This summer, a few friends and I decided to drive into Providence, Rhode Island to grab dinner. Our destination was a small, unassuming Mediterranean grill, somewhat out of place among the dozen-plus Italian restaurants on Federal Hill. The food was good, but we weren’t there for that. The place was comfortable, too, and the owners were genial, but we weren’t there for that either. The real reason my friends and I decided to drive into Providence to eat at an anonymous Mediterranean restaurant on Federal Hill? The restaurant is located at the former headquarters of the New England mafia — the third largest Cosa Nostra in the country at the height of its power.
This particular aspect of Providence’s history is not well-known to Brown students, the vast majority of whom are not from Rhode Island. The state also has its own incentives to avoid emphasizing its history with organized crime. Yet the surprising popularity of the recent true crime podcast "Crimetown" might change that. Listeners will no doubt have an intimate familiarity with the antics of Providence’s former six-time mayor and Shakespearean tragicomic anti-hero Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. They will know about Raymond Patriarca and the Patriarca crime family, as well as the remarkably humanized personal lives of various “wise guy” enforcers who struggled with everything from muckraking attorney general nuns to wolf-slaying Drug Enforcement Agency officers. Most of all, listeners will know of Federal Hill, the other half of the city, as the heart of the mythical Providence crafted by the writers. But while "Crimetown" is a remarkable achievement in storytelling, it obfuscates the true conditions of a city that is already very poorly understood by Brown students. If we take such a rich caricature of the city at face value, we overlook the complexities of Providence’s history and might feel less inclined to engage with its community.
We often tell each other naïvely, patronizingly, but with good intentions, to get out of the “Brown bubble” and to adventure beyond the East Side to get a fuller understanding of the city. This is, fundamentally, good advice. As privileged students at an elite university, it is in part our responsibility to engage constructively with the community and, at the very least, make a good faith effort to appreciate it. But this advice is little more than a platitude. Often, whatever exploration we undertake unfolds within a framework of privileged observation rather than constructive community engagement. Generally, even if our perception of Providence includes more than just College Hill, it is colored by our consumption of media like "Crimetown" or brief and infrequent forays downtown and beyond.
None of this is to say that there are not students who engage with the community. Despite recent criticism, the Swearer Center for Public Service facilitates responsible community engagement between Brown students and various local groups. But often, even this exposure is either superficial or tokenized. There is no shortage of community groups criticizing Brown students for their lack of dedication to community service or for their cavalier attitude toward the groups they are meant to serve.
Ultimately, the availability of programs that facilitate community engagement is not enough to ensure that Brown students become active and responsible members of the Providence community. Culturally, we are too content embracing the East Side as the beginning and end of the city, too uninterested in thinking critically about the mythology of Providence constructed by media such as "Crimetown" and too unwilling to actively learn about the community ourselves. There is a responsibility among administrators, faculty and students alike to cultivate a mentality in which we see ourselves not as transient occupants of an ivory tower, extracting what resources and connections we can before we move on, but as active members of a broader community — one wherein we might not vote or volunteer, but at the very least try to appreciate more than just College Hill.
There is a line in "Crimetown" that is so topical that it bears repeating in full: “Providence is essentially two hills, on either side of a river. On one side is Federal Hill, Patriarca’s domain. On the other bank is the East Side, where Brown University is, where the doctors and lawyers and professionals live.” This is probably not meant to be a subtle polemic against the privilege of Brown students living in a city with a rich and complex history, but the very fact that the city was characterized this way suggests to me that there is progress to be made.
Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.