Will the Superman Building project be Providence’s last renewal?
It is easy to forget how far Providence has come.
The possibility of a new life for superman building because the apartments, while controversial, are a reminder of that.
A reminder of how often we forget the extraordinary renewal of the city.
What a different place it was when I arrived in the mid-1970s.
Its urban center was perceived as the Rust Belt is today – a faded industrial backwater.
The neighborhoods of Providence had beauty and vibrancy, as did the state, but the “downtown” was struggling.
There was only one prominent hotel then, the Biltmore, but it was boarded up, with the symbolism hard to miss.
And there was little hope of revival on the outskirts of the central city because it was surrounded.
The magnificent Capitol dome to the north was cut by a raised Chinese wall of railroad tracks. To get there on foot, as I often did from the Journal building, you had to go under a long, dark overpass and then through a sea of neglected parking lots, with weeds coming in through the cracks.
The south side of the urban core was also walled off by Route 195, which ran through it.
And the eastern edge of downtown, at the foot of the charming East Side, was a dull expanse of concrete obscuring the Providence River below.
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By day, there was still some life downtown, and the Superman Building, then called the Industrial National Bank, was one of the centers.
I’ve been banking there, long before the ATMs, walking past the on-board Biltmore to deposit paychecks. Inside, its pillars and vaulted ceilings were reminiscent of a large train station.
The Industrial Bank also became an economic powerhouse, headed by a shrewd kid from Woonsocket named Terry Murray, who made it one of the biggest banks in the country under the new name of Fleet.
But it eventually merged with what would become Bank of America, which first retained its Rhode Island footprint in the art deco Superman Building – the tallest in the state. Nine years ago, however, it moved on, leaving the building empty.
Other downtown facilities had disappeared years earlier.
I remember shopping at the Outlet Company, a gigantic urban department store at the time when such places anchored in city centers. There used to be a similar store named Peerless nearby, but both quickly disappeared, similar to how the downtown Shepard department store had closed in the early 1970s.
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There was still a cool arts and music scene downtown. But it was not a promising time.
And then amazing things started to happen.
In a way, all those Chinese walls had been a gift, because on the other side there was something that few inner cities have: acres and acres of developable land.
And so it soon began.
I remember the big equipment coming in to demolish the elevated railroad tracks that separated downtown from the neglected world around the State House.
To the south, they tore up Highway 195 and redirected it farther to reclaim prime land there.
Then, on the eastern outskirts of downtown, they tore up the desert of asphalt roads to reveal the Providence River, and even redirect its course.
We often take the city as it is today for granted, but if you blinked in the mid-1970s and opened your eyes now, the change would be amazing.
Today, the State House overlooks both Providence Place and residential towers around a river basin that frames one of the city’s iconic views.
At the east end of downtown, it would have once been laughable to imagine crowds there at night, but now WaterFire is one of the city’s busiest regular events.
In the area once held hostage by Route 195, the new pedestrian bridge is a symbol of the development that animates this side of the city.
Of course, there are still plenty of challenges downtown. The Superman Building, after all, sat vacant for almost a decade. And the taxpayer cost of home conversion plan has a lot of opposition.
So it may or may not happen.
But whether that happens or something else happens over time, it’s a reminder that Providence has long since found a way to continue its hopeful renewal.