I have written before about Olneyville, a neighborhood of approximately 6,000 people on the west side of Providence, Rhode Island. Providence, like many northern cities, suffered badly in the post-industrial decline of the 70s. Though its downtown has enjoyed an enviable renaissance in the 21st century, the revitalization that did so much to transform Providence swept unevenly through the city; some neighborhoods were left behind, and Olneyville is among those that benefitted the least. It is an immigrant community, predominately Latino. Renters far outnumber owners, and residential turnover is high. Median incomes are far below—and crime rates stubbornly above—the city averages. Most residents do not speak English at home. I have been studying and spending time in Olneyville for over a year as part of a book on neighborhood wellbeing.
Like other Providence neighborhoods, Olneyville was the site of a number of textile mills built in the 19th century near the Woonasquatucket River that winds through the city. Modest two-flats, built by mill owners to house their labor force, still line the neighborhood streets. Though the New England textile industry died early in the 20th century, some of the old mills still stand. By and large, they are magnificent structures, with their unmistakable red brick walls and distinctive towers. In August 2016, William Morgan, an architectural historian based in Providence, wrote a short piece for GoLocalProv.com about one such mill in Olneyville—the Atlantic Mills complex.
Though his subject was ostensibly the architectural history and significance of the mill, Morgan apparently could not resist taking a jab at Olneyville, which he gratuitously maligned as “pretty much a dump, especially when compared to the East Side.” (The East Side of Providence, home to spectacular mansions and Brown University, is the moneyed part of town.) Morgan ignored the people in the neighborhood, dismissed the homes where they live (“barely hanging on”), and scoffed at the businesses where they struggle to make a living (“less-than-uptown enterprises”). Though I single out Mr. Morgan, it is fair to say that his distinctly uncharitable view is held by many people who live in or near Providence but spend no time in Olneyville except to drive through it, thankful that their car does not break down along the way.
But Olneyville is not what Morgan imagines. In November 2017, the cover of the Providence Monthly grandly announced the arrival of “THE NEW-NEW OLNEYVILLE.” Amanda Grosvenor’s cover story gushed that Olneyville was growing in “new and exciting ways.” As proof, she profiled the expanding arts and restaurant scene, including a forthcoming restaurant that would bring “the vision of Panamanian skate and surf meets early-hip hop and punk rock to life.” Though Grosvenor dutifully noted, in her penultimate sentence, the need “to preserve the historic richness and not to displace the current residential community,” there is not a single word describing that community. The words, “Latino,” “Hispanic,” and “immigrant” never appear in the piece. Neither does “gentrification.”
I assume Mr. Morgan and Ms. Grosvenor write with the best of intentions and that they bear Olneyville no ill will. But quite without intending, their articles capture the three most important challenges facing Olneyville and the thousands of neighborhoods like it across the country.
The first is the distinctly American determination to gaze upon poverty without seeing the poor. Morgan fixes his sights on Olneyville but sees only “a dump.” Grosvenor looks upon the same place and sees the prospect of radical transformation, the emergence of something “new and exciting.” But both of them treat the place as though it were a free-standing creation, a life-sized model of a 21st century New England town, floating separate from and untouched by the men and women who live there. Humanity is literally invisible to Morgan, and to Grosvenor it exists only as part of the “current residential community,” a nondescript mass that ought not be “displaced.”
The second challenge is the perennial threat of stereotyping. Morgan’s vision of Olneyville as a blighted wasteland—how else should we describe an urban dump?—creates an image of vaguely malevolent disorder that deters investors and scares visitors, and thereby threatens to become the very thing he conjures. Conversely, Grosvenor’s description promises to unleash—or at least, to accelerate—a land rush, as the moneyed few detect the telltale signs of a gradually closing frontier, the hip new restaurants that fuse “Panamanian skate and surf” with “early-hip hop and punk rock.” Can Starbucks be far behind?
The final challenge emerges as the consequence of the prior two. Because we do not see the people, and because we promote a stereotypical image of the place, we raise the specter of unmanaged and disruptive growth. Despite Grosvenor’s caution, it is the sort of growth that all too often leads to displacement of the poor by what Richard Florida calls the creative class. And the great irony is that in Olneyville, as in other comparable places, it is gentrification of the cruelest sort.
Contrary to Morgan’s broadside, Olneyville has been changing for years, and changing for the better. One of the most important drivers of that change has been the community itself—the men and women who live and work in Olneyville but are invisible to people like Morgan. The residents of Olneyville collectively lifted the neighborhood out of its 20th century malaise, as I have described before, without destroying its character and affordability. Of course, Olneyville is a work in progress, but because of the work the community has done and the success it has had, it is far better equipped to take the next steps than it has been in decades. Abetted by important non-profit and religious organizations like the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, One Neighborhood Builders (a community development corporation), and St. Theresa’s Catholic Church (which has since closed), as well as municipal partners like the Providence Police Department, Olneyville is on the cusp of becoming a vibrant, safe, and healthy neighborhood that nonetheless remains affordable to its residents.
Sadly, that is what makes it a prime candidate for the gentrification that could destroy it by making it too expensive for the people and partners whose labor made it so attractive. The risk is great that soon, low-income residents of Olneyville will be repaid for their hard work with a hearty thank you and an impatient goodbye. Thanks for all you’ve done, now get out. Olneyville is not a dump and it’s a helluva lot more than the site of the next hip restaurant. It’s a home, and it deserves to stay that way.