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R.I. cities should merge, former mayor Cianci says

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Providence should “seriously consider merging” with its neighboring cities, former mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, Jr. told a crowded Salomon 101 Tuesday night, in a speech in which he recounted the history of Providence and his more than two decades of service in the mayor’s office.

Cianci served two terms as Providence’s mayor, from 1975 to 1984 and 1991 to 2002, making him the city’s longest-serving executive. He is widely credited with facilitating Providence’s 1990s “renaissance,” though that work hasn’t saved him from controversy and criticism.

During his first stint, he resigned from office after pleading no contest to assaulting a man he said had been having an affair with his wife.

His second term came to an end when he was sentenced to five years in federal prison for conspiracy. He was released last year, and since then has been hosting a weekly radio talk show.

Or, as Cianci summed it up: “I was mayor for a while. Then I stopped being mayor. Then I was mayor again.”

But he saved the boldest part of his speech for the end, when he called on the city to merge with its neighbors – including Warwick, Cranston and North and East Providence – into “a union of equals.”

Cianci called Providence “a city divided,” and added that it is also the seventh-most crowded in the nation, occupying the same 18 square miles it did 100 years ago. Providence and the surrounding cities currently work as a single city even though they are separate politically, he said. Rhode Island was once called a city-state, he said, in the days when a few cities held almost all of its population. He suggested that having dozens of cities does not make sense for the nation’s smallest state by land area.

“It’s only a matter of time” until something must be done, he told the crowd. He compared the scheme to the situation in Fairfax County, Va., which has a population almost identical to Rhode Island’s, but only one government .

The unification plan was one of a series of goals he laid out for continuing the city’s renaissance, which he said isn’t yet complete. By the time he left office in 2002, Providence had gained jobs in some sectors but lost others in manufacturing, wholesaling and railroading, he said. Providence’s continued renaissance depends largely on the state government overcoming its current financial crisis and making new commitments to the city as it did in decades past, Cianci said. He argued that the city must end suburban sprawl and bring jobs back from the suburbs.

“I believe in cities,” Cianci said, adding that Providence could become a “shining example” for the nation.

He showed a video to the audience of himself in 2000 – then mayor, and still with hair – expounding a plan for the revitalization of Providence called the “new cities plan.” It was a broad vision of further land reclamation – 538 acres in all – including the “contaminated and lifeless” waterfront. Though that vision is now a part of official plans, none of it has happened yet, he said.

“Some of that would’ve happened, but I was detained a little while,” he said.

Far from shying away from his colorful past, Cianci frequently referred to it, to the audience’s general delight. He said his time spent in prison – as “a guest of the federal government at Fort Dix” – influenced some of his policy stances. He has objected to mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, which he said are especially unfair to the black community, as a result of spending time in prison with crack cocaine offenders.

Cianci compared his role in the mayor’s office to that of an impresario, orchestrating the good ideas of others.

Though Providence had only one theater and one department store when he first ran for mayor in the 1970s, he said he believed that the city had “good bones.”

He shared the credit for his success with city planners and architects, with Howard Swearer – the former Brown president who bridged the gap between the city and the University – and with Barnaby Evans ’75, who created the WaterFire public art installation downtown.

But he said his biggest contribution to the city was restoring its confidence.

“Providence was not always Tiffany’s and Nordstrom’s and Providence Place Mall,” he said. Decades ago, Waterplace Park was a railroad yard, and Brown – now one of the city’s foremost preservationist institutions – was demolishing old buildings instead of saving them.

“I enjoyed public service,” he said, though he added, “It’s a real taxing job if you do it right.”

The audience seemed enthralled by the former mayor’s speech, and many stopped to take pictures with him afterward.

“I thought it was tremendous. It was hilarious,” Lily Sorber ’10 said. She said his one-big-city proposal was a good idea. “Too bad he’s not mayor so he can’t instate it,” she said.

Tanmay Misra ’11 said he enjoyed the lecture overall, though he said it seemed like Cianci was running for office again. The unification plan “seemed like a good idea,” especially given that Cianci’s plans have worked in the past, Misra said. (Cianci said he has no plans to run for office.)

“He seemed very affable,” said Nicolas Gonzalez ’10, a member of the Brown Lecture Board, which hosted the event, “and you could really tell how he appealed to voters.”

Cianci is currently writing a book which he hopes to have published by Christmas, he said in an interview. He confirmed that there may be a movie based on the book, and that though he is not involved in the process, there may soon be an announcement on that front.

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