Class warfare in Olneyville

The strains of a worsening statewide housing crisis erupt on providence’s west side
By IAN DONNIS  |  May 24, 2006

SIGNS OF DISCONTENT: Anti-gentrification guerrillas have spread their message on the walls of Rising Sun and on the streets of Providence.

The posters sprouted in mid-April, salvos in the rhetorical battle over the future of Providence’s West Side. Created in the idiosyncratic style of local screen-printers, the signs were spackled like tell-tale calling cards on the exterior of Rising Sun Mills on Valley Street — which some had tabbed as a harbinger of gentrification when plans for it were unveiled three years ago.

“Olneyville needs a library, not luxury lofts,” exclaimed one poster. Depicting stately Atlantic Mills, another used English and Spanish to demand that “speculative developers” get out of the area, and pronto. A third showed Baltimore-based developer Bill Struever astride a train of “Western manifest destiny” — symbolizing the mammoth $333 million American Locomotive project planned on 22.5 acres in the nearby Valley neighborhood — advancing toward a lucrative and hegemonic future.

Although the agit-prop was quickly taken down, Olneyville’s anti-gentrification guerrillas soon unleashed a far more potent weapon: two videotapes, posted on the Internet, in which Karen Shugrue, the leasing agent for Rising Sun, told a seeming prospective pair of renters that an “us and them” atmosphere prevailed between the “very insulated” residents at the refurbished mill and inhabitants of the supposedly dangerous surrounding “ghetto.” Although Shugrue, employed at the time by Providence-based Armory Revival Company, exaggerated Armory Revival’s purchases in the area, she also recited a straightforward roadmap for gentrification: “You know, we’ve bought out pretty much everything that we can buy — so in two years, five years, we’llpretty much have made this a really cool neighborhood to live in.”

Many of those horrified by these remarks nonetheless thought Shugrue did Providence a big favor by ripping away the lid of development-happy talk to reveal the true intentions of Struever Brothers and Armory Revival, the team responsible for Rising Sun. And although Bill Struever and Armory Revival condemned Shugrue’s words, calling them unrepresentative of their efforts, the 80-plus mostly anonymous comments posted in revealed a very high degree of tension and vitriol around the issue of West Side development.

Supporters of the duo that made the videotapes called them heroes, while critics, accusing them of a sneak attack, said they should be prosecuted. Self-described Rising Sun residents derided the Olneyville artists — one of the more polite comments is that the artists are conservatives, because they oppose change and embrace Providence’s low-rent past. Boosters responded, touting the neighborhood, a bastion of the city’s creative underground, as a scrappy working class enclave that functions more effectively than downtown Providence (and without vacant storefronts no less). And while gentrification is an old story, critics note the millions in tax subsidies being used and sought in contending that Struever Brothers and Armory Revival’s efforts to incorporate affordable housing are more fig leaf than substance.

Considering surging development on Providence’s West Side, this kind of conflict was probably inevitable. The question now becomes whether it sparks a real search for solutions or merely signals continued clashes.

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