The ugly side of Providence’s 375th birthday

By PHILIP EIL  |  October 12, 2011

I do not envy the person assigned with reducing 375 years of Providence history to four words. But somewhere in the bowels of City Hall, as the capital's anniversary approached, somebody did. In case you haven't seen them on posters, flyers, and RIPTA busses chugging past, here they are: "HOPE. FREEDOM. ROOTS. INGENUITY."

Technically, the words aren't meant to cover all of the city's history, but to trumpet a "celebration to honor Roger Williams's legacy and ideals." Still, I get the feeling the city is telling us to celebrate the arrival of the city's founder, press Fast Forward for a few centuries, and then resume playback on a summer night with new-age music and wood smoke drifting over the Providence River. What about all of the stuff in between?

Williams was there in 1676 when Native Americans (with whom he had once been so amicable) torched the town during King Philip's War. How much "hope" could there have been when he watched the town he had founded smolder? Then there were the race riots of 1831 where, according to the official review committee, four people died and fourteen were wounded but would "probably recover." There was so much "freedom" that week — stones flying, windows breaking, blood flowing — that the governor sent a regimen of infantry into town to restore order. And what about the Hurricane of 1938? None of the "Providence 375" words seem to apply to the wall of water that raced up Narragansett Bay and crashed angrily through the streets of downtown. Maybe there wasn't enough space to include "Oh Shit."

I can understand why the marketers passed over the city's Middle Ages. Browsing the Rhode Island Collection at the Providence Public Library, you're bound to find some things that don't fit nicely on an invitation to the city's birthday party. Actually, you can't browse the collection anymore — too many people connected with their "roots" by permanently borrowing books — but you can still use the card catalog, which lists Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin headlines tracing back 50 years.

The file for the Woonasquatucket River includes: "Pollution Blamed in Death of Fish," "Body of Arthur Lewis, 63, of E. Prov. Found in River," "House Prices Drop After Dioxin Scare," "Woonasquatucket — A Story of Ugliness," "Sewage Spill Goes on in Millions of Gallons," and the follow-up to the sewage story, "A River Becomes a Sewer; It Could Have Been Worse." One headline, from August of 1981, reads: "On the Woonasquatucket, Even the Rats Are Dying."

I'm not saying I miss the days when the river ran thick with sewage and dead rats. But I don't want to erase them either. Providence has the greatest city name in the United States because of, not despite, all the gritty stuff that's happened here. Our name is bold, majestic, and forever humming between truth and irony.

To its credit, the city has posted essays online about the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and other topics to add some nuance to their 375 marquee display. But they only go so far. Thankfully, the city's "renaissance" has brought with it a series of unflinching, self-effacing books: 2007's Rescuing Providence, in which readers ride with Lieutenant Michael Morse on 911 calls for shootings, overdoses, and split personality flare-ups; 2008's Thriller Killers, the story of the execution-style murder of two downtown club goers, told by one of the detectives who investigated it; and 2006's Sons of Providence, a historian's brutally honest look at how the issue of slavery drove a wedge between two of the city's founding fathers, John and Moses Brown.

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  Topics: This Just In , History, Roger Williams, Providence,  More more >
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