable housing for the poor, and he says for-profit developers, even with tax benefits, can’t reasonably be expected to take up the slack.

What happens now?

WEST SIDE STORY: Critics perceive Rising Sun as a harbinger of gentrification, but its developers say it represents investment and has expanded the amount of mid-range housing.

It’s these kinds of larger forces that explain why Providence, despite repeated wakeup calls, has remained unable to reconcile economic development with the preservation of the city’s traditional affordability and accessible mill space — key elements underlying the vitality of the local underground creative scene.

Lynne McCormack, director of Providence’s Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism, says the threat to the Olneyville arts community poses a crisis for the city, and she says Providence has to do a better job in documenting the value of the local underground. (Although it tends to fly below the radar of most Rhode Islanders, elements of this scene have won accolades from the Whitney Biennial, the New York Times, and far-flung admirers.) Initial efforts on the latter front are being made, she says, by working with a research bureau at Rhode Island College.

At this point, it’s also hard to predict whether the dialogue sought by development critics will be sustained — and if so, to what consequence. For his part, the Olneyville Neighborhood Association’s Ospina holds out the possibility of hunger strikes and civil disobedience if community concerns go unaddressed. “Are we at that point yet?” he says. “I don’t know.”

Whether the city can avoid the worst effects of gentrification “really depends on the policymakers in Rhode Island,” says Rhode Island Housing’s Godfrey. “I think the mayor and the governor, the City Council, and the General Assembly need to come to grips with this and say, ‘We want Rhode Island to be for all the Rhode Islanders who live and work here.’ ”

On one hand, it’s encouraging that the local establishment backs the HousingWorksRI coalition, which is rallying support for a $75 million bond to build affordable housing. But such efforts — if they are successful — remain a relative drop in the bucket as foreign investment capital continues to flood the local market. As Godfrey notes, “Providence might be risky, but it’s better than Tehran or Beijing.”

Going back a few years, a vacant lot in Olneyville or South Providence could be acquired for next to nothing, and nonprofit community development corporations took the lead in developing housing in Providence’s neighborhoods. Now, though, that same vacant lot is likely to cost $100,000, and private development is rampant.

Little surprise, then, that the momentum seems as clear to critics as how the building at 244 Oak Street/71 Troy St. — where the discovery of code violations led to the abrupt eviction of about 60 artists and musicians in January 2004 — is now being targeted for development as “Olneyville Urban Lofts.”

The overall trend is disheartening to people like Jeffrey Alexander, 37, an enthusiastic participant in the local music scene, who notes that most of his peers in the creative underground are driven not by money, but “the love of the community and culture.”

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