What Providence can learn from history

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The shock of Providence's financial mess has sunk in. Now it's the time to start cleaning it up.

The only surplus is in the amount of blame: A governor, Don Carcieri, and a General Assembly that cut taxes for the wealthy while stripping the city of state aid. A mayor, David Cicilline, too busy running for Congress to pay close attention to city finances. Decades of overly generous pensions for city workers. Add in a stubborn recession.

Now Mayor Angel Taveras and the city council must plot a way out that spreads the sacrifice as evenly as possible. And please, spare the violins and campaign-style rhetoric.

Providence has an illustrious history. Founded in 1636 by Roger Williams as a haven for religious tolerance, the city has reinvented itself every few generations. It evolved from a port and trading center to an industrial powerhouse that by the dawn of the 20th century was known as America's most prosperous city.

The economy and culture were shaped by Yankees and refined by successive waves of immigrants, first from Europe and recently from Latin America. In its 375-years, Providence has survived wars and depressions, ethnic rivalries, political corruption, flight to the suburbs and industrial decline. Through it all, the city and its residents have shown a scrappy pride in this ancient New England state capital.

Providence has advantages that are the envy of many cities. It boasts an Ivy League university, a world-class art school, a prominent Roman Catholic college, a state university branch and a respected culinary college. If you think smart young people don't want to come here, try getting your kid into Brown.

Two of New England's top hospitals and a medical school call the city home. New England's largest bank is headquartered here. Providence owns one of the nation's best water supplies. Few cities the size of Providence have as vibrant an arts scene as Rhode Island's capital.

As it confronts the future, Providence respects its past; neighborhoods that were once slums have become livable historic preservation jewels.

Leveraging those assets into a comeback will require yet another evolution. We have to shed attitudes left from the political machine days of the mid-20th century. Never again will the city have armies of public employees. Never again should we allow politicians to use the public treasury to buy political favors with patronage hiring and bloated pensions.

The city council must stop acting as if it was a body of 15 parish priests, each concerned with protecting his or her own bailiwick, neighborhood and roster of jobs and contracts. The council must think more of the city as a whole for Providence to survive.

And Rhode Islanders have to stop looking to government as a source of jobs and deals. We have developed a city government too big for taxpayers to support. What else can you say about a Providence system where a retired fire chief collects a pension of nearly $160,000 a year and that allows cops and firefighters to retire at half pay with health benefits after barely 23 years on the job?

We've been down before. In the 1970s, the economy tanked and the Jazz Age symbol of a prosperous Providence, the Biltmore Hotel, was shuttered, its windows boarded over. The city bounced back with a never-say-die grit. We need that attitude now along with a more realistic role for government in the 21st Century.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.