Urban development in Providence has historically led to displacement of minority communities, The Herald previously reported. One such community displaced by urban renewal projects was Lippitt Hill, an area that predominantly was home to residents of color who were forced to move before the entirety of their neighborhood was demolished in the late 1950s.
This episode of The Bruno Brief is part of a three-part special series on housing and gentrification. This week, we’ll be examining one neighborhood of Providence that no longer exists: Lippitt Hill. Drawing on the words of experts and first-hand archival accounts, we will take a look at the causes that led to the neighborhood's destruction.
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Newscaster - Archival Footage via the Rhode Island Historical Society - 1969.92.1775
Providence is a city 323 years old. It's a good-looking city when viewed, let's say from here on Prospect Terrace above the city. But Providence, like many cities in this nation, and some of them only 75 or 100 years old, has its problems — problems of its physical appearance, economic and social problems tied up in them. And when you consider that a city 75 or 100 years old have these self same problems, it may not be strange that Providence has them, too.
You look a little deeper into this city or any city, and these problems exist. They're often referred to as depressed areas or slum areas, if you will. Now, just a few blocks from here is Lippitt Hill.
We've discussed the problem of Lippitt Hill. Talked about it, read about it, talked with some of the people who live there. And we wonder, often, how does a situation like this get started? Why should it exist? And of course what can be done about the situation? You know, in many cities much is said, but very little is done.
I’m Livi Burdette. This is the Bruno Brief.
In this episode, we’re continuing our series on housing by looking at one community that no longer exists: Lippitt Hill. You just heard a clip from a broadcast filmed in the late 1950s about Lippitt Hill — a predominantly Black neighborhood just north of College Hill that was considered a slum.
Lippitt Hill would eventually be destroyed in the name of urban renewal, a publicly funded program to beautify and redevelop communities within the city. Urban renewal was happening throughout the country at this time.
650 residents — 450 of them non-white — were displaced by the Lippitt Hill Redevelopment project.
Here’s Dannie Ritchie, a professor of family medicine and Africana studies at Brown.
They were able to declare eminent domain. If you've looked at any of the pictures, you just see that the neighborhood was bulldozed over. I think it was about 35 acres.
But, before all this destruction, there had been a lively community where Black, Polish, Jewish, Italian, Portuguese and Cape Verdean people could be neighbors without much conflict. According to Stages of Freedom, the community dated “back to the freed slaves of the Brown family.”
Today, we’re going to take a look at what the community was like, what factors led to its destruction and what is there today.
I’m with Katy Pickens, Bruno Brief producer and metro editor for The Herald.
Hi, Livi, good to be back.
So, Katy, in your reporting, what did you learn about what the Lippitt Hill community was like prior to urban renewal?
Well, one important thing I learned was that while we may call it Lippitt Hill now, that’s not what its residents knew it as.
The people that lived there don't define it as Lippitt Hill, they define it as the East Side.
In 2017, Ray Rickman, Executive Director of Stages of Freedom conducted an oral history about the Lippitt Hill neighborhood. Residents who participated in Rickman’s oral history described a lively and diverse neighborhood.
Some described how there were fish vendors who would come down the streets, ringing a bell and selling from their carts. There was an ice cream man, a crab man and a rag man, too. There were dozens of businesses, mostly on North Main and Camp Streets, that were owned and operated by Black families.
Several East Siders described the Bates Street playground as well, a spot where kids could gather to play in a small pool.
The Holy Name Club was a Cape Verdean-owned business, according to the East Siders, and the Celebrity Club was visited by celebrities like Fats Domino and Billie Holiday in its heyday.
The East Siders described buying pickles from Jewish families, interacting with Italian vendors, and a general sense that, although they were Black and would experience racism in other parts of the city, they could go about their business in this part of town without much trouble.
But, despite this vibrant sense of community, there were definitely structural problems with some of the homes — sometimes porches would be falling or decaying. There were some houses that had been left vacant for many years.
And I talked to Ray Rickman, and he mentioned that oftentimes, discrimination made it difficult for structural problems to get fixed.
People went to church a block from their house. You know, there were a lot of nice things going on, separate from your house falling down. And then remember, every sociologist will tell you, Black folks' houses were falling down, but they had beautiful table cloths. Now the house is spotless to make up for the landlord not taking care of the property.
One resident, who was interviewed for a television special about Lippitt Hill in 1959, described that while she recognized that some parts of the neighborhood had deteriorated, residents were not solely to blame.
Lippitt Hill Resident
My home thankfully will not be affected by the Lippitt Hill project. I'm deeply concerned about my friends and neighbors whose lives will be. In a great progressive step such as this, some suffering is involved, but progress is inevitable, and I'm for it. In the case of Lippitt Hill, it is long overdue. Some of the houses are unfit for human habitation and are a disgrace to the community and to the city. I feel that a little foresight on the part of our city government and landlords would have forestalled the possibility of this great upheaval. I feel this might have been accomplished had our government demanded a higher standard of landlords, as well as the tenants, failing to do this. This is the result, and hundreds of families face displacement.
Ultimately, a huge section of the neighborhood was condemned and slated for demolition.
Providence Redevelopment Agency Representative - 57 acres - 1969.92.1775
This is the project area more bounded on the west by North Main, on the north by Doyle Avenue, on the east by Hope Street and on the south by Olney Street. After considerable study of the area, we've concluded that the only reasonable thing to do is to clear everything within this black line. Everything, homes, churches, pools, streets, everything.
That was a Providence Redevelopment Agency representative describing what was to be demolished for the Lippitt Hill Project.
In April 1959, residents would have opened their doors to see small, blue pamphlets from the Providence Redevelopment Agency. It read,
“To the families in the clearance sections of the Lippitt Hill Project:
Because your home is located within one of the clearance sections of the Lippitt Hill Project Area, it is to be purchased by the Providence Redevelopment Agency. It will be torn down to make room for new private housing and other facilities to be built in the proposed Lippitt Hill Urban Renewal Area. This means that at a later date you must find a new home.”
Here’s what some residents of Lippitt Hill thought about the project and the difficulty of relocating.
Lippitt Hill Resident - 57 acres - 1969.92.1775
I’ll wait and see. I've got to move my business, my family, that's a big problem for me.
Lippitt Hill Resident - Lippitt Revisited - 1969.92.1808.1
We would like to be sure when we do move that we move into an area which will be near our children's schools. Neither want to change schools, and we would like them to continue where they are. We also would like to move where we will have nice neighbors. Neighbors such as those that surround us now. And then we would like to move into a home with a pleasant backyard, spacious enough so that in the summertime, we can have cookouts and entertain our friends. We'd like a place which lends itself to good, happy family living.
“There is no guarantee that the residents of the Lippitt Hill redevelopment section will be able to move back into the neighborhood, even if they can afford it,” said yce, administrator of the city’s relocation service at the time, during an info session about the project, the Providence Journal reported Feb. 9, 1959. Joyce told a group of over 100 residents of Lippitt Hill that the “best potential” neighborhood for them to find different housing would be South Providence.
When Joyce opened the event up to questions, one resident said, “We as a people are tired of moving, and we expect a certain degree of stability one day. We are tired of running, and we have to stop one day.”
So it's not only about people losing their homes, it's about losing their livelihoods. It's about losing their community. It's about being disconnected.
And it was in a period that there was still discrimination. So the idea that you can just up and move was ridiculous. Where were you going to get something comparable that you had already invested in? Any kind of remuneration there, we want to look at that, we would love to look at that. And it's not easy, but to find out what people were compensated for, but mostly anecdotal, people will say they did not get the fair market value.
It was often, as Ritchie just said, extremely difficult for residents to find new homes outside of Lippitt Hill.
Here’s what some residents had to say about it.
Lippitt Hill Resident via RIHS - 1969.92.1808.1
We found the problem of relocating our family more difficult than we expected. The racial issue was much greater than the economic considerations. The problem was so discouraging that we thought perhaps instead of renting, we would attempt to buy a house. And while looking at real estate, we finally were able to find an apartment to rent, which was in a very pleasant house, in a very attractive neighborhood. We would have been left with a greater sense of satisfaction had we had the goodwill of the real estate agencies in helping us to solve our problem instead of it ultimately being solved by a stroke of good luck.
Lippitt Hill Resident via RIHS - 1969.92.1808.1
In moving out of the Lippitt Hill area, I've been very fortunate in relocating myself on my own initiative. Had I waited for the relocation agency to find me a place in which to live, I would have been probably out in South Providence or somewhere way out of my territory. I have lived on the East Side here for quite some time since 1908. And it would have created hardship on me personally, to have gone in some other direction. And the relocation agency is very slow in finding homes for the non-whites in the neighborhood. In my opinion, there were about 94% who had to find their own home.
Lippitt Hill Resident via RIHS - 1969.92.1808.1
I believe that most of the families, both white and non-white, who moved out of the Lippitt Hill redevelopment area are in better houses and homes than they were in in their former area. Most of the people who moved from the Lippitt Hill area are satisfied in their new surroundings, but many are dissatisfied. And among the non-whites, this dissatisfaction takes the place of adding a feeling that they had to pay more for their homes than white people had to pay for the same kind of accommodations. Also, they are dissatisfied because they feel that they have moved into an area which was already on the verge of some deterioration or blight. And that if this blight continues, they will be blamed for this condition. This is true not only of this community, this situation prepares in some other areas also. Also, the Negroes have a feeling that the reason that they had to pay more was because of their race and color, and because they didn't have free access and equal opportunity to the total market in the community. One real danger of the shift of population from Lippitt Hill to this area north of Doyle Avenue is the fact that it is creating already a new ghetto or a new all-Negro neighborhood. If this condition is not corrected, it will mean that in maybe 10 or 15 years if conditions aren't changed, that we’ll have a new Lippitt Hill. This concentration of Negroes in this new all-Negro area also is not good for the Negroes who have moved there, it’s not good for race relations in this community and it doesn't contribute at all to the development of a democratic community.
And this is what a representative from the relocation committee had to say about these concerns.
Relocation Representative - 1969.92.1775
We are ever mindful of the fears and anxieties that face the Lippitt Hill families. It's a safe statement to say that these same fears were experienced by the over 2,000 families we have moved to date. But I can reassure the families that this program has been proven, that the ability of the relocation service to find adequate housing for families in the past certainly should prevail in the future. However, I know that there are many other problems that will come up as this project progresses. We feel that with the thorough inspection system we have in our service, that each home that is listed with us either for rent or for sale, will be thoroughly inspected by professional inspectors. If a family so chooses to have their own, find their own home, we likewise if the family gives us an opportunity, will inspect this home to make sure it's decent, safe and sanitary. I know what is difficult to break old ties, to have the children go to other schools or perhaps not to be as conveniently located to your employment. However, we feel that families in the past have done it and I know the Lippitt Hill families are capable of doing that. In essence, if the whole community works as a team, upholding the high moral standards that we have tried to adhere to in the past, I'm confident that this project will be a success.
According to the 1959 Study of Housing Needs of Non-White Families in the Lippitt Hill Area, residents who tried to purchase a home during the study were unsuccessful 71% of the time. Renters were unsuccessful 92% of the time.
Eventually, though, the residents moved. Some stayed on the East Side, others went to South Providence. And a redevelopment plan for what would be built on the remains of Lippitt Hill was selected in 1962.
Newscaster - 1969.81.11476
After reviewing five excellent plans during the past three months, the Providence Redevelopment Agency has selected the University Heights plan as the most promising for the future of Lippitt Hill and the whole Providence community. University Heights is a combination of the Star Market Company and some 60 local citizens who represent the variety of the Rhode Island people. Investing seven and a half million dollars, this group will create a new neighborhood of homes, stores and play fields near the heart of downtown Providence. The Redevelopment Agency is confident that this new neighborhood will be a source of pride to all Rhode Island.
Today, the area abutted by North Main, Camp and Olney Streets and Doyle Avenue in the west looks like any other shopping area in America. There’s a Whole Foods, a Starbucks, a sushi place and a bank. The University Heights apartments still stand. There isn’t much left that hints at the neighborhood that used to be there.
One small sign on the corner of Olney Street and Pratt Street commemorates Jeffrey Osborne Square. Osborne was a soul singer whose family once lived in the Lippitt Hill area. This sign is one of the few reminders of the community that was.
But people don't know about — again, I call it Mount Hope and call it Lippitt Hill — but this integrated, mixed community with a large population of African Americans on the East Side, and what their story of being pushed out was. So I’ve been here for a long time, and when I first found out about Mount Hope because I hadn’t known about the area until after I finished my studies, and I always tell people it felt like I got punched because I had no idea there was a community of color living so close, right there, you know like a mile away.
But I'm still really very focused on telling the story of this particular community because it hasn't been told. And it's disgraceful that people don't know.
This has been the Bruno Brief. Our next episode of this special series will look at the state of housing on the East Side today. This show was produced by Katy Pickens, Jacob Smollen, Finn Kirkpatrick and me, Livi Burdette. If you like what you hear, subscribe to The Bruno Brief wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.