Providence | Providence, Rhode Island

Posted by on June 27, 2003

One of the best by-products of my recent college reunion weekend was seeing the renaissance in Providence. Rhode Island has been a favorite state in my book ever since my happy days in college. Most people drive through this old factory filled city on their way to Cape Cod. They never take the time to go up on the Hill and look at the remarkable 18th century buildings of Brown University, and the elegant old homes along Benefit Street.

Now, downtown Providence has had a huge facelift, and is a destination in itself. So forget the Cape, and stay in Providence. Book in at the Courtyard by Marriott, (401-272-1191) which is in a great location. From the rooms facing on Water place Park (ask for one) you can watch the wonderful Summer-Sundays-Only extravaganza called “Water Fire”. (This indefinable wonderment is part theater, and part circus, but was thrilling to watch.) Or you can stay at an 18th century home, like the Old Court B.&B. up near Brown University. (144 Benefit Street, 401-751-2002)or at the elegant new Westin Hotel, also down town, (401-598-80000 and walk to Water Fire from there. I must urge you, however, NOT to leave Providence until you can experience the triple pleasures (sight, sound, and smell) of Water Fire.

You will find many distractions to keep you busy for at least a long weekend, if you haven’t been to Providence lately. Shopping at Nordstrom’s in the new Providence Place Mall would be one diversion. Strolling the gorgeous campus of the University would be another (about which I am decidedly prejudiced;) spending a few hours at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, one of American’s small gems, would be another.

Providence has more early colonial and federal buildings than anywhere else in the country, all located on College Hill, within a few blocks of each other. This treasure trove on the East Side of the city is worth an in depth look for anyone interested in colonial architecture. One of the best ways to do this would be to catch up with the Providence Festival of Historic Houses, a yearly house tour. The next one will take place on Saturday June 7,2003. Information can be gotten from the very well organized and active Providence Preservation Society, located at 21 Meeting Street, Providence, 02903, tel.401-831-7440, or

Eating should take up a lot of your time, since Providence is now a Mecca for foodies. Federal Hill was just the Italian section when I was a student, now it is lionized for the plethora of up market restaurants touting Tuscan and other Italian cuisines. There are also a number of restaurants downtown near the rivers, like the Cheesecake Factory, my chain restaurant favorite, which is in Providence Place Mall.

In the Asian/American idiom, there is the XO Café, a trendy, popular place, on North Main. South Main Street has the beloved L’Elizabeth’s, a romantic setting for sherry, port and coffee. In the aforementioned Federal Hill, there is the Blue Grotto restaurant, among many others.

Water Fire was called an “Urban Nocturne by Firelight” in a New York Times article, which I didn’t understand until I saw it. It is rather difficult to describe, but it does bear some resemblance to the “son et lumiere” performances that you may have experienced in European places.

When I was in school in Providence, the Providence River in the downtown area was visible only marginally. The rest was virtually paved over, if you can imagine such a thing, along with two other rivers, whose long Indian names I forget. In fact, I could not have imagined it, unless I saw it myself, which I did in the 50’s. No one in those days ever knew that there was water flowing underneath those streets. I just remember learning from a painting that I bought of “Old Providence” that there was once a pond in downtown Providence.

Now, there is Water Fire, the artistic installation which is ritualistically recreated every Sunday evening in the summer, which brought out something from deep inside my unconscious, by the use of the great symbols of Earth, Fire, Water and Air. It’s re-creation turns Providence into a passegiata in Technicolor. I almost hate to praise this event too much, lest your expectations rise beyond realization. I’ll just say that this event is unique in my experience.

Let me quote from their publication: “Water Fire is full of motion – throughout the night the fire tenders stoke the fires, the boats glide past the flames, the rivers flow quietly beneath the braziers, the sparks whirl through the night air, and the flickering flames reflect off the dark surface of the water, animating the architectural fabric of the city.”

“As Water Fire begins, the empty void is invoked through the striking of a gong, which heralds the setting of the sun, the lighting of the fires and the beginning of the evening. Music from all over the world and the gentle percussion ofthe crackling fires add a rich aural accompaniment to the more familiar sounds of urban life. An unexpected operatic aria blends with the wind, or a lingering minor chord from a nocturne intermingles with the sound of rippling water. The juxtapositions heighten our awareness and our experience of our surroundings.”

If I hadn’t seen it, I would have thought these words were melodramatic, to say the least. They are not.

The renaissance of Providence is a reiteration of the pioneer spirit that founded America. This would be an ideal trip for foreign visitors. We can be very proud of a city like this, which is a Phoenix raised from the ashes, and deserves our continued support.

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