Kennedy Plaza shows fresh signs of life

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 2, 2008

For a long time, Kennedy Plaza in Providence was in the news for all the wrong reasons: Drug busts. Robberies. UIP (Urinating In Public) citations. In recent years, however, with new programming (R&B, roller derby, and more) stringent loitering ordinances, and a new police substation, an effort has been afoot to return the area to its more pleasant roots

In February, the city pushed its efforts further, inviting Project for Public Spaces, an urban design nonprofit, to run a “Placemaking Workshop,” a brainstorm to revitalize the area. The meeting resulted in the June launch of the Greater Kennedy Plaza Working Group, a campaign “focused on transforming Kennedy Plaza into a lively public square, rich with activity.”

“We really find it important to make what is the heart of the city a more welcome place,” says Deb Dormody, program manager for Greater Kennedy Plaza (, a public-private partnership.

The goal of the initiative, she explains, is to take the Greater Kennedy Plaza area — consisting of Burnside Park, the Bank of America Skating Center, Biltmore Park, and Kennedy Plaza — and, “generally, making it more exciting — make people less scared to go in there.”

Since June, Greater Kennedy Plaza has made an effort to have something going on nearly every day of the week. In addition to an IndieArts Fest and a championship roller derby bout, there have been Public Square Tuesdays (where local nonprofits showcase their work), Market Bazaar Thursdays (where local vendors peddle food, crafts, and antiques), Farmers’ Market Fridays, and Rhythm and Soul Sundays (with performances from Providence’s Black Repertory Company and local DJs). Farmers’ Market Fridays will run until the end of October.

Additionally, Kennedy Plaza has received a mini-makeover. New flowers have been planted near the central fountain, five eco-friendly “Big Belly” trash receptacles have been installed (they use solar power to compact garbage, requiring fewer collection trips), and brand-new tables and chairs have been brought in to infuse Burnside Park with a hip, Manhattan-y vibe. (In June, Mayor David Cicilline remarked, “I envision a public space as vibrant as New York’s Washington Square Park, with the unique character of Providence.”)

On a recent Friday afternoon at a rain-drenched Farmers’ Market, the optimistic spirit — if not a swarming crowd — was on full display.

Under a tent facing the RIPTA bus depot, Juan Carlos Beteta, from Hill Orchard in Johnston, stood proudly behind wooden crates of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. “A lot of people are forgetting where their food is coming from,” he says, pointing out freshly picked peaches, pears, apples, and tomatoes. “It’s great to see people excited about local food.”

Further down, past a vendor selling authentic Pakistani food, Sheri Griffin, the markets’ coordinator for Farm Fresh Rhode Island, expressed excitement about Providence’s revitalized city center.

“From being downtown for three or four hours a week, the difference between this summer and last is big,” says Griffin, decked out in galoshes, a rain coat, and a PawSox hat. “Just in terms of actual events happening during the day — music, dance, theater performances — there are just things going on.”

Hey, it’s not quite sailboats — which floated peacefully on the bygone Great Salt Cove in the 19th century — but it’s a start.

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