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The Dance of Gentrification

That which is good ever does a dance with that which is evil. It's a wisdom that many intellectual traditions ancient and modern have dealt with. Gentrification is a phenomenon that falls within this realm.

I opened up the Providence Business News to read about improvements to Thayer Street yesterday, and found myself both elated and troubled by what I saw.

“We want to make sure that with this new development there is a balance in retail,” said Allison Spooner, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, which worked extensively on the plan. “That includes students, and making it safe for students, but also a mix. We are hoping that businesses targeting that [student] market don’t become the only thing on Thayer Street.” In this context, a more diverse Thayer Street means adding more boutiques and upscale shops with an older, wealthier clientele to the bars and eateries now so prominent. Marketing efforts will focus on potential new tenants in the “personal care, apparel, home furnishings and gifts and jewelry and accessory sectors,” the plan said in study findings.
“Thayer Street sucks right now – it has 50 percent restaurants and is not attracting the high-end retailers,” said Edward Bishop, a real estate agent, developer, and chairman of the Thayer Street District Management Authority. “It used to be a ‘town and gown’ neighborhood – now it is just gown, all students.”
The most visible near-term projects spelled out in the plan are a series of pocket parks, outdoor seating areas and bus stops in the corridor, some in what are now parking lanes, to make the area a more pleasant place to walk and spend time.
First among the changes will be a “parklet” in what are now two parking spaces outside the Brown University Bookstore. The parklet is slated to be installed this spring as part of “Pop-up Providence” and be paid for with $10,000 from the Providence Redevelopment Agency.
I was elated to see that fifteen parking spots will be lost on Thayer Street to improve pedestrian access, and that a parklet will appear at Brown Book Store. Back in the early summer when I first spoke to Brown Bookstore about Park(ing) Day, they were interested in the idea but acted as though they'd never heard of it. Now this will become a permanent thing.

My disgust lies in the fact that the parklet and pedestrian improvements have been traipsed around as a kind of gentrification tool. Although every possible economic model of transportation reform shows that giving greater access to pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users improves the lot of working people, the neighborhood association is already greedily envisioning some kind of exclusive area where even Ivy League students won't get in their way. Lord help the other kind of brown people that live in Providence. . .

What sort of interventions might be necessary in order to bring about this grand order? Just like many other absurd proposals, it will require public funding but will keep all the private gains to itself. I guess my ability to walk through the neighborhood and get a (relatively) affordable meal is too much of a challenge to the ambiance.

I opened up this piece with a Taoist theme for a reason. I want to emphasize that I recognize the inherent dance between improvement of an area and price, and I nod to its legitimacy. Obviously planting a tree, putting trash collection out, increasing transit frequency or span, or implementing any number of other vital improvements to our city each carry a price. That price reflects their impact on resources, labor, and so forth. Neighborhoods that are blighted and segregated, and impoverished came to be that way because of active and aggressive discrimination from government, business, and labor unions alike, and the solution to their redlined status is not to allow them to continue to decay. But there's something almost braying about the arrogance of a person who claims the problem with Thayer Street is that there isn't enough of a luxury market there. If luxuries were what the people of that area wanted, one imagines, they would have popped up by now (although, I should say, what exists at the moment is hardly low class fare).

The city continues to consider the outcome of the I-195 lands, and parking continues to be at the center. In an podcast with Eco Rhode Island's Tim Faulkner, Jan Brodie, who chairs the I-195 Commission, explained that the only housing currently possible on the I-195 land without some kind of subsidy is luxury housing. In the same interview she hand wrings over the need to provide parking garages to encourage business and housing growth. With garage spots going for $50,000 a spot, one must wonder why the chairwoman doesn't see that the easiest market path to providing affordable housing in the city is to not build the garage at all, especially if that requires public funds. There are better and more vibrant things we could put there. 

The 195 lands will require public funding first to undermine transit and affordable housing, and then even more public funding to clean up the mess. But let's be sure that once the parking garage is built, the part about providing for transit and impoverished people will be forgotten.

Adam Smith warned us that:

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.
Could have been the Buddha. . . (Not to overly mix our Eastern metaphors. . .)

We keep being told what these projects need, need, need in order to be successful. Never do we consider that if people need something they might be able to provide for themselves in the market. But when it comes to things that are actual public needs in Rhode Island, like pensions, education, transit, or affordable housing, it seems that what we can't destroy with our meddling we certainly won't fix with public resources.

If rich people wanna' drive, let 'em pay.



  1. I've long not understood the animosity the "town" side of the coin has on the East side for the student use and business focus of Thayer. It's like they want a second Wayland Square instead. I dislike going to Wayland because those high end shops aren't places I want to go.

    I find that while I don't go to Thayer often, when I do, the vibrancy of the place makes it more enjoyable, since there is usually someone moving around on the too narrow sidewalks, decent food is available, and a little bit of shopping can be done. ( I did some of my Christmas shopping at the Brown Book Store and the novelty/gift shop).

    Oh, and eliminating 15 parking spaces, what's that, a block, 2? The sidewalks on Thayer aren't wide enough for the amount of use they get, eliminating at least one side of parking and reallocating it as sidewalks on both sides is really what needs to be done. Of course that pushes the fact that we have a high demand business district with nothing but on-street parking nearby more of a concern for residents, since people will park in the more residential sections instead, which can cause some concerns.

  2. We should get rid of the resident permits and have parking be paid for as it's used, so that people can park where they need to when they drive. The parking payments would be reciprocal: you pay for my neighborhood when you're visiting me, and I pay for yours when I'm visiting you. That way if the residents have people parking in their spots, they're getting paid in return for the pleasure. They can use that to lower property taxes, or plant trees, or to send someone around to pick up trash.