In Your Neighborhood

An impromptu tour of the West End, the cultural mecca of Providence

How a city neighborhood is redefining itself in a time of disappearing boundaries

Photograph by Josephine Sittenfeld

Angela B. Ankoma, a long-time resident of the West End in Providence, with her family.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/19/18
On an impromptu tour of the West End of Providence, Convergence RI learned about how the city neighborhood is redefining itself and learning to celebrate the fact that it is the cultural mecca of diversity in Providence.
Is there a way for the city, with corporate sponsors, could underwrite a series of cultural celebrations of diversity along Cranston Street, including banners, flags, murals and perhaps parades? How will Urban Greens, the first full-service grocery store in the West End, serve to reinforce a sense of cultural diversity? Will CommerceRI consider organizing a tour of the West End, the Southside, and Olneyville neighborhoods led by community development corporations for companies such as Infosys?
In a week during which Rhode Island joined in numerous celebrations of the numerous contributions by its Irish and Italian immigrant communities, it should drive home the fact that one of Rhode Island’s most important economic and cultural assets is its diversity. There are those politicians, following the lead of President Donald Trump, who have sought to instill fear about immigrants as the challenge to the American way of life, however mistaken and divisive that concept is. In a time of political divisiveness, it is important to reaffirm the commitment to inclusiveness as a watchword of the democratic society we live in.

PROVIDENCE – The latest national magazine to sing the praises of Providence was Vogue, in its March 15 edition, in an article entitled, “Why Providence Should Be Your Next Weekend Getaway” when looking for great food, music and art.

The story by writer Julia Sherman began with an evocative opening sentence: “For now, I bounce from coast to coast, but I plan to die in Providence.”

Sherman continued: “I was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design more than a decade ago, and the magic of that jewel-box of a city still pulls on my heartstrings. It’s the Victorian homes, industrial buildings, the charmingly gruff New England personalities, and concentration of Italian-American markets that have kept me coming back.”

In Sherman’s view, “The town is divided by the Providence River, separating the posh, College Hill area to its east, and the grittier, fast-developing downtown, Olneyville, Federal Hill, and Atwells to the west. Most tourists will cling to the picturesque, colonial Benefit Street, with its gas lamps and pristine mansions, but that’s only a tiny sliver of what the city has to offer. This place has chutzpah. It’s the blue-collar dive bar and the Ivy League, it’s Mayflower meets crust punk.”

Left out of Sherman’s travelogue was the West End of Providence, where tourists can encounter what many residents call the cultural mecca of diversity in Providence, with Cranston Street serving as a kind of international boulevard.

Angela B. Ankoma, executive vice president and director of Community Investment at United Way of Rhode Island and a long-time resident of the West End community of Providence, hopes that one day the West End and Cranston Street will become “a destination and not a thoroughfare.”

Ankoma, who grew up in the West End, a child of African immigrants, and who is now raising her family there, thought it was a great idea that travelers should come to Providence and see the city as a destination place those who hunger for a terrific cultural experience.

“I agree,” Ankoma said emphatically, during a recent impromptu tour of the West End neighborhood with ConvergenceRI. “They should.”

The West End of Providence, Ankoma continued, can be seen as the cultural mecca of Providence’s diverse communities. “I want the West End to be one of those places that you have to go there to experience what it is like to be among the various cultures of the world who call Providence home. I want it to be a destination, not a pass through.”

But, Ankoma added: “Let’s just make sure that people who live in Providence can stay in Providence. That’s my concern. I want to be able to stay here. I want to be able to grow old here. You should be able to [do so]. There should be thoughtful, intentional actions to ensure all of us can enjoy living here.”

What makes up an “engaged” community?
The idea of an impromptu tour grew out of a series of ongoing conversations that ConvergenceRI has had with Ankoma and others over the last year, attempting to answer what was the meaning of neighborhood and community in the digital world of the 21st century we live in.

How was a neighborhood identified and recognized? Was it by geographical or cultural boundaries? Was it where you lived? Where your family had lived? More importantly, how did residents see themselves as belonging as members of an engaged community, during a time when boundaries were becoming more fluid, where shopping was more often done online, and when social media was often the predominant source of connection?

Those questions have taken on a sense of urgency as Providence continues to attract new companies, new enterprises and the new talent to fill the job opportunities, and with it, the increased pressures of real estate development that puts stress on existing residents not to be displaced by higher rents caused by gentrification and, with it, the growing lack of affordable housing.

One response to define “engagement” has been the TogetherRI initiative by The Rhode Island Foundation, which launches this week, an attempt by the community foundation to address what Neil Steinberg, the president and CEO, called the increasing feeling of not being heard by Rhode Islanders.

A different kind of conversation will take place on Saturday, April 28, at the Neighborhood Housing Summit, to be held at the Southside Cultural Center on Broad Street, to talk with residents of the communities of South Providence and the West End to “prepare your community for the future through vision setting, housing education and dialogue.”

A third approach to redefining the West End community is the more tangible construction of Urban Greens, with its poured concrete and steel in the ground, the first full-service large grocery store in the neighborhood.

As Ankoma described the importance of Urban Greens, “It’s good to have a diversity of choices – a corner store if you want.” But, before the expansion of Urban Greens, “There were no large full-service markets in the neighborhood.”

Ankoma continued: ‘You can become an investor; you can be a member. You can go there to shop, maybe have a meeting, or have some coffee. I think it is time for us to have that option in the West End neighborhood.”

Another important approach to redefining community is the work being done by the West Elmwood Community Development Corporation and its Sankofa Initiative, which has built affordable housing and connected it with urban growing spaces, including a hoop greenhouse, and a new commercial kitchen, to complement its Sankofa summertime marketplace.

Defining boundaries in the West End
The impromptu tour of the West End began on Bucklin Street at the West End Community Center and the West End Recreation Center, adjacent to Bucklin Park, which Ankoma called “the Central Park of the West End, because it is the center of everything.”

On a cold Saturday morning in mid-March, there was a steady stream of children and parents entering and leaving the recreation center.

Originally, the park had once been a spring-fed pond, surrounded by farmland, and the location of the Bucklin Ice Company, according to Ankoma.

The name of Bucklin came from James Bucklin, a Providence architect who was the designer of The Arcade in downtown Providence.

At some point, the pond was filled in as the neighborhood changed and became the home of manufacturing and jewelry factories.

Today, the community center, which is separate from the recreation center, has lots of different social services, including a food pantry, a before and after school care program for kids, and a daycare program. The recreation center includes an outdoor pool; the park is home to a host of programs and leagues, including the West Elmwood Intruders football team, and adult baseball and softball leagues.

Given the heavy use of Bucklin Park, the Mayor’s Office has held community meetings about plans to invest in improvements, according to Ankoma.

“From what I understand, this summer there is going to be a substantial investment in an upgrading of [Bucklin Park] and amenities at the park, which will be good,” she said.

In 2016, 300 volunteers and MetLife built a new playground in a day, adjacent to the recreation center, according to Ankoma.

Also in 2016, a group called Friends of Bucklin Park organized residents to work with the city and plant trees and create a butterfly garden, to be more thoughtful about park stewardship, according to Ankoma.

Evolution of a changing neighborhood
The neighborhood of the West End is still largely defined by its former life as the home to numerous factories and manufacturers, which provided steady jobs, and with that, two- and three-family homes that served as affordable residences for workers, attracting each new wave of immigrants to the city for decades.

Today, many of the brick factory buildings are abandoned; others are being repurposed as commercial development; still others have been housing sites.

Ankoma pointed out the abandoned factory where her uncle used to work as well as the former factories that had been recently sold for commercial development to create an indoor shopping space. A third former factory building on Burwell Street is being repurposed as mixed used, including housing, a kind of speakeasy, and a food incubator, according to Ankoma.

“I heard that there is a new ice cream company, The Fountain, that plans to be located there,” ConvergenceRI said.

“An ice cream company? That’s cool,” Ankoma said, and laughed.

Celebrating diversity
Turning onto the congested Cranston Street, crowded with pedestrians and shoppers on a Saturday morning, entering and exiting a multitude of stores, Ankoma talked about the fact that the West End was one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods.

“We should celebrate that,” she said.

What’s the best way to celebrate that diversity? ConvergenceRI asked.

“By honoring each culture,” Ankoma responded. “I always think that here we are on Cranston Street, and maybe we should have flags representing all of the different cultures of the neighborhood on display.”

Ankoma continued: “That’s what makes this community great; that’s what makes America great,” and burst out in a peal of laughter, realizing that she invoked President Donald Trump’s trademark phrase, but with a different intent.

How would you designate Cranston Street? ConvergenceRI asked

Ankoma answered: “By [acknowledging] that Cranston Street is an international boulevard, and display flags and murals of all the cultures represented in the community.’

If we were to do cultural celebrations, she said, “We could do it on this street.”

Cranston Street, Ankoma continued, is a corridor – it is the corridor into Providence if you are coming from Cranston. “This is the gateway.”

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