Thayer Street was once a mecca for distinctive family-owned businesses, catering to the needs and tastes of the students and residents of College Hill. Turn-of-the-century clapboard homes painted in bright colors stocked clothes from the far corners of the world, while the aromas from immigrant-owned restaurants competed for the opportunity to broaden the palates of students from here, there and everywhere. How many of those students would see their first Dashiki or taste souvlaki for the first time while at college? Thayer Street represented the quintessential college mercantile community, a place to learn and enjoy new and different experiences.
But demographics of businesses across the United States have changed. Where a corner pizza shop once thrived, a Dominos now sits; that wonderful old sub shop has become a Subway. The distinctive boutique that sold the trendiest British “originals” is now a Lulu Lemon. And so it goes on Thayer. The colorful make-up on the street-faces of those Victorian dames can no longer hide their age. Empty buildings and closing signs mix uncomfortably with the ersatz stucco bearing the logos of all-too-familiar chains.
I am not in any way disparaging these recognizable names: Chipotle, Johnny Rockets and Starbucks create an enclave of Providence dining choices for even the pickiest of palates. And who could argue that the variety and prices at a CVS store are better than they were at the old E. P. Anthony’s Apothecary? The corpse of that store, which once offered handmade chocolates scooped from handsome glass-covered walnut display cases, is now buried under the Chipotle at the corner of Angell Street and Thayer. These replications of stores, from Peoria to Phoenix, come at great cost to the culture of Thayer and its local businesses. And the trend continues: Even some of the most recognizable names are being cannibalized to make way for “trendier” versions of the same ilk. Gone is Au Bon Pain, a chain too-often associated with airports and hospitals, and the late-night staple Nice Slice will soon meet the same fate.
One need only look at the periphery of Harvard Square to recognize an unfortunate truth: It would be naive to think that Thayer would buck a nationwide trend. The economics of retail mercantilism pull too strongly from the mom and pop ideals of yesterday. Chain stores are not only more capable of paying higher rent as highly credit-rated tenants, but their leases also allow building owners to borrow more against their property. This “leverage” permits the owners to expand their holdings and acquire more property. As they say, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
In exchange for paying the bills, the chains require uniformity in their locations. To develop and maintain their “goodwill,” stores must be easily recognizable, and thus their store exteriors, interior layout and decor must conform to a prototype. The same is true for the food and merchandise sold. While conformity may lead to brand recognition or assure a certain level of quality, it may not blend with the characteristic individuality of Thayer.
The changing demographics of Thayer go beyond restaurants and clothing stores. In 2013, nine once-gracious houses were demolished to make way for a square, unadorned brick edifice developed by a family of Brown alums who saw a more efficient use for the land. But while these luxury apartments at 257 Thayer may improve living arrangements for some, their location — commandeering a single lot from Thayer — has left an entire block of the street with a movie-set façade. Yes, this building is sleeker and far from an eye-sore. But one can’t help but wonder when the movie set too will be taken down in the name of the gentrification of Thayer Street.
As Brown students and Providence residents for at least a few years, we must be mindful of the changing state of Thayer and its repercussions on us, Providence and its residents. Must Thayer Street conform? Must you conform to these changes? Once the eccentric texture of Thayer is gone, it will not be recreated — ever. Its quintessential college environment will be lost to growing consumer metropolitanism, looking identical to cookie-cutter establishments in thousands of cities. Shouldn’t we try to keep Thayer one of a kind?
So next time you want to get a burrito, a cup of coffee or a shirt, think about shopping at a local store, preferably one that has not torn apart an older building and replaced it with the universal visions of far-off corporate design teams. Thayer should not be lost to the whims of consumerism or become the ghost of a disappearing past. Let’s all do our best to keep Thayer Street the site of some of our fondest and most unique memories at Brown.
Emily Miller ’19 can be found enjoying Nice Slice while it’s still around. She can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.