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The Bruno Brief: Gentrification and housing on College Hill, explained

The landscape of College Hill has undergone tremendous change in the last century. Between urban renewal, the impact and expansion of the University, off-campus student housing and the burgeoning field of historic preservation, complex factors contributed to a dramatic transformation, The Herald reported.

This episode of The Bruno Brief is part of a three-part special series on housing and gentrification. This week, we do a deep dive into property and housing on Providence’s East Side. We hear from experts, academics and more to explore this multifaceted topic. 

Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed. Send tips and feedback for the next episode to herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Livi Burdette

Brown is building brand new dorms to house its growing population of undergrads. When finished, they'll be situated between two existing dorms, Vartan Gregorian Quad — the not-so-new-anymore New Dorm — and Barbour Hall. In preparing to break ground on the project two beloved institutions, Bagel Gourmet and Eastside Mini Mart, had to close their doors, and several houses were razed. But this isn't the only project of its kind going on at Brown in recent years. 

You're listening to the Bruno brief. I'm Livi Burdette.

I'm a senior here. And over the course of my four years, Brown’s campus has expanded more than a little bit. The brand new Wellness Center, certainly one of Brown’s swankiest dorms and home to University Health Services, opened its doors this academic year. I don't even remember what was on Angel Street before construction of the new Performing Arts Center began in 2017. All this makes me wonder: If so much can change about the landscape of Brown’s campus and its surrounding areas in just my four years here, what did College Hill look like 40 years ago? How about 70? How and why has this area changed? And how have those changes affected the communities living here? Those are the kinds of questions we hope to start to answer in this special series of The Bruno Brief. We want to know: What did College Hill used to look like? Who used to live here before college students flocked to off-campus apartments in Fox Point and historic preservation projects drove up rent prices? 

For this series, we interviewed community organizers, student activists, professors, urban planners and historic preservationists to get an idea of what this history looks like. Over the following three episodes, you'll hear an overview of the process of gentrification on College Hill and the forces that have led to higher and higher rent prices and the displacement of existing communities. Then, we'll do a close up on one particular neighborhood, Lippitt Hill — now known as University Heights — where Providence knocked down dozens of family homes to remove what they called “blight” in order to build a newer and more expensive neighborhood. Finally, in our last episode, we'll hear from community members who are organizing for housing justice, and look forward to the future of gentrification and efforts to stop it on College Hill. 

First, in this episode, let's try and get a picture of what the area surrounding Brown University looked like in the mid-20th century. I'm here with Katy Pickens, Bruno Brief producer and Metro Editor for The Herald, who has led this project. 

Hi Katy.

Katy Pickens

Hi, great to be here.

Livi Burdette

So first, what has your research told you about what College Hill used to look like?

Katy Pickens

There were far more historic homes on the hill. And additionally, Fox Point, just south of Brown’s campus and College Hill, was a vibrant community of immigrants, predominantly Irish, Portuguese and Cape Verdean. Since then, the communities around Brown have seen dramatic change.

Brenda Clement

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Like many cities, Providence is very much a tale of two cities, where (on) the East Side, where Brown and RISD are located, neighborhoods and communities often look very, very different than the west side of the city.

Livi Burdette

That was Brenda Clement, director of HousingWorksRI. There are three main ways experts say that gentrification and displacement have occurred on College Hill. First is the impact of the University itself and its students.

Marijoan Bull

Brown’s role on the East Side changed a lot. You know, they really were a catalyst for a lot of larger forces. You had increases in enrollment that were not matched to increases in on-campus student housing. And so then students were looking farther and farther afield from directly around campus for housing.

Livi Burdette

That was Marijoan Bull, a professor at Westfield State University. She formerly taught at Brown.

Nathaniel Pettit

Many – not all, but many – students at a place like Brown can pay a little bit more, but also landlords are incentivized to take in students because our standards are a lot lower. We don't know how bad a place is. We’re willing to put up with a lot and you can pack in three or four students into an apartment that was originally designed for, you know, a working-class Cape Verdean family in Fox Point. But now, you know, myself and my friends can move in and a landlord can certainly make a lot more.

Livi Burdette

That was Nathaniel Pettit ’20, a recent Brown alum who wrote an honors thesis about the gentrification of College Hill and Brown’s impact. Some call this process “studentification,” a specific kind of gentrification that has happened on College Hill. 

While studentification is ongoing, another factor is urban renewal — a process that mostly happened in the 1950s and 60s. It's when governments identify specific neighborhoods that are labeled as a blight to the city and target them for demolition and rebuilding. This process often involuntarily removes its residents from their homes to make room for wealthier new ones.

Antoinette Downing - Archival audio via the Rhode Island Historical Society, 1994.66.2

The Benefit Street area, most of the little buildings were covered with artificial sidings and were real, real slums; as slum clearance program wasn't an unfair thing to say that the city had planned for it because five or six families would be living in these little houses, and one bathroom would be located in the cellar, the whole family would use it. We walked into a very battered city.

Livi Burdette

That was prominent preservationist Antoinette Downing in a 1987 interview courtesy of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

With studentification and urban renewal, the final main factor in changing the landscape of College Hill is historic preservation. This is the work that often well-meaning community members do to try to restore and preserve the architectural history of old and storied neighborhoods, which often has the harmful side effects of displacing the people who are living in those areas before preservation.

Nathaniel Pettit

With organizations like the Providence Preservation Society, PPS, that were ostensibly about kind of maintaining culture and maintaining, you know, buildings of architectural significance that were linked to Providence’s colonial history, they nonetheless had a really strong political agenda that was really interwoven with urban renewal. Restoring Benefit Street, for instance, resulted in gentrification and resulted in the displacement of longtime residents, many of them being residents of color.

Livi Burdette

In this episode, we’ll tell you the stories of these three processes, and how they each unfolded to create the College Hill of today. First, Brown’s impact. Here's Katy Pickens.

Katy Pickens

So, for the first 170 years, basically, of the University's existence, there were very few on-campus buildings and Brown’s campus was very self contained. However, this changed after World War II, roughly, with the Wriston administration. Dorm building began en masse and blocks of neighborhoods were leveled in order to make way for these enormous dorms to house more Brown University students.

Livi Burdette

One person who knows a lot about this is Nathaniel Pettit. You've heard his voice in this episode a couple times already.

Nathaniel Pettit

In my research it would turn up that Brown would throughout the years say, “Oh, we want to reduce our negative impact on housing costs. So we're going to build more dorms.” And then in the next couple of years, the class has gotten bigger. And we were right back to where we were, you know, as far as students going off campus in bigger numbers and helping to drive prices up.

Katy Pickens

In terms of off-campus student housing and its effects, students began living off campus in huge numbers, particularly in the 60s and 70s. This was due to a combination of factors — both increasing class sizes, making it harder to fit everyone on campus, as well as a real social dimension that people kind-of wanted to have their own house so they could study or throw parties or socialize outside of the on-campus setting.

Nathaniel Pettit

In my experience, it really felt like there was a big draw to move off campus socially. In all of my friend groups, or most of my friend groups, it was like, how fast can you get off? Can you get off, you know, junior year, can you somehow work magic and get off even before?

Katy Pickens

From 1961 to 1969, there was a 287% increase in undergraduates living off campus, which was just astronomical for the time and definitely had a huge impact on specifically the Fox Point community, which had often been more affordable and more for working-class families.

Livi Burdette

And that was according to a 1969 Ad Hoc Committee on Housing and Expansion report.

So Katy, was the University aware at all of the possible consequences that would happen if so many students kept moving off campus?

Katy Pickens

In my archival research, I was surprised actually, by how aware the University was at the time. In 1970, the Acting President Merton Stoltz sent a letter to the whole student body essentially saying, don't live in Fox Point, it's extremely detrimental to the community. 

And students were actively encouraged not to look for off-campus housing in Fox Point because of the impact on the local community. Being aware of the impact students were having on housing and Fox Point, the University actually made a plan to build affordable housing for Fox Point residents. So they had acquired a parcel of land at Bond Bread Company on the corner of Brook and John streets in 1965. 

Initially, they had wanted to make a parking garage but received a lot of pushback. So that didn't happen. Then, as all these changes were happening with housing in the late 60s, the University actually decided to build affordable apartments on that lot, specifically for Fox Point residents who had been displaced. And the University actually kept extensive records on the whole process of the Bond Bread site, and deciding what to do with it, as well as the large amount of pushback that they received from the community, who largely didn't trust Brown University or Edward Salzburger, the developer that the University had put in charge of the project.

In my research, I actually found a flier from a community meeting that Fox Point residents had about the project that said, “Brown has already expanded too far into Fox Point. We must make sure it doesn't expand any further,” and demanding that the site be turned into affordable homes rather than apartments.

Nathaniel Pettit

Of course, ultimately, it fell through. And it was a really disastrous event, and I think it really left deep wounds between Brown and Fox Point.

Livi Burdette

University Spokesperson Brian Clark told The Herald that understanding campus property growth in the past requires looking at original materials which documented what University leaders were thinking at the time. As a result, the University couldn’t comment directly on those decisions.

To this day, the University continues to have major impacts on housing access in the areas surrounding it. 

But we'll hear more about that in a future episode. Now, let's move on to the second major factor in gentrification on College Hill, urban renewal. Katy, can you explain what urban renewal means exactly, and what that process has looked like?

Katy Pickens

So urban renewal is essentially state-sanctioned programs to rebuild or refine a specific neighborhood that has been considered inadequate or of low quality. Oftentimes, in the 50s and 60s, when these projects were predominantly taking place in Providence, it was extremely racist in what it would deem as a low quality neighborhood.

News broadcaster — Lippitt Hill Revisited, via RIHS. 1969.92.1808.1

When 70% of the houses in the neighborhood are substandard, and when one in five of those houses is uninhabitable, and all the signs of blight are to be seen in the area, there's only one recourse for the city and that is to demolish the houses by condemning.

Katy Pickens

Oftentimes in city planning documents, predominantly Black, brown or immigrant communities would be called a “blight” on the city. So essentially the state poured money in to demolish many homes and raze neighborhoods. People were forced to leave whether they wanted to or not, because of eminent domain. A predominantly Black community just north of campus, called Lippitt Hill, was a catastrophic example of how urban renewal can destroy a community. And we'll get to that in the next episode.

Livi Burdette

So the final main factor in all this that you've identified is historic preservation. What exactly does that phrase mean? And who are the actors behind the process of trying to preserve the history of College Hill?

Katy Pickens

So in the early 1950s, when Brown was just starting its massive dorm building campaign, they essentially demolished five blocks of historic homes, which created uproar, especially in the community, many of which had direct ties to Brown University.

Archival footage via RIHS - 1994.66.2

In the 1950s, when an institutional neighbor on College Hill, Brown University, began tearing down and moving houses for new dormitories, Antoinette’s scholarship turned into activism. With the support of John Nicholas Brown, one of Rhode Island's foremost citizens, the Providence Preservation Society was formed. Over the next decade, they convinced Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design to preserve and adapt, rather than demolish. Today, for example, the home of the 19th century inventor George Corliss is Brown University's admissions office.

Livi Burdette

That was another clip from a TV special you heard a bit of earlier. It's a profile celebrating the life of Antoinette Downing, a prominent Providence resident who published a reference manual on historical homes in Rhode Island. She and John Nicholas Brown, a direct descendant of Brown University's founding family, created the Providence Preservation Society in 1956. PPS played a central role not only in preserving historic homes from being torn down by Brown, but also in how urban renewal was implemented more broadly on College Hill. Here's Downing talking about the urban renewal project targeting Benefit Street.

Antoinette Downing via RIHS, 1994.66.2

It was a real first in the preservation thing. In the normal preservation plan, you went through the area and you marked houses that looked beat up, and you slated them for demolition, you picked out your area for urban renewal, and then those were demolished and you started over. We weren't doing that here, we were going to save the houses. So what we did, that had never been done so far as I know, even in earlier preservation plans, was to date the houses. We looked up the records in the town hall and spent hours doing that.

Livi Burdette

According to Downing, this process of dating historic homes made the zoning committee realize that every period of historic homes should be treated with respect. However, in reality …

Katy Pickens

This did not apply evenly to all communities near Brown University. The group was predominantly white, wealthy and connected to the University. And as a result, they did not always view non-white neighborhoods as worth saving at all. They contributed to the designation of Lippitt Hill as a blight on the city, and also did not do very much work to preserve the Black-owned homes or churches or businesses that were destroyed throughout the time period. 

And an additional thing to consider is that in the work of preservation, especially in the 50s and 60s, certain histories have been deemed more important than others. So oftentimes, they were working to preserve aesthetics in homes that were very representative of colonial or even times in the U.S. where there was slavery. So when I talked to Brent Runyon, who is the executive director of the Providence Preservation Society, he was open about trying to preserve and prioritize histories that were often overlooked by the organization in the past. 

Brent Runyon

For now, we're working with a project in South Providence to try to understand from their point of view, where does preservation affect them both positively, negatively and potentially. And for us, part of that is just learning how to listen and engage.

Katy Pickens

And oftentimes, because so much of their attention was focused just on College Hill, non-white or poorer neighborhoods were overlooked. 

Another dimension of historic preservation is that it does create economic value. And it is something that today is still considered a very hot commodity in terms of real estate, and as a result can often make neighborhoods unaffordable to lower income people.

Brent Runyon

You know, it's all tied up in the real estate market. If you put money into a place to improve it, which is often what you're doing if you're trying to preserve something or restore something, then it's very likely that you might need to increase the rent, right? Or you're banking on that place being more valuable, so you can sell it at a higher price. And so, without subsidies from policies that say preservation of places is a value to our community. Without those kinds of subsidies, then improvements will often mean displacement.

Livi Burdette

So, considering all three of these factors, how would you characterize sort-of the scale of gentrification and displacement around College Hill in the last half century or more?

Katy Pickens

While it's been a slow and complex process, looking today at the housing prices and rental prices on the East Side compared to the rest of the city, it is clear that we are in a neighborhood that has been made unaffordable. 

So in my research I referenced the HousingWorksRI Factbook, which lists housing prices in different communities in Rhode Island. And Providence is interesting because they list it once with the East Side, and then again without the East Side, because it makes such a significant difference in the averages that they calculate. The annual income needed to purchase a median priced home in the community of Providence without the East Side is $69,000, approximately, versus on the East Side, it jumps to $188,000. So clearly, over time, all of these factors have had significant impacts.

Livi Burdette

That's it for this week's episode of The Bruno Brief. Stay tuned for the next episode in this special series. 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.

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