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Pawtucket makes its move
Redevelopment and an influx of artists are adding vitality, but Rhode Island’s newest renaissance city still faces its share of challenges

A FEW BLOCKS from Pawtucket’s Depression-era City Hall sits a veritable graveyard of decrepit old mill buildings, neglected leftovers from the days of industry. Nearby, downtown remains largely bereft of foot traffic and commercial activity. But right across the river behind City Hall is the biggest and most expensive jewel in Pawtucket’s new crown. Riverfront Lofts is a $15 million, 60-unit condominium redevelopment project undertaken by veteran Boston developer Ranne Warner. Ten years ago, the idea of selling condominiums in the $200,000-to-$600,000 range would have provoked laughter from even the most optimistic Pawtucket resident. They’re not laughing now. The project garnered the largest loan ever from the Bank of Rhode Island, as well as the first loan in the state from JP Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank, and Warner has sold nearly 50 units, mostly by word of mouth.

Although Pawtucket stakes its claim as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Rhode Islanders have affectionately (or not so affectionately) called it "the Bucket" for much of its recent history. The city has long been seen as something of a second-class citizen, living in the shadow of Providence.

Now, though, Pawtucket is getting a makeover, trying to revitalize and reinvent itself by championing the arts, importing artists, and promoting the redevelopment of its old mills. The architects of this rebirth tell a very Hans Christian Andersen-like story of a "gritty" or "hardscrabble" mill town being magically remade as a beautiful swan. Word of this transformation has spread, thanks to the buzz sparked by a series of high-profile articles in the Boston Globe, New York Times, and Christian Science Monitor.

The change is exemplified by a slate of artistic newcomers who have purchased old industrial or commercial buildings to use as their homes and studios. For example, Luke Mandle, the son of Rhode Island School of Design president Roger Mandle, purchased a one-story motorcycle repair shop on Montgomery Street, and converted it into use for his architecture and furniture design company, Two Ton. Graphic artist Kristen Murphy and architect Joe Haskett bought the 3500-square-foot Schaffer’s Furniture building on Broad Street, making the upstairs into living space and the downstairs into gallery space that the couple hopes to lease. And painters Gretchen Dow Simpson (whose work has been featured on the cover of the New Yorker) and Mimo Gordon Riley plan to gut two Montgomery Street properties to create studio space.

Several Providence-based arts groups have also relocated to Pawtucket. Right across from Riverfront Lofts on Exchange Street is the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, a repertory company formerly located in Providence’s Jewelry District. The Gamm is based in a newly renovated building, formerly a garage used to store stolen cars. Next door is the Pawtucket Armory, which hosts the Foundry Artists’ sale every December, and which is slated to become the home of the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the state’s first arts high school.

The pioneering spirit can be seen in people like Mike Maxon, co-owner of Narragansett-based Crazy Burger, which plans to open a location later this year in the old Newport Creamery portion of the Apex building. Maxon says he was approached last year by Pawtucket officials, who told him "about the plans with the condos and trying to build an arts community," and asked if he might be interested in being a part of it. "We kind of thought of it as [being] the first in a new market," Maxon says. "We picture Pawtucket as maybe being the new renaissance city, similar to what’s been going on in Providence."

All these factors suggest that Pawtucket is indeed undergoing a remarkable transformation, one that is all the more interesting given how much of American history can be seen in this small city of nine square miles and 73,000 people. Yet the official version of this transformation may obscure some of its more inconvenient parts.

Although Pawtucket has a lot going on in terms of development and new arts-related activity, it still faces the same socioeconomic challenges as other Rhode Island cities. Only 14 percent of residents have a college education, for example, compared to a statewide average of 31 percent, and the local jobless rate of 6.3 percent has held steady in recent years, according to the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC). And while officials say arts-related development is good for everyone’s quality of life, it remains unclear whether importing artists and upwardly mobile types will impact the basics — good jobs, affordable housing, and quality education — that make cities better and more livable. In fact, with statewide housing prices having doubled in the last five years, the affordability that attracted some newcomers to Pawtucket is becoming more elusive.

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Issue Date: February 18 - 24, 2005
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