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Worcester v. Providence: Is Downtown Revitalization the Sum of Urban Revitalization?

May 07, 2013

By Stephen Eide

Worcester, MA and Providence, RI invite comparison for at least four reasons. They’re the same size (pop. ~180,000), they share the same history of deindustrialization and urban decline, they’re only 40 miles apart, and they’re different, which makes comparison stimulating and worthwhile. By most any fiscal or economic measure, Worcester outperforms Providence. But because of the so-called Renaissance, the revitalization of downtown Providence throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence has attracted far more attention among urbanists and the national media than Worcester. There has never been a Worcester Renaissance.

So which city is the true urban success story? That depends on the extent to which one believes that downtown revitalization is the same as urban revitalization.


Providence is a destination city able to boast of its tourism, arts, culture and "18-hour day." Rare for an old, cold, mid-sized former milltown, the New York Times travel section has done two features on Providence in the last five years. Providence played a starring role in an eponymous television show (NBC, 1999-2002) somewhat similar to the role that the revitalized New York City played in Sex and the City. This all would have been unimaginable in the 70s, at the peak of the deindustrialization era, but, throughout the 1980s and 90s, Providence underwent a renaissance. The most notable elements of the Providence Renaissance include uncovering and moving two rivers, relocating a railyard, the construction and rehabilitation of several major retail and commercial facilities, historic preservation, and WaterFire, a public festival that attracts thousands to the city on summer evenings. (For the full account of Providence’s revitalization, including a series of terrific "before and after" pictures, see Francis Leazes and Mark Motte’s 2004 book Providence, the Renaissance City.) No one could claim that the success has been total; both the local economy and city budget remain under strain. But there are many other former milltowns which would do anything (indeed, have done everything) to imitate Providence’s success.

Like Worcester. Worcester’s efforts at downtown revitalization have been unrelenting, and not totally unsuccessful, which has enabled local boosters to believe, at any given moment during the last 30 years, that the Worcester Renaissance was at hand. The most notable project now underway is "City Square," which involves the demolition of a dead mall in the center of downtown. This is an event of tremendous symbolic significance, as many locals attribute downtown Worcester’s decline to the construction of the mall in 1971. In place of the mall will emerge a new medical center, seven-story office building, and other projects still in the planning stages. City government is thrilled. But, if anything, City Square demonstrates the limits of the Worcester development model, which relies almost exclusively on local investment. The project began under the direction of a Boston developer, but stalled after the developer encountered financing difficulties in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To the rescue came a local insurance company and its public-spirited CEO. Predictably, local officials hailed the benefits of local ownership, but they all missed the point. Worcester is simply not wealthy enough to rely on local capital to bring back downtown. Had a Boston developer scored on a project in Worcester, it would have set a powerful precedent for others to follow. At this point, even if City Square succeeds, many outside developers will likely view the local CEO’s "white knight" intervention as at least partly philanthropic.

By contrast, throughout its renaissance years, Providence had access to a key source of outside investment: state and federal grants. This access was in turn due to the city’s enviable position as a "city state."

The City State

Providence enjoys a statewide profile unlike that of any other American city. In addition to being the capital, it’s the only large (100,000+) city in the nation’s smallest state. Only three other cities in Rhode Island have over 50,000 residents. 17% of Rhode Island’s population lies within Providence’s borders. (Worcester composes less than 3% of Massachusetts’ population.) The Rhode Island statehouse overlooks downtown Providence. Throughout Rhode Island’s modern history, the vast majority of statewide officeholders were either from Providence, went to school there, and/or got their first break in Providence city government. Providence’s comeback would never have occurred were it not for the massive state and federal aid that backed the projects that formed the core of the Renaissance.

Worcester has always lacked statewide clout. Most of the Massachusetts public, even the most politically-engaged among them, cannot name one Worcester politician. True, that could be said of all Massachusetts cities, which dwell in the shadow of Boston, the state’s capital and commercial center. (Everyone in Massachusetts knows who Tom Menino is.) But even when measured against its peers, Worcester underperforms in state politics. Despite being the state’s second-largest city, the only statewide officeholders Worcester has produced since 1900 have been two lieutenant governors. No governors, no Senators, not even a state treasurer or auditor.

When the Joint Center for Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard issued a report on Worcester’s politics in 1960, it described Worcester as a large city with a small-town feel. Still true. Worcester is well-managed. The local government is competent and honest. There have been no noteworthy political scandals in recent times. But there’s no denying that the city has long suffered from a deficit of political talent, and that this has hindered revitalization.

Benchmarking Worcester and Providence

On the other hand, because it’s in Massachusetts, not Rhode Island, Worcester possesses and enormous economic advantage over Providence. Massachusetts’ economic record of late has been respectable. Rhode Island is the only New England state whose economy has not adapted to post-industrial times. It resembles Michigan or upstate New York more than Connecticut or Massachusetts.

Within Massachusetts itself, Worcester is no pace-setter, but a "Gateway Municipality," a legal term designating a remedial class of cities that lag behind the rest of the state in measures of income and education. (Gateway municipalities are eligible for special economic development assistance.) But when Worcester’s economic advantages are combined with its superior record of fiscal management, it becomes very unclear why Providence, and not Worcester, should be considered the comeback city.

Urban Revitalization and Downtown Revitalization

To what extent is urban revitalization downtown revitalization? Downtowns play an outsized role in shaping cities’ reputations to outsiders and natives alike. Regardless of how much of a city’s downtown is taxable private property, downtowns are best-understood as parks, public property. Downtown serves as the geographic equivalent of 4th of July and Memorial Day rituals. You can’t compel people to participate in these rituals and find them meaningful, but their complete absence would signal the complete absence of national pride. Similarly, cities whose downtowns languish usually lack civic pride.

Urbanists grasp the basic civic importance of a commonly-accepted physical center, but they sometimes oversell the economic benefits of downtown revitalization. There can be backlash. Downtown revitalization sometimes fuels downtown vs. neighborhood tension. Was it all for the tourists, or to satisfy some mayor’s "edifice complex"? Did residents benefit at all? Small businesses such as restaurants, boutiques and art galleries are crucial for downtown revitalization. But businesses that small (50 or fewer employees) with no ambition to grow will do little to strengthen the broader metro economy. The holy grail of urban economic development policy is an abundance of good jobs for workers of all levels of skill and education. Heavy manufacturing used to provide such jobs; boutiques and coffee shops do not. Nor, for that matter, do hotels and convention centers.

Maybe downtown revitalization has nothing to do with economic development. The standard justification for the use of taxpayer money to support private development in downtown is that these funds stimulate private investment. Officially, government is making a bet on taxpayers’ behalf, whose success may be judged through tangible fiscal and economic benefits such as a net increase in tax revenues, lower taxes for homeowners, and more jobs for area residents. But perhaps taxpayers are willing to spend this money because they are ashamed of the decrepit state of downtown, and they want it to come back. If downtown is a de facto public park, public expenditures on downtown revitalization may be justified simply for the sake of itself, even we are talking about tax breaks for Starbucks and luxury condo developers. It’s still a bet--all development is a bet--it’s just that the definition of success is different. Free-market advocates denounce all forms of public subsidy for economic development, but the public should be allowed to speak for itself. To many citizens, sprucing up downtown is at least as justifiable as improving parks that they haven’t heard of and never visit.

But this argument that public money should be spent on downtown revitalization to boost civic pride would be easier to swallow were it not for the sneakiness of public subsidies for redevelopment. Most subsidies are tax expenditures, which are inherently less transparent than direct appropriations, even though the budgetary impact is the same. Communities want curb appeal, but seem unwilling to pay for it, or, more precisely, accept the fact that they are paying for it.


What do the people want? What’s possible? Everyone wants jobs, growth and good schools, but also a pleasant downtown. The second goal seems to be more realistic than the first set of goals. How many former industrial cities’ unemployment rates or SAT scores exceed statewide averages? Worcester may outperform Providence, but that’s not setting a very high standard. Perhaps the possible, not the ideal should define standards for urban success. If so, then the conventional wisdom is accurate, and Providence does deserve to be more closely studied and more highly regarded than Worcester.

Original Source:



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