Providence has a rich history etched into nearly every corner of the city, waiting to be uncovered. Mike Ferguson, who moved to Providence with his family in August 2019, is doing just that — digging into the archival memory of the city to capture its transformations, one historical photograph at a time.
His Instagram account, @pvdnowandthen, features photos of Providence today along with photos of the same spot taken decades ago. He started the project in November 2020, as COVID-19 cases were beginning to surge in Providence.
“I was walking a lot more when the pandemic was at its worst, so that definitely helped,” Ferguson said. “Walking around the city, I was really curious about the history of everything I was looking at, so I started to … collect vintage postcards of Providence.”
But he soon realized that there were not enough vintage postcards available, nor were they reasonably priced.
“Fortunately, I discovered the Providence Public Library online photo archives,” he said. “There are also various other archives that I've just barely begun to touch on.”
With a natural curiosity for the history of the cities he inhabits, Ferguson was “blown away” by Providence’s storied past, from its evolving architecture to the Providence River.
He has collected over 20,000 old photos of Providence from the archives — a plentiful source to draw from, he said. “It’s in my temperament to be able to stare at that stuff … for hours and hours and hours without getting bored or distracted, so (the archives) never cease to fascinate me,” Ferguson added.
Ferguson takes different approaches to curating his project. Sometimes, when he stumbles upon a building or street that captures his interest, he will later peruse the archives to find corresponding images of the same spot. Other times, he reverses the curation process. “I come across a photo that I haven't used yet and I recognize it, and I'll put that on my walking agenda,” he said. “So every day I usually have a photo (and) a place I want to go to.”
He has come to know the city exceedingly well since he began the project. “When I first started, I had no idea what I was looking at,” Ferguson said. Now, it’s rare for him to find a photo of Providence — no matter how old — that he doesn’t recognize.
He is particularly fond of the area he calls the “Weybosset Curve,” which stretches from Westminster Street to Dorrance Street. The bendy Weybosset Street is lined with aged buildings that Ferguson finds interesting. Even the newer buildings that alternate with the older architecture seem to add to the story that the city tells, he said.
Having such an intimate, historically-rooted knowledge of the metropolis inevitably changes the way he experiences its various parts, Ferguson explained. Waterplace Park, for instance, belies traces of the giant saltwater cove that was in the same spot when Providence was first founded, he said. Despite the echoes of older landmarks, he observes that the entire waterfront of the river has changed drastically over the years.
Ferguson thinks of his endeavor to capture Providence through time as a puzzle he needs to solve, matching the pictures to places in the city. But it is also a journey through time he enjoys sharing with his audience. “It’s not always possible to get the pictures to closely resemble each other in terms of point of view,” he said, “but when you can do that and people click between the two, it feels like time travel.”
Xinyu Yan ’24 values this nostalgic element of the project. “I love looking at these old pictures and thinking how life was so different back then, and whether we could have something that is more rooted in the history (of the city) in future developments,” she said.
Being an Urban Studies concentrator, she is also interested in the historical evolution of Providence. “It’s really interesting to see how the landscape of Providence developed over time because it used to be a very industry-heavy city, but now it brands itself as the creative capital.”
Evan Stein ’24, who started following Ferguson’s account around a year ago, enjoys getting to see what the places he passes by on a daily basis looked like in the past, he said.
Stein recognizes that the project also has a greater significance. He said, “Providence has so much deep — and in some cases heavy — history that it’s important to be cognizant of.”