Metro

Development aims to revitalize West End

Changing neighborhood brings mixed bag of new school, higher rents but persistent crime problem

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Julian’s Restaurant is one of many restaurants on the west side of Providence, where critics have called recent changes gentrification.

Julian’s Restaurant is one of many restaurants on the west side of Providence, where critics have called recent changes gentrification.

When Jay Davani first moved to Rhode Island, she considered living in Providence’s West End neighborhood. She put a bid on a condo, but after visiting and finding a used needle on the sidewalk outside the building, she withdrew her offer. She moved to Pawtuxet Village instead. 

Ten years later, Davani now lives in the West End and owns a vintage clothing boutique on Broadway Street called MINT. Her move was motivated by the “young, creative, entrepreneurial, artistic people” in the area, she said.

Historically, Providence’s West End neighborhood has been home to some of the worst crime rates and lowest income and education levels in the city. The neighborhood had more crime reports — 349 — filed than any other neighborhood in Providence in 2012, including 71 assaults, over 200 burglaries, 16 sexual assaults and one of the 13 homicides reported in the city that year, GoLocalProv reported. This was 105 more criminal reports than any other municipality.

The median household income for the West End was about $33,000 in 2014 — about 14 percent lower than the rest of Providence, which has a median household income of $38,243 this year, according to R.I. Department of Labor and Training data. Only 43 percent of adults living in the West End graduated from high school and only 13 percent received a bachelor’s degree, according to 2014 census data provided by NAR. This is 15 percent lower than the rest of the Providence metropolitan area.

But developments in the neighborhood have started to transform the atmosphere.

Davani said there is “a really great camaraderie” between small business owners in the neighborhood. “This is the first time I’ve felt that I live in a connected neighborhood,” she said. “I felt like I moved into a family.”

The West Broadway Neighborhood Association, which operates out of a former gas station on Westminster Street, has been working to make the West Side, which encompasses the Federal Hill and West End neighborhoods, a more dynamic place to live, said Kari Lang, WBNA’s executive director. The organization’s mission is to make the West Side “a vibrant and sustainable place to be SWELL” ­— shop, work, eat, live and learn locally — according to the organization’s website.

WBNA’s crime watch program has been one of its most successful projects, Lang said. The program consists of a monthly meeting and an online forum for reporting crimes in the area. Alyssa Deandrade, the police commander for District 4, and representatives from the Office of the Attorney General attend the monthly meetings.

Davani said that while the neighborhood feels safer now than it did to her 10 years ago, her car was broken into just two days ago. After voicing her concerns about the theft and vandalism on social media, many of her friends from the neighborhood shared similar stories about apartments and vehicles getting broken into in broad daylight, she said. Other people relayed accounts of “getting jumped” on their way home from work, which in some cases has resulted in hospitalizations, Davani added.

Despite these reported crimes, Davani said she feels comfortable walking around on Broadway by herself. But she added that when she takes other streets, she tries to walk in a group. “It’s part of city living and it’s part of taking a chance on an up-and-coming area.”

As the neighborhood grows, a new school, the West Broadway Middle School on Bainbridge Avenue, just opened this fall.

“We’ve been advocating for a long time to have strong public schools that our children can walk to,” Lang said. “We have a whole bunch of great, historic school buildings,” she added.

The West Broadway Elementary School, which occupied the building where the West Broadway Middle School is now, closed seven years ago.

“We yelled and screamed, and we didn’t feel like we were being listened to” by city officials, Lang said, adding that officials “closed it anyway.”

But along with the positive reactions to the development, there have also been accusations that the projects are going to drive out longtime residents, Lang said. “We do our best to do all the good of gentrification and decrease the bad.”

Gentrification results in changing income, racial and educational compositions and typically refers to a dynamic where more white, high-income, highly educated residents move into a specific neighborhood that was previously less desired or struggling, said Nathaniel Baum-Snow, associate professor of economics and urban studies.

Housing costs and rent subsequently increase, which prompts many lower-income residents to leave, Baum-Snow said.

Home values in the West End neighborhood have gone up by almost 11 percent in the past year, in comparison to the 3.3 percent increase of property values in Providence, according to Yahoo-Zillow Real Estate Network, an online database for real estate prices.

It is in the interest of property owners to encourage gentrification, Baum-Snow said, because it increases their property values. But this hurts renters because it makes their housing more expensive, he added.

Lang said both property owners and renters in the West Side are welcome to join the WBNA, and that the association tries to represent the economic and ethnic diversity of the West Side in its leadership.

Davani, who rents her apartment on the West End, said prices are “still pretty affordable, but it’s starting to not be.”

Davani added that she doesn’t think the development in the West End should be considered gentrification, because many of the buildings that are being refurbished were previously vacant.

And while she acknowledges that further development could increase the cost of living, Davani said, “If it does, then it does. I hope that it doesn’t. But that’s a risk in any neighborhood.”

Lang noted that the farmers’ market in the West End currently draws more people using Women Infant and Children’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits than any other farmers’ market in the city. She also pointed to an affordable apartment finished in 2005 on Westminster as an example of encouraging economic diversity in the neighborhood.

“We try to do as many things as possible to make it affordable,” Lang said of the West Side.

 

Due to incorrect information from a source, a previous version of this article misstated the average median household income in Providence. It is $38,243 — about 14 percent higher than that of the West End — not $49,571. The Herald regrets the error.