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First the textile mills that once clothed America disappeared. Then the jewelry and silverware factories pulled out. Finally the plants that stamped out screws and machinery left. The twentieth largest U.S. city when the 20th century began, Providence lost nearly 100,000 of its quarter-million residents in the decades after World War II. Interstate 95 made the Rhode Island capital easier to reach - and easier to avoid. Even its rivers were smothered under concrete that sped motorists off to Boston and the Cape.


Revitalized downtown Providence, Rhode Island
Photograph by Geoff Griffin


In the 1990s, Providence staged a comeback as remarkable as those of larger cities like Baltimore and Cleveland. Providence did it not with a downtown ballpark but with the arts, remaking itself as a mecca for art and artists and the tourists who come to see them. "We've got more artists per capita than any city in America," boasted former Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci. "We made arts an empowered industry in our city."


Nicholas Swearer's sculpture, "Brother" in front of AS220
Photograph by Pamela Murray

The city ripped up the concrete, rerouted highways, and built Venice-like canals and parkland along a spectacular new waterfront to lure new business, restaurants and residents. It extended tax breaks to spur the conversion of vacant commercial buildings into dwellings, and convinced the legislature to create an Arts and Entertainment District where resident artists pay no income tax on earnings from their work.

"People say, `The Mayor just likes artists,'" said Cianci. "Well, I like them because more people come to cities to visit museums and attend art exhibits than go to baseball and football games. When they come, they go to a restaurant and pay 7 percent sales tax." AS220 almost single-handedly transformed Empire Street, just around the corner from the Providence Public Library and the renowned Trinity Repertory Company. A decade ago those institutions were marooned in a blighted neighborhood known for seedy bars, peep shows and prostitution.

Patricia A. McLaughlin, a former city administrator who spearheaded the creation of the Arts and Entertainment District, said AS220 played a big role in the downtown revival. "They were the first artist live-work space in the district. They really embodied the grassroots spirit of the district. They didn't just hire contractors. When they renovated the building, everybody from the artistic director and the board chairman on down was there knocking down walls."

"In the days of ancient Rome and Florence, artists had patrons. Today, this city is kind of a patron to these artists," Cianci said "They've made our city proud. They've been tremendous for economic revival. I've been blessed by a great artistic community, and AS220 was very much a part of that."