Unraveling Community: Preservation, Redevelopment, and Housing in Fox Point

Published in People in Preservation, Preservation Notes.

The loss of a neighborhood is not as simple as a wrecking ball. A close look at Fox Point, just one of Providence’s many evolving neighborhoods, reveals how an entire community was steadily displaced by historic preservation practices, urban renewal, and the growth of Providence as a “college town” in just a few decades. The acknowledgment of this erasure and PPS’s failure to preserve people in place, along with the buildings and streetscapes in Fox Point salvaged during the 1960s and ‘70s, is essential. Increasingly, preservationists embrace the philosophy of advocating for not just the built envoronment but also the social fabric and established communities that inhabit it – but this only comes after learning from the painful stories of places like Fox Point.

View of Fox Point from Narragansett Electric Light Company chimney

Fox Point sits to the east of Providence’s College Hill. Before post-war redevelopment changed the landscape, Fox Point was defined by acres of shoreline that supported a thriving port and related industries, and a neighborhood rich with housing priced below that of the rest of the city. This created an attractive landing place for immigrants, and as the neighborhood grew during the 19th and 20th centuries, it was largely shaped by groups who settled there.

Irish immigrants arrived first in the 1830s and 1840s and followed by arrivals from Portugal in the late 1800s through the mid-1920s [2]. Fox Point expanded rapidly, and by the mid-twentieth century, the population had become predominantly Portuguese.[3] The final, and most influential, influx of immigration came from Cape Verde, beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing through much of the twentieth century – they were the first voluntary immigrants to the United States from Africa.[4] By 1924, nearly 40,000 Cape Verdeans had settled in the ports of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Playground near Brook and Arnold Streets

The Cape Verdeans in Fox Point flourished, establishing a rich community that is remembered to this day. The well-used older buildings in the neighborhood, which had hot yet been identified as significant architectural resources, supported this community at a time when Fox Point wasn’t seen as a desirable part of the city. That there is little visible trace of the organizations, businesses, and families that populated Fox Point by mid-century is a testament to how effectively state, local, and private interests erased this community from the landscape in just a few decades. The loss of this once dynamic neighborhood is a loss for immigrant, BIPOC, and community history.

Redevelopment & Urban Renewal

I-195 carved a path through Providence

The first attempt at renewal in Fox Point occurred in 1935 with a plan called Proposed Slum Clearance and Housing Project for Providence: South Main-Wickenden District issued by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works’ housing division. Citing an unsightly neighborhood plagued with “low grade” housing and shops, this project called for the removal of over 150 buildings – and by extension their inhabitants – to create space for wealthier tenants and landlords. While this plan was never enacted, it set the tone for conversations about the land and people of Fox Point in the years to follow.

The Federal Housing Act of 1949 and the Rhode Island Redevelopment Act (1956) made it much easier for local entities, like the Providence Redevelopment Agency (PRA), to seize properties deemed unsound or dangerous through eminent domain. Additionally, these policy changes allocated funds for land clearing and neighborhood revitalization through local-federal partnerships, further incentivized by federal funds. Together, this greatly incentivized city and state-sponsored redevelopment, making plans like the Proposed Slum Clearance project much easier to accomplish. As Providence sought to modernize in the post-war years, the worn-in streets of Fox Point were once again identified as prime locations for redevelopment and new infrastructure. 

Preservation & Studentification

The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) was formed in 1956 by Antoinette Downing and other affluent residents of College Hill in direct response to the growing appetite for redevelopment in Providence. Specifically, PPS founders and their coalition were concerned about the threat urban renewal and college expansion posed to historic buildings in their neighborhood. One of PPS’s first efforts was the publication of the College Hill Study, a groundbreaking, in-depth inventory of historic buildings stretching from College Hill to the shores of Fox Point that set national precedents in preservation by establishing protections for historic buildings and neighborhoods that halted the relentless threat of redevelopment in many areas.

Transit Street

With the College Hill Study, PPS sought to protect the wealth of historic architecture in areas threatened by redevelopment and plans for Interstate-195, which was slated to carve a path through Fox Point and parts of downtown. To save vulnerable buildings from demolition or radical intervention, PPS made strong recommendations about zoning, land use, traffic, and recreational green space. The College Hill Study enabled PPS to successfully designate buildings throughout College Hill and Fox Point as historic and worthy of rehabilitation rather than destruction, even while countless neighborhoods across the country succumbed to the bulldozer and highway construction in this same period. While the Study served to protect the historic structures of Fox Point, it made no reference to the current residents and the potential impact that preservation may have on the community. 

Protecting these historic buildings came at a steep cost, borne almost entirely by the residents of Fox Point. Before PPS intervened, the average value of owner-occupied homes in Fox Point was roughly half that of the rest of Providence. Positioning Fox Point as historic and worth saving attracted both developers and city interests, and they began to buy up property throughout the neighborhood. Once restored, these properties returned to the market with dramatic markups unrecognizable to the residents who had lived there previously.

Providence Journal, 1970

First- and second-generation residents of Fox Point may have been priced out of these restored housing units, but higher rents were still within reach for students attending nearby Brown University and RISD, for whom off-campus housing had become increasingly attractive. Residents feared that the influx of students would lead to the “gradual destruction of the Fox Point community.”[5] This fear was not unfounded. By the 1990s, the social fabric was entirely changed and the Cape Verdean enclave that had called Fox Point home for a century had largely moved on. Residents relocated to other parts of Providence, East Providence, Fall River, and New Bedford. 

Moving Forward

We learned these lessons too late. And while the preservation movement wasn’t solely responsible for the erasure of the Fox Point Cape Verdean community — a responsibility shared by the City of Providence, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, state agencies, and private developers — it certainly played a leading role. Whatever wins came from preserving historic architecture are compromised by the permanent loss of a neighborhood.

Today, we consider established communities along with economic incentives when weighing new policies and projects. People give our city, and cities everywhere, its unique meaning and character. If PPS is truly to walk the walk laid out by the ambitious goals of our 2021 Strategic Plan, this shift in thinking and practice is necessary to move forward as ethical preservationists.

It is crucial that moving forward preservationists work to intentionally protect human landscapes as well as architectural ones, uplift community voices, and advocate alongside the community listening to and acting on the interests and needs they express. Listing the Tockwotton Fox Point Cape Verdean Heritage Place Project on PPS’ 2022 list of Most Endangered Properties offers the first formal acknowledgment of the loss of intangible Cape Verdean heritage and our role in its erasure. This is just the beginning, and our work must ensure that community in Providence is as valuable as its architecture.


Citations:

[1] Laurel Gorman – Fox Point: The Disintegration of a Neighborhood Brown University Bachelor of Fine Arts in American Civilizations Honors Thesis (1998) 

[2] Emily Taylor – “2000 racial and ethnic breakdown: Fox Point neighborhood, Providence, RI” Fox Point Oral Histories Brown University Library Center for Digital Scholarship (Mar 16, 2009)

[3] Gorman

[4] Fox Point Cape Verdean Heritage Project, Inc “Our Rhode: A Mile of Fox Point Cape Verdean History” (2020)

[5] “Fox Point Residents Fear Displacement.” Providence Journal. 18 June 1970.

In April 2022, the Brown Daily Herald also published some excellent journalism on this moment in Providence history and the related impact of gentrification and preservation on the city’s vulnerable communities. 

Gentrification and displacement in Providence: Urban renewal, economic markets, historic preservation 

The Bruno Brief: Gentrification and housing on College Hill, explained 

‘The magnitude of the community that we had’: Fox Point, gentrification, urban renewal 

The Bruno Brief: A look into the history of Lippitt Hill

‘We didn’t choose to be neighbors’: A history of Brown’s property impact on the East Side

All photos from the Providence Public Library Digital Collections.

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