Features

Green line points the way through city’s history

By
Senior Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2011

Robert Burke has beef with Boston — and Philadelphia, and even Geneva. Good thing he said he’s “just feisty enough” to take them on.

Burke, a fourth generation Rhode Islander, is the creator of the Providence Independence Trail. He personally painted the thin green line which runs on the sidewalks around downtown Providence and the west edge of College Hill, a trail meant to bring to light the city’s often overlooked past. It is a long history — the city celebrated its 375th birthday just two weeks ago.

Providence has a lot of history that many are simply unaware of, while Boston has become the history hub of the Northeast, Burke said.

“I frequently compare Boston and Providence to a big brother and a little brother,” he said. “A lot of times, the little brother sort of happily stays in the shadow of the big brother. And that’s what happened here in Providence.”

Burke has been working on the Independence Trail for the last five years, ever since he took some friends on a walking tour from the Westin Hotel to his French restaurant, Pot au Feu, in downtown Providence. He realized the short walk contained an “astonishing” amount of history. Through personal knowledge and additional research, Burke began his work on the trail.

“These aren’t scrolls that got discovered in somebody’s attic last year,” Burke said of Providence’s past. “This is well-known, well-documented history. It’s just that Providence never has really objected to Boston grabbing our claim.”

Even museum-filled Philadelphia has less history than Providence, Burke said. Philadelphia was “just a convenient place to convene. They weren’t real rabble rousers,” he said. Rhode Island, on the other hand, was known as “rogue’s island,” Burke said. “From day one, the troublemakers came to Rhode Island.”

Through the Independence Trail, Burke wants to increase awareness of Rhode Island’s history. He lamented the fact that in Geneva, there is a prominent statue of Roger Williams while in Rhode Island, scarcely anyone knows where the statue of our founder stands. (It is in Prospect Park.)

Burke received official support from the city and the state for the project. The first walkers assembled at the completed trail Aug. 13, signing their names on an official commemorative scroll.

The trail, which runs in a three-mile loop, hits adjacent to north campus in front of Geoff’s Superlative Sandwiches on Benefit Street. To take the tour, you follow the green line until your toes touch a painted yellow rectangle with a phone number on it, one of 26 stops. Call the number, and you will hear Burke’s cheerful greeting: “Welcome to the Independence Trail of Providence!” Listen to his instructions and then enter the number of the stop where you are to hear Burke explain the site’s historical significance.

Burke’s narration is as lively as a professional tour guide’s, painting a picture through the centuries of the scene where you stand and describing the points of interest within a 360-degree view.

In front of Geoff’s is the old state house, where the Rhode Island colonists officially broke allegiance with the king of England, two months before any other colony declared independence. Just down the street toward the Rhode Island School of Design, the trail has a stop in front of the First Baptist Church. Burke, over the phone, explains that Roger Williams founded the church, which was built in 1774.

Further down Main Street, at its intersection with Planet Street, is stop number 15, what Burke calls “one of the most important historic locations in American history.” Here, in 1772, John Brown and 59 other colonists met in what was then the Sabin Tavern to plan the attack on the H.M.S. Gaspee, the British regulatory ship that the group would later violently storm and burn in protest of British rule over the colonies. Today, the site is a parking lot.

Why the Boston Tea Party holds more historical significance than the Gaspee Affair is a mystery to Burke. “Throwing tea in the harbor does not rank where shooting, imprisoning and burning rank. And it never will,” he said.

But why does Boston’s history outshine Providence’s today? Burke said it’s because Brown didn’t write the history books.

“Brown University shirked its responsibility, and instead of writing America’s history books, allowed — allowed — the scholars at Harvard to write the story and then didn’t challenge it. Had Brown University written America’s history books, then we would all know the true story that Providence was out there way in front of Boston,” Burke said.

Burke’s pride for Providence history is loud and clear. “I’ve got a message for Boston, okay? The little brother is gonna punch them right in the nose.”

Burke plans to add more stops and sound effects by May 4, which was declared “Rhode Island Independence Day” last spring. Burke said he hopes to involve the University in the trail so that visitors will know it is available to them.     

“(While) we’re coming out from under Boston’s shadow, we’re going to depend on scholars from Brown University to help us,” Burke said. “We want the whole town to get excited about claiming our rightful title.”