A Year in Providence

Our garden started out promising enough this spring...

It’s been one year since we moved into our house in Providence — officially making it the longest we’ve lived anywhere in six years.

So perhaps, it’s no wonder, we’re a bit restless.

Our untended garden now has begun to look more like a jungle.

In getting to know Providence, I’ve mostly been pleasantly surprised. Before moving here, I’d spent months visiting playgrounds in Boston with Madeline talking to moms who were friendly enough, but kept their distance. In contrast, on our first outing to the Brown Street Park in Providence, one of the moms invited me to lunch at her house, and another offered me her email and phone number. All I could think was: I got digits!

Although Providence is a city, there is much about it that feels more like a small town. Even in our year here, I’ve discovered people I’ve met know one another — I met a local doctor with his son at Three Sisters once and a few weeks later ran into them at a birthday party of another friend’s son. It’s that small town vibe, I’m convinced, that makes it a bit more civilized. You can’t really honk at someone who might turn out to be a parent at your kid’s school.

I also love our community of neighbors — we chat when we run into each other, we get each others’ newspapers when we’re away, and much to Madeline’s delight, we watched our neighbors’ fish a few times. One time, a neighbor cooked a delicious rhubarb pie and brought us half. That doesn’t happen in New York — at least not the New York that I grew up in — and not in Boston either.

As far as getting around, Providence I’d say is as convenient as Boston — you still need to drive often, although we can walk to restaurants, coffee shops, the post office, and bookstores. I stand by my initial instinct on this: in New York City, you don’t need a car which is positively liberating whereas in Boston you do, but traffic and poor city planning make driving an absolutely enraging experience. In Providence, driving just isn’t stressful. And we’ve managed just fine with only one car (and a Zipcar membership for occasions). In fact, the ease of getting around here has inspired us to explore surrounding towns and sights — it takes mere minutes to head out to ‘rural’ or coastal Rhode Island. And Providence surprisingly boasts plenty of excellent restaurants for its size, which I somewhat expected since even a friend who hated Providence conceded before our move — you will eat well. We still haven’t found dynamite Thai food, but that’s hard to come by in Boston as well (and even in our NYC neighborhood). For that, apparently, you need to go to Thailand.

Of course, Providence has a long way to go as a livable city. It’s an underdog with a murky reputation and corrupt political history. We need more business incentives and less obstacles to bring more jobs here. We need better transportation, like the proposed streetcar, to link diverse parts of the city. Still, I believe it’s a city worth fighting for, and I was buoyed to see Angel Taveras win the democrat candidacy for mayor. There’s a lot to be said for a smart, eager upstart with vision taking the helm.

The current state of our bathroom, currently "under renovation."

So then why our restlessness? Are we doomed to go wandering the earth again in search of what — I’m not sure? Or will we somehow squelch the urge? I’ll admit that part of our discontent derives from our house itself. Although I adore our house, what can you expect from a hundred-year-old house? Everything needs work. And it’s all a lot more expensive than I had thought. Geoff has long had this theory about the burden of ownership — even if you own a lawn mower, it requires a certain amount of maintenance in its lifetime. You need to buy gasoline for it, have it repaired, etc. So how much of your free time then does a car absorb or worse, a house? And worst of all, an old, out-of-date house?

I think left to my own devices I would probably let the yard and the house fall into disrepair. Geoff says I have a Grey Gardens approach to home ownership. If a 40-year-old brittle blind tears, I roll it up so you can’t tell. And when a toilet breaks, I think — let’s just close off that bathroom — we’ve got others. But Geoff would rather not live with leaking toilets, a yard full of weeds and dying trees, peeling lead paint on the windows, and a 50-year-old heating system. I guess I can’t really blame him. So we’ve begun the renovation of one bathroom, and have found the time, the cost and the hassle all a bit more than we’d like.

Is this what makes so many “grown-ups” jaded? If we keep moving and never own anything, even a toaster, can we ward that off? I do know that our years living nomadically had a perpetual abandon to them. Don’t like this apartment? Let’s find another! Hate this city? There’s lots more to chose from! And although we suffered the futility of grievances that accompany a lack of ownership — the smoke alarms routinely blaring, a too-small hot water tank, a bad smell often drifting in the hallway — there was the freedom in knowing: this is only temporary.

And therein lies our struggle — are we here to stay? Even after a year, we find we can’t commit. Loyalty to place perhaps doesn’t come naturally to either Geoff or me. I suppose we are like a perpetual bachelor who falls in love, but still ponders: is there something better out there? And, if so, where? We’ve lived in enough places to rule out some of the seemingly best options. Still France still looms as an imagined oasis. Although considering I wouldn’t send Madeline to the French-American School because it seemed too strict, I’m not sure how I’d stomach sending her to an all-French school in France? We’ve also pondered San Francisco since it’s another technology hub and home to so many of our friends, but do we want to move that far away from family?

Of course, I’m tired of moving and searching. The less glamorous part of the nomadic life is that you spend half your time packing and unpacking and the other half searching for a place to live. It hasn’t been long enough for me to forget that. And I’m not sure I have it in me again, at least right now. Plus, I like it here. Despite, or maybe partly because of, our aging dame of a house and the risky bet of this city, I might even love it here. But is that enough?

13 thoughts on “A Year in Providence

  1. My wife and I moved to Providence in 1982 (living now in Warwick). Even then we described our experience much as you have. I would say it this way: “Rhode Island, My Home Town” We have also often observed that those who move here from out of state appreciate this place more than the natives. We still love it here. Enjoyed your post.

  2. Thanks for reading — I’m encouraged that you’ve been here for several decades. We meet a lot of people who seem very transient here — although most of our neighbors have lived here for 30 or more years. I think if RI & Providence made some political/economic changes, more people would recognize how great it is. We need to reinvent the state — it’s unacceptable that we have one of the country’s highest unemployment rates and are ranked the second worst state for business (http://www.cnbc.com/id/37554006/). I know we can do better…

  3. I’d take France over Providence but am not sure the employment rate/business environment is any better there…
    That said I’ve lived in Providence for 7 years (as an undergrad then when my husband was in grad school). Faced with the specter of returning when he got an adjunct professorship, we opted to live outside of Providence, which has made all the difference. I would say if you can’t stand living outside of a city, stick to Providence, but then, is Providence really a city? The small town ambiance that Providence has can be found all over RI, but the hassles of living in a city are still all there. I voted with my feet… moved to Westport, MA, but could easily have made the trek to Prov shorter by shacking up in Warren or Bristol. Kudos on your concern for improving your new adopted city!

    • On paper, Massachusetts certainly seems like the state for us — it adopted gay marriage and universal health care early; it has great universities and hospitals; and it has better work opportunities for both of us. What are the specific reasons you moved to Westport (which is lovely, by the way)? I think it’s Boston/Cambridge that’s turned me off — all the inconveniences of city life with few of the advantages. As for Providence, I truthfully haven’t really noticed many hassles of living here, although the city has much untapped potential I think. To me there are several types of cities. I love living in what I think of as the great cities of the world and have lived in Paris, London and New York. Personally, if I’m not living in one of those then I’d rather live somewhere more low-key, while still maintaining some intellectual and international culture and walkability. I can’t say I’ve figured this all out, of course, which is why I still harbor some doubts.

  4. I love your ‘year in review’ post! I finally found time to read it and wished I had before we came to visit last week. So many hot topics to discuss. (Perhaps you should consider getting a phD in anthropology while you’re at it.)

    Also loved the Grey Gardens reference to home ownership, that cracked me up out loud.

    My vote is for you to move back to New York city. The village needs you and your little Edie.

  5. Thanks for the post(s)! My husband is looking at a position at Brown so I’m scouring the internet for any data that will help me get a sense for life out there (we’re in San Diego now, but he’s from Boston and I’m from the Jersey Shore).

    We like living in walkable city and towns but we’re not used to the noise and dangers of big cities. Do noise and danger come into the equation for you?

    I’m going to check out the rest of your posts to find out what you’re doing about school.

    Laura (if you’re still reading), what’s in Warren and Bristol? And why did you choose not to settle there?

    • I’d be happy to talk to you more about our school choices privately via email – you can reach me at mm@michelemeek.com. As for noise and dangers, I have definitely not felt concerned about either. If you want to be near Brown University, you’ll most likely want to live on the East Side of Providence (e.g Blackstone Boulevard or College Hill neighborhood) which tends to be low-key in terms of both noise and crime. Not sure if you’ll get a response from the other reader, but Bristol is part of a few of the more affluent suburbs in Rhode Island — it’s quite pretty there. For some reason, we have more friends who chose Barrington for good public schools, houses on the water, the bike path, and quiet suburban neighborhoods. We quite consciously did *not* want to live in the suburbs, so that wasn’t a consideration for us…

  6. Just found your honest/charming blog — my best friend and I are, as well, NYC?Manhattanites (two guys, gay, best friends, but not boyfriends anymore) scratching our heads about a move out of Manhattan (we have to move…..you know as well as we do that you either have to really poor (which we have been, though stable) or reallly well off to live in Manhattan. Events have conspired such that we will no longer be poor but yet we’re not going to be really well off, so we have to escape from New York. Which is fine — I don’t have a grasp on how long you’ve been gone (three years or so?) — but we’ve stomped these streets for some time now, and every day something else happens which makes us say “This REALLY IS the end of New York” (everything interesting has closed, replaced by Duane Reades banks, and nail salons. All of the independent stores have shuttered due to greedy landlords. Roseland closed. There isn’t a club to dance in in Chelsea anymore. And when Union Square Cafe has to close (end of 2015) due to rent increases (esp. when they singlehandedly resurrected Union Square from being a Needle Park), you get the picture. Why leave Wichita to visit when you can go to the Gap or the Red Lobster there? BUT, jeez, it’s hard to figure out somewhere to live in the US. Separately, we’ve lived in LA, Ft. Lauderdale, South Beach (forged its resurgence in the 80s), Chicago, Pittsburgh, and here. We don’t drive. We have to close to good specialized medical care. We don’t have to worry about employment. We will have some funds, but we don’t know whether to spend it on rent or on a purchase. We don’t exactly DO anything in NYC (restaurants, shop, theater rarely) but we KNOW it’s THERE. Chicago’s lovely, but it’s a big city and it’s the MIdwest. Pittsburgh is very lovely but the ocean’s not near by. Santa Fe is terrific but then there’s the absolute need for cars and other crucial needs might not be met. SO, we’re visiting Providence next weeK (staying at the Dean, which IS our kind of place). And Architectural Digest did just ask in their June 2014 issue “Is Providence the best small city in America?” We figure on the various downsides — the iffy financial state of the state, the likely gap between the haves and the have nots vis a vis populace – a fairly typical phenomenon in cities regrowing, the culture shock of there possibly being “no there there”. But hey, it’s a shortish Amtrak ride, we have to move SOMEwhere, so we’re trying to just slip in and let it be kinda organic…….I dunno. It’s terrifying, but it is what it is, we have to leave Manhattan. I would like a garden……(any ‘hood suggestions are welcomed……up and coming areas are good…..lofts are good, gardens, are good, “in walking distance” []of whatever] is good, open floor plans are good, foyers are good, hardwood floors are good, iron gates are good, high ceilings are good……)

    • Somehow I missed your comment and failed to approve it until now – sorry about that! How did your trip to Providence go? I just spent the weekend in NYC. I was both glad not to be living there and a bit nostalgic for not living there any more… but ultimately Providence is a great fit for us in many ways, at least.

      • No problem on the delay; I figured you were out enjoying PVD. It was a wonderful visit, though we left thinking perhaps it’s a bit too slow-paced. But, as recently as last night, we’re rethinking, and thinking PVD may indeed be just the ticket.

        We were five nights at The Dean – great concept with some significant flaws (wrote a long review on TripAdvisor). Obviously vastly different pace — (looking out room windows) “wow a person just walked by. Wow a car just drove by.” Just barely nicked the surface of food world – an outstanding night at Figidini’s, great sliders at Harry’s, bfast Ellie’s etc. Gay bars friendly, spotless. Amazed at how well staffed restaurants are. Loved the breezes, which helped in those hot July days. AMAZED at the number of buses on the streets esp since we don’t currently have drivers l. Westminster St charming, particularly when we wandered into an outside showing of Cage and Streep in Adaptation. Gorgeous architecture. Amazed at compactness, esp since we’re used to NYC blocks and avenues; I had looked at map and would think something would be a long hike, when in reality us steps away. Lots of homeless/panhandlers downtown, more aggressive than in NYC, probably because they gave fewer targets, but quite placid. The Amtrak Acela trip in and out totally stress free. Lots of hip, wooly bully beards, which we are too. The athaeneum library right of Marian the librarian/the music man.

        We were among the chosen last week for NYC’ Diner en blanc, and our adjacent white clothed diner was a woman who attended Brown; she said she would move to Providence in a heartbeat if a job offer came her way. So, one has to listen to the signs. There aren’t many appealing choices as to where to move with our various criteria; and Manhattan’s a fairly brief train ride, and Providence is feeling more right than other possibilities. And there is that ocean and beaches allegedly very close to PVD. So we too may become Escape from New York to Providence habitués. It’ll be a few months and we’re coming back soon…..

      • It’s so interesting to hear your thoughts on your visit. No doubt about it that Providence is much slower paced than NYC – it’s also slower paced than Boston. But that is definitely one of its charms, I think. People tend to be friendlier in Providence- there’s always this feeling that you’re talking to a neighbor or a friend of a friend. Also for us, we’re just not at the stage of our life where we can (or even want to) take advantage of so much nightlife etc, and Providence & its surroundings has all the theatre, restaurants, activities we need. And NYC and Boston are still just train rides away and we take advantage of that too every few months. Well, keep me posted – I’d love to know what decision you ultimately make and how you decide (and it might help our other readers too!)

      • Well, update here. It looks like we’re going to be part of the exodus from Manhattan to Providence. We’re coming back next week to look at apartments and fingers crossed hope to ride back on the Acela by mid December to a new home.

        Our first visit was very nice (those beastly hot days right after July 4th). Having been so used to NYC, I think we were a tad bit deflated by the calm; you know, that patrician Manhattanite thing of “well, yes, it’s just perfectly quaint” and all of that. And given that my corner apt here at 25th and lex brings me the min by min decibel level of every single police car, fire truck, ambulance, bus, taxi, garbage truck, delivery van, and the myriad of couples fighting at 5 am on the street, the disturbed rantings of assorted unhappy people, I actually spent some time at the Dean sleeping as I have not slept more than two hours straight in seven years…..

        And then we started going through our list of possible cities again from mega to semi-mega, and all if a sudden, we found ourselves saying, let’s move to Providence. And a number of zeitgeisty signs happened that made us say, oksy, we need to listen up and lesp. If we lose our minds, we’ll move again. But we are excited/nervous etc, etc.

      • Thanks so much for the update! It sounds like you have thought it through, and it’s exciting to make the leap. Providence and Manhattan are so close geographically and yet feel, in many ways, worlds away. That said, there are plenty of displaced New Yorkers in Providence (like myself) so there may be more affinity than is immediately obvious.

        Still, I have to laugh when you wrote how it’s ‘perfectly quaint’ – it is so true to come from NY to anywhere can definitely be a letdown. But I hope you won’t find that to be true in Providence. I had spent time in Cambridge, Mass (talk about letdown), Paris, and Newport, RI between our moves from NYC to Providence – so I had the benefit of having tried all of those places first. I’m not sure honestly how I would have felt about Providence if I had moved straight there from NY. I’d like to think it wouldn’t have made a difference…

        You’ll have to report back. If you ever feel like doing some guest blog posts on your transition or discoveries around the city, I would love that!

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