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Fri August 20, 2010
The legacy of I-95
By Scott MacKay
Providence, R.I. – When Route 95 and its highway arteries sliced through the heart of Providence in the 1950s and 60s, it separated the city's commercial center from its neighborhoods. But a lot of time and taxpayers did much to repair the damage done by Route 95.
At the end of World War II, Providence was a bustling city of nearly a quarter of a million people. Hundreds of trains coursed every day through Union Station, the downtown terminal that was one of the nation's busiest. Jobs were plentiful and the old New England port was an important trade entrepot. Shoppers thronged Westminster and Washington streets to see the latest fashions at Sheperd's, Gladdings, and the Outlet. The elegant shabbiness of the historic Biltmore Hotel, a Jazz age wonder, teemed with shows for the region's textile and jewelry wares.
Even Willy Loman, the tragic lead character of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, boasts in the play that he met the mayor of Providence.
By the mid-1970s and 1980s, Providence was an urban basket case. The population dropped from 250,000 in 1950 to 156,000 in 1980. The shuttered Biltmore sat in mocking glory of what it once was, ts windows boarded up, its restaurants closed. The oak floors of the old department stores creaked their last as shoppers fled to the free parking and glitz of the suburban malls in Warwick. The train schedule trickled down every year and the station was finally abandoned to homeless humans and hardy rodents.
There were many reasons for Providence's demise. One of them surely was the construction of Route 95, which carved the city in half, accelerated the residential and commercial flight to the suburbs and forced families from their homes in such once-thriving ethnic neighborhoods as Smith Hill, Upper South Providence and Orms Street.
Route 95 and its ill-begotten tributary, Route 195 walled Providence off from its nautical heritage. Narragansett Bay, once the city's lifeblood, was blocked from downtown by on ramps and an ugly hurricane barrier.
Like a woozy drunk, Providence had to hit bottom before it could recover. But come back it did as a series of business leaders, politicians, historic preservation enthusiasts and education bigwigs worked to bring the city back to its future. It cost the taxpayers more than $1 billion to undo the damage done by Route 95 and the changes it wrought.
A new train station was built, the pavement was lifted from the rivers downtown, traffic was rerouted out of the infamous suicide circle near the stately Benefit Street courthouse. The old department stores were renovated into college classrooms and yuppie condos. An u[scale mall has brought the shoppers back.
The old Union station houses a steak house, the offices of the Rhode Island Foundation and WRNI's studio. Route 195 has been rerouted through the eastern edge of the city to reclaim acres of greensward taken for the original highway.
The population rebounded to 175,000 by 2000. The city founded by Roger Williams in 1636 has survived wars, depressions, hurricanes and floods. Things aren't perfect but the city is better off in the first decade of the 21st century than it was in the fresh wake of Route 95.