[Sidebar] July 19 - 26, 2001


Selective improvement

Providence's Armory District offers a hopeful example for urban rejuvenation. But it also illustrates the difficulty of making progress in less fortunate neighborhoods

by Kathleen Hughes

[] To hear residents of Providence's Armory District tell it, the Cranston Armory is a little like the end of a rainbow -- one gets a glimpse of those grandiose terra cotta towers from a distance and is instantly drawn toward them. One wonders: what is this wonderful building, somewhere near sections of the city known more for gun shots and poverty than castles. But an even more disarming discovery, denizens say, is the surrounding neighborhood itself. Streets framing the armory are full of mid-19th- and 20th-century Victorian and Gothic Revival houses, in various states of glory and disrepair, owned and rented by folks of a variety of ethnicities, income brackets, professions, and generations. Bert Crenca, artistic director of AS220, has lived in the Armory District for 11 years. "The sense of community . . . is unlike anything I've ever experienced," he says. "There is a sense of completion, a sense of all populations being included."

This broad diversity is possible in part because housing in the neighborhood's distinguished residences has been dirt cheap -- home sales of $5000 were common 20 years ago, and today, when many East Side houses command middle-six figures, equally large and beautiful houses can be had for half the price, or less, in the Armory District. Smaller homes in the area can be bought for under $100,000. The world is catching on, however, and rents, prices, and property values have risen dramatically in recent years. As a result, "It's getting close to being too expensive for artists," says Crenca, as well as for other low-to-moderate income residents.

Some homeowners may celebrate rising property values, and the trio behind the Armory Revival Company, which is due much credit for the Armory's revival, is certainly pleased with the neighborhood's enhanced profile. It takes 90 minutes for B.J. Dupre, a partner in Armory Revival, who bought a house on Hammond Street in 1980, to give me a tour of the neighborhood, complete with a house-by-house discussion of the firm's work in the area. But some residents, such as Crenca, and Amy Budd, director of the Perishable Theatre Arts School, who moved into the Armory District three years ago, are more skeptical about the rising real estate costs. "I don't want to see rents go up, yuppies move in, and Starbucks buy out the Hudson Market," Budd says. "We must maintain [the community's] diversity."

Twenty years ago, the Armory District was distinguished by several qualities: whole blocks with an excess of empty, overgrown, and trash-strewn lots, architecturally significant houses that were dilapidated and abandoned; plus, Dupre says, "a determined group of owner-occupants," led by three older Italian-American women, "who had spent their entire lives in the neighborhood, and refused to leave."

[] Although a turn-around may have seemed unlikely, these factors provided fertile ground for change. Today, the transformation can be seen in the profusion of brightly colored Victorians and Greek Revivals, surrounded by lawns punctuated with tall orange lilies, purple zinnias, and white hyacinths. It's also manifest in the thriving West Broadway Neighborhood Association, the only such group in the city with a paid staff, and the Armory Revival Company, which has used its cachet from improving the Armory District to develop the most costly condominium project in Providence, at North Main Street and Thomas, near the First Baptist Church, with units being offered at $1 million each.

There's no question about the Armory District's revitalization -- and the hopeful example it offers for other Providence neighborhoods. At the same time, it's much more difficult to bring the same progress to the struggling neighborhoods whose fortunes remain untouched by the Providence Renaissance. And the district's revival, although widely embraced, raises the specter of gentrification and an important question: can the neighborhood maintain the racial, generational, and socioeconomic diversity that underlies its central charm?

TWO HUNDRED YEARS ago, the Armory District was mostly farmland, with a few private estates, such as those of the Brown and Dexter families, who donated the land upon which the Cranston Armory was built. A hundred years ago, the neighborhood was an upper-middle class streetcar suburb of mostly English and Irish residents, where executives of nearby manufacturing companies had homes -- "what East Greenwich is today," explains Mark Van Noppen, a co-founder of the Armory Revival Company. It was distinct from Federal Hill, just to the north, which had lots of tenements, and Elmwood to the west, which was more posh. After World War I and the Depression, with industry's great move south, and the flight of city residents to Warwick, Cranston, and other suburbs, the Armory gradually fell on the same hard times as South Providence and Olneyville.

The more recent transformation in the homes and streets and people around the Cranston Armory is a confluence of several factors: the first cluster of historic housing stock away from the East Side to draw the attention of the Providence Preservation Society; some die-hard, civic-minded residents, including Gilda Jeffries, who grew up in the Armory District, raised her children there, and in 1980 founded the West Broadway Incentive Corporation, which lobbied the city to ensure policing and clean, well-repaired streets, and created a small grant fund, from which needy residents were given $500 grants to make home repairs.

The housing stock and close-knit residents won the attention of two other critical parties -- the preservation society's Revolving Fund, launched in 1980, and the Armory Revival Company itself. The nonprofit fund was launched by the preservation society in 1980, explains the fund's founder, Barry Preston, now a partner in Armory Revival, to preserve historically significant housing stock in impoverished neighborhoods by giving low-interest loans to those people -- usually scorned by banks -- who had more time, interest, and sweat equity than financial riches. The fund was then focused on one or two neighborhoods to guarantee the most meaningful impact, explains Preston.

[] Because of the leadership and organization of its residents, including Jeffries, and, of course, the historic housing stock -- which won listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 -- it was no coincidence that the Armory District was selected as the fund's first project. Today, the 21-year-old fund still works in the district, as well as in Elmwood, and on a few "exceptional projects" throughout the city. "The Revolving Fund has learned that you're never done with a neighborhood -- there are ongoing needs for assistance," Preston says.

In the mid-'80s, the Revolving Fund was supporting the neighborhood's physical rebirth, the Providence Preservation Society was promoting the area with walking tours, and word began leaking out about the Armory District's charm and affordability (the best houses cost around $70,000, with shells of houses available for $1000). Locals gathered during a May breakfast at Dupre's still boarded-up home (which had been rehabbed with the help of a Revolving Fund loan) and decided the time had come a for-profit real estate business. The Armory Revival Company was launched when Dupre and Preston joined forces with Van Noppen, a Brown University anthropology graduate and RISD-trained photographer who had bought a house in the Armory, in 1982, and also used a Revolving Fund loan to fix it up.

"We all share a passion for old houses," says Dupre, who brought some family experience in real estate development -- his father owned some property on Chapin Street. Preston brought the most germane experience, however, both as the founder of the Revolving Fund, and a lawyer with Gilbane, the local construction giant, and development companies.

In 1986, Armory Revival's first business came in purchasing nine lots around Hammond and Harrison Streets from the Providence Redevelopment Agency, for $2 to $3.50 per square foot. Homes were designed to be historically compatible, attractive, and affordable. Not long after, the triumvirate began purchasing abandoned houses from absentee landlords, and occasionally at public auction. Block by block, the twin efforts of Armory Revival and the Revolving Fund helped to deliver improvements. In a few short years, these strivings were rewarded when real estate prices for the nicest homes soared to $250,000 during the real estate boom of the late '80s, and very few houses were available for less than $100,000, Van Noppen recalls.

The boom didn't last long, though, and the credit union crisis of the early '90s, plus the crack epidemic, meant that the Armory District once again slumped. Abandoned property returned, decent homes became crack houses, and frustrated, frightened residents fled. Armory Revival stayed, however, and the firm's persistence during these years, Van Noppen says, demonstrates the company's overarching commitment to the community, not the bottom line. "When property values plummeted, we stayed and continued our work," he says. "We basically bought the bottom of the market, fixed it up, and moved nice people in."

Since then, the real estate market has long since stabilized, and Armory Revival has prospered, along with the neighborhood itself. The firm's work has won it numerous design awards from the Providence Preservation Society, and press attention, including a mention in the New York Times. The Providence Housing Authority also offered the developers a steady stream of work in the form of 75 homes in different neighborhoods. The work, although not highly profitable, provided consistent revenue in a way that Armory District projects couldn't, and this made it possible for Armory Revival to take on upscale condo projects, such as Oyster Bay and North Farms in Warren, and the ongoing development on North Main Street in Providence. "We aren't exactly Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor," says Van Noppen.

Adds Dupre, "We do try to make a profit [in the Armory], but that's not our guiding principle. Projects not in the Armory District have allowed us to do work [in the district]."

ELMWOOD AND SOUTH Providence share similarities with the Armory's housing stock, as well its one-time supply of empty lots and abandoned or dilapidated houses, and help from the Revolving Fund, plus other proven non-profit housing organizations, such as Stop Wasting Abandoned Property, or SWAP. As for contrast, the primary distinction between these areas and the Armory District is size. Elmwood and South Providence are sprawling and crossed by busy roads, such as Broad Street, while the Armory is relatively compact and contiguous, with the Armory proper and parade grounds at the center, and wide streets, like Cranston and Westminster, bounding, not running through, the area.

It's not just these physical attributes that have made possible the revitalization of the Armory District; it's people's commitment, too. As Ward 10 City Councilman Luis Aponte, whose district covers South Providence and Washington Park, notes, "Urban politics is an area where you have to be a squeaky wheel. [Armory residents] have worked really hard to get the stuff they've gotten from the city -- like traffic-calming strips on Messer Street." Although the traffic-calming project isn't without some controversy, Aponte's point -- that organized residents can make a big difference -- remains on the mark.

Kari Lang, executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association, and Clark Schoettle, executive director of the Revolving Fund, are confident that the Armory's success can be easily emulated, and is, indeed, already underway in other neighborhoods. "Sure, revitalization can happen elsewhere," says Lang, "It's about getting people involved, quality of life, quality of community, and people caring." Revitalization "is already happening in Elmwood," Schoettle says. "It's just more scattered, and difficult to get a critical mass." Therein lies the rub, though. It clearly doesn't augur well that the Armory District can benefit while some neighborhoods, like Olneyville and Wanskuck, remain characterized by substandard housing and other unmet needs after the extended economic expansion of the '90s.

The Revolving Fund and West Broadway Neighborhood Association, though, hope to spread the Armory District's good fortune, as they team up with the nearby West Elmwood Housing Corporation, to study residents' hopes and concerns about everything from green space and housing, to economic development, social services, and policing. What the other neighborhoods lack most distinctly, however, is a for-profit developer such as Armory Revival.

Some observers have mixed feelings about the role of the company, which spun off Armory Properties, a real estate agency in 1998, in increased property values and rising rents. Dupre says this step was taken since other agencies didn't understand the neighborhood and couldn't sell it well, but an alternate view suggests an effort by Armory Revival to raise property values -- perhaps bringing closer gentrification -- by establishing influence in the real estate market. In any case, Armory Revival's two decades of investment in the district, combined with the Revolving Fund's commitment, and the community's unusually strong grassroots mobilization, have largely made the Armory District what it is today.

SUE PROUTY, a kindergarten teacher and mother of two, moved to the Armory District 17 years ago as a student at Johnson & Wales, and then purchased her three-story house with her husband for $60,000 in 1986. Prouty calls the neighborhood "very eclectic, very art-based . . . and very accessible to the city." There might not be that many trees, but she likes the visual appeal of the neighborhood's architecture and green space, with yards bigger than many on the East Side, and the 10 acres of grass and playground by the armory. Like many residents, Prouty heaps praise on the strong sense of community. "East Side parents have to search to find community," she says. "Here, there's a woman down the street -- she's 70 -- who takes care of all the kids."

Crenca describes how a resident from Laos or Cambodia -- he's not sure which -- plays a top game in the park alongside soccer and little league baseball. "Each activity is located in a different cultural group," he says, "and they're all happening, side by side, in my neighborhood park. Excuse me, but I like that -- it makes me feel whole, complete." And Budd appreciates how quickly she got to know her neighbors after moving to the Armory District in 1998. "I know as many people here as I did growing up," she says, in a small Indiana town.

But with less joy, Budd describes signing a two-year lease with Armory Properties, only to discover two weeks later that a woman, an upwardly mobile "creative yuppie," had purchased the whole building and immediately evicted her. "Armory Revival has been instrumental in making the neighborhood what it is, but I am wary of their absolute power," Budd says. "There's only one company picking and choosing who's coming to live here."

Of course, Armory Revival isn't picking and choosing all the residents in the Armory District, but Budd's concern raises the central question about the Armory District's future -- how to sustain its cherished socioeconomic diversity in the face of swelling real estate values. Certainly, the Revolving Fund, Armory Revival, the West Broadway Incentive Corporation, and the West Broadway Neighborhood Association -- something of a successor to WBIC in terms of lobbying for city resources -- all seriously contribute to the immense enjoyment by residents like Prouty, Crenca, and Budd of the friendly, diverse, and attractive neighborhood.

"The Armory Revival were early pioneers in the neighborhood," Crenca says. "They have a huge responsibility for the area's revitalization, and I give them credit for that . . . They are now responsible for property values . . . and rents going up. But is that bad? My property is worth more because of them and that's good."

But state Representative Anastasia Williams (D-Providence), who lived in Wiggin Village's low-income family housing at the Armory District's east border for 29 years before moving to a house on Hammond Street, says the rising property values have already pushed many longtime residents out. "At one point, there was an agenda -- gentrification was the name of the game, whether you like it or not," Williams says. But she blames upwardly mobile white newcomers, rather than Armory Revival, for this.

"There was this attitude of `these people don't know how to improve and appreciate their neighborhood,' " Williams say. Nonetheless, she still calls the neighborhood wonderful and beautiful, and hails the commitment of Van Noppen, Dupre, and the WBNA. The neighborhood association has wonderful participation, "but diversity is still minimal," Williams says. "I don't know what kind of outreach is utilized."

On the simplest level, the Armory is bound to retain something of a polyglot quality due to the presence of Wiggin Village's 285 units of low-income, federally subsidized family housing, and Aaron Briggs' low-income housing for seniors and the handicapped, which anchors one side of Chapin Street, at the center of the district. Federal Section 8 housing also offers rent subsidy vouchers, good in any apartment or house, so long as the rent is low enough, to those who are income-eligible

Beyond these measures, the Revolving Fund, which began as an effort to preserve the Armory District's buildings, also ensures the presence of low-to-moderate-income residents, as 70 percent of the fund's loans go to these residents, and the remainder goes to those above federal moderate-income standards. In addition, the West Broadway Neighborhood Association has worked, often in partnership with the Revolving Fund, to guarantee the availability of homes within the purchasing power of low-to-moderate income residents. "What you want is a neighborhood with a healthy mix of incomes," says Lang, the WBNA executive director. "You wouldn't want a neighborhood that was either all rich or all poor."

Finally, say Armory Revival partners, the pockets of relative affluence now in the Armory are both necessary and healthy. "These [old Victorian] houses are expensive to maintain," Van Noppen says. "Either they're lived in by people who pay of a lot of money to maintain them, or they're heavily subsidized. We can't expect the government to maintain a whole neighborhood, and I care enough about aesthetics that we shouldn't strip out attractive qualities of houses, either. And so, there's places for subsidized housing but also for higher rents."

Van Noppen and Dupre talk about scattered site low-income housing -- subsidized units and assisted home-ownership in the midst of stable neighborhoods with more costly real estate -- and how it helps the low-income families in terms of self-esteem. When poorly maintained housing is grouped altogether, Dupre says, residents feel lousy about themselves, and, "A dynamic gets set up where, if you do well, guess what -- you have to leave."

The Armory District isn't without troubled properties or problems. There certainly are buildings and houses -- even a coveted park-front location, next to a restored Victorian -- that one moves past more quickly because they look run-down and decrepit and have a history in the last decade as a drug den. There are other houses that are simply small and not particularly distinct in comparison with their grand neighbors, and the shiny, earnest Hudson Market, a friendly neighborhood gathering spot straight out of another era.

All these properties are vital to the Armory District's particular kind of revitalization because they represent a broad economic range of residents -- the kind relished by New Urbanists -- and will perhaps mitigate the threat of gentrification. It's the residents who ultimately make a neighborhood, after all, and at least for the time being, this heterogeneous quality goes a long way in defusing sharp questions about whether the Armory District belongs more to the earliest residents or those who've cultivated beautifully restored homes.

Kathleen Hughes can be reached at khughes[a]phx.com.

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