I recently received an email from a reader who, in researching a potential move to RI, stumbled upon my post A Year in Providence. Noticing that the post was a few years old and that we appear to still live in Providence, he wanted to know my “updated thoughts about the area.” So here they are for you, reader, and for those of you curious about making a move to the Ocean State.
When I wrote A Year in Providence, I commented that it was the longest we had lived anywhere within the prior six years. In just one more year, it will become the place that I have lived the longest in my life. As scary as that sounds (even to me), I can honestly say that I feel at home here in this small city in the smallest state. That said, no place is perfect. So if you’re considering moving to Providence like I was a few years ago, I will provide you with my own now more-seasoned pro and con list.
Cons: The public schools still largely fail to impress in Providence, which is why many people moving to RI who hope to use public schools opt for nearby towns like Barrington or East Greenwich. Sadly, people don’t move to Providence for the schools; they move here despite the schools.
Pros: That said, I do have friends with children at Paul Cuffee Charter School and Vartan Gregorian Elementary who seem extremely happy. Also Nathan Bishop Middle School went through a stellar 35-million-dollar renovation, and no one doubts the reputation of Classical High School.
Perhaps because of the apparent lack of quality public schools, Providence boasts some amazing private schools (Wheeler, Gordon, Moses Brown, Lincoln). Unlike some cities where money isn’t even enough (good timing and connections are also essential), in Providence’s private schools, there are often spaces available for newcomers. Keep in mind too that all of the private schools do offer financial aid — and you might be surprised to qualify for it since they check not just your income but your expenses.
If paying over twenty grand per year for your child’s education is a deal-breaker, there are plenty of terrific lesser expensive local options–we have friends happy with the parochial Bay View Academy, Ocean State Montessori, and the Jewish Community Day School. I’ve also been impressed on recent visits to the French-American School of RI which packs in a lot of learning, language and cultural immersion for less than half of a typical private school tuition. Another option for K-5 is the Henry Barnard School, a laboratory school at Rhode Island College which offers private school education for one-third of the standard cost. However, this is one of the only schools here where I’ve seen an actual waitlist.
As a side note, I’ve found no shortage of great daycare and preschool options in Providence.
People who have lived in Manhattan know two things: you live in inches, and you live within a five block radius of your apartment. You live in inches because every square inch of your apartment is precious (which is why we’re storing one of my NYC friend’s grandfather’s photo projector in our Providence basement). And you live within a five block radius, because, for most everything, there’s no need to leave. Within that, you’ll find your post office, banks, bookstores, cafes, restaurants, yoga studios, gyms, playgrounds, etc. When we lived in Manhattan, Geoff and I would count the number of restaurants we could access by crossing only one street, which would quickly hit double digits. Because of this, Manhattan has a much more neighborhood feel than you might expect–the postal workers on Hudson Street still greeted me by name even years after I had moved out.
Cons: Like Boston, in Providence most people who can afford it have a car. Although we can access several restaurants, a playground, two bookstores, several cafes, a post office, and an independent movie theater all within a few blocks of our house, we still drive most days. Even our pediatrician’s office is only a few blocks away (and yet in the winter, I find myself driving there).
Pros: Although we don’t generally live in a five-block radius, I do think Providence in this area gains an advantage over surrounding suburbs and nearby cities like Boston: Providence maintains a friendly, small-town atmosphere with a diverse population and urban culture. Where else other than Providence will you regularly run into your Governor at your local coffee shop?
Plus, if we made it a priority to walk more, we could. On the upside, we have succeeded in having only one car (and two Zipcar memberships).
Cons: Unlike New York City, there probably is not something for everyone in Providence. In particular, I’ve heard single friends complain that it’s not as lively as other cities.
Pros: Maybe it was because our apartment looked out over a pulsating Seventh Avenue, but when we lived in Manhattan, I used to feel guilty staying home on Saturday night. Now, with children ages five and two, we don’t have much time or energy for nightlife. Still, we enjoy great restaurants, theater and museums. We picked Providence because we believed it fit our lifestyle for this time in our lives–a place with some of the best aspects of a city (good food, shopping, arts) without some of the worst (traffic, crowds, cost).
One of my friends who was down on Providence before we moved here admitted that we’d eat well. And she wasn’t joking — we have better restaurants (and food trucks) than many cities, and Providence often makes national top ten lists. We’ve got great farmers’ markets, farms, and craft/local art stores. We don’t have the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the RISD Museum houses some impressive art (Van Gogh, Monet) in a museum you can actually get through with kids. We’ve got quality theater (Trinity Repertory, Providence Performing Arts Center). And of course, we benefit from the residual culture from Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Rhode Island (which has a Downcity campus), Providence College, and Johnson and Wales University.
And for those urges Providence can’t sate, Boston is under an hour away and New York City under three hours by train. In the last few months, we’ve taken the kids to Boston for the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science; and last Memorial Day weekend, we took the kids to New York City for Central Park, Times Square and the Natural History Museum. Still, it’s nice to come home to Providence.
Pros: In my opinion, Rhode Island has the best beaches in New England. Massachusetts beaches (yes, even the Cape) are too cold in my opinion. RI has low-key rocky beaches (Little Compton), protected soft surf beaches (Sand Hill Cove), and open ocean waves (Westerly). Add to that great parks, well-maintained playgrounds, and definitely the best zoo in New England. Plus, unlike other states, driving out to the rural country of Rhode Island takes only a few minutes. In a few miles outside Providence, you can access dozens of farms for berry and apple picking, and small towns for some local charm.
Cons: RI has no mountains, so in-state skiing is restricted to the modest Yawgoo Valley. Still, it’s not a far drive to Vermont or New Hampshire.
Cons: Unfortunately for us, real estate has not been a great investment in Rhode Island in the last few years (see WPRI story). Every few months either Geoff or I get a serious bout of malaise at having given up our NYC West Village apartment for our house in Providence. I think it’s time to admit that Geoff was right when he said, “we are condo owners”–we don’t really like painting rooms, refurbishing bathrooms, or dealing with plumbing issues on a hundred-year-old house.
Pros: On the upside, this may be a great time to buy in Providence. And right now, you certainly can get a lot more house for your money here than Boston, for example. For us, Providence offered a house where we can walk to the city (and train) but still have a yard, driveway and plenty of room for home offices and guests.
Cons: Job options need to improve here. We have a bit of a catch-22 on our hands here in RI: people can’t live here without jobs, and since people can’t get jobs here, they don’t move here. The jobs and the people come and go together, in other words. RI has trailed the nation with one of the worst unemployment rates (see USA Today story). And we really need to stop placing high on lists like our recent second place in “worst state to do business” (see Providence Business News story).
Furthermore, corruption still exists here clearly. If the botched 38 Studios deal doesn’t make that strikingly obvious, nothing does. Similarly, RI was doing great with attracting Hollywood film, but they cut the film tax credits which left the state dry compared with neighboring Massachusetts where film is thriving.
Pros: I do have faith in some of our new leaders–I trust Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and Governor Lincoln Chafee. I believe they will make honest, clear-headed decisions. Like one reader wrote, what RI needs is some “forward thinking and concerted effort on the part of business and government leaders.” The more people that move here because they want to and because they feel commitment to improving the state, the more likely it will be that we’ll succeed. Maybe that will be you too…