NBC’s “The Today Show” recently named Providence one of America’s 100 Best Communities for Young People. The Princeton Review ranked Brown as North America’s second-happiest college in 2008. But Providence is still the 10th “most miserable” city in the U.S. according to a Jan. 30 Forbes magazine article. The article ranked Detroit as the most miserable city, with New York, Los Angeles and Chicago also making the list.
Forbes chose the ten cities whose residents experienced the most “unhappiness and emotional distress” using the magazine’s newly created “Misery Measure.” The index ranks the 150 largest U.S. cities based on commute times, income tax rates, environmentally hazardous Superfund sites, unemployment rates, violent crimes and weather. Forbes ranked cities in each category and added the six scores together to reach the “Misery Measure.” For example, Providence ranked second highest in income tax rates at 149 on a scale of 1 to 150, behind only New York City. But the Renaissance City had a relatively low crime score of 51 on the same scale. Overall, Providence had the 10th-highest score in the country with 611 misery points.
Several members of the Brown community expressed surprise that Providence was ranked so poorly. Former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee ’75, now a visiting fellow in international studies at Brown’s Watson Institute for International Studies, lives in Providence and cited the city’s history, intellectual vibrancy and weather as assets.
“You can take a drive to Beaver Tail Point and enjoy the waves crashing … go skiing in New Hampshire and Vermont. Go to Boston, go to New York,” Chafee said. The former senator even touted Providence’s weather, which was ranked 110th on the Forbes scale.
“We’re living through the dreary January, February time,” Chafee said, favorably contrasting Providence’s temperate climate to the “brutal summers” in Atlanta and Las Vegas’ constant desert heat.
Rhode Island’s income tax rate, which is around 10 percent, has pushed some residents out of state, the Forbes article suggested, resulting in a net loss of 20,000 people in the last four years. Chafee blames the migration partly on a lack of business opportunities.
“More than anything you want the opportunity to improve your lot and to have that economic opportunity to keep moving up,” Chafee said. “We have our issues here. Just being competitive, I think we’re making strides forward.”
Marion Orr, director of the Brown Urban Studies Program and professor of political science, blamed Providence’s unemployment issues on a slow transition from the old, manufacturing-based economy to today’s service-based economy.
“You have the knowledge-based workers who have more money, more education and tend to live in better communities. And then you have those who are largely the service providers,” Orr said, adding, “those are the people you see and say, ‘Providence is not doing well.’ Generally, cities have been struggling for years to transition to a service economy.”
Orr, a Cranston resident, said he does not consider Providence a miserable city, and that its pros far outweigh its cons. Orr moved from North Carolina to teach at Brown and said the high state income tax did not stop him from moving to Rhode Island.
“When we’re trying to recruit people to teach (at) Brown they see Providence as a place where they can raise their kids and have a wonderful nightlife,” Orr said.
A representative at the mayor’s office echoed Orr and Chafee’s sentiment that the Forbes index did not take enough cultural factors into account. Karen Southern, press secretary for Mayor David Cicilline ’83, said Cicilline thought Forbes’ list of miserable cities seemed like a list of America’s top-10 cities. “New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Providence – these are all vibrant cities,” Southern said.
Southern touted Providence as a legitimate cultural capital, citing its architecture, museums and night life. Southern also referred to a recent Wall Street Journal article naming Providence as one of the world’s emerging tourist destinations. Southern acknowledged Providence’s environmentally unsound Superfund sites and unemployment rates but seemed confident that the local government was taking the necessary steps to improve the city. Above all, she emphasized the city’s history and culture.
Though Providence’s history and culture may not provide much consolation for residents feeling an economic pinch, it certainly has made a lasting impression on citizens like Sen. Chafee.
“I’ve been in 49 out of 50 states and I’ve actually lived in a number of cities all around the country. I came back here to live.”