A highway runs through it: The legacy of urban renewal in Providence

Homes RI
4 min readMar 22, 2023

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An armored vehicle is used to demolish a building in the Lippitt Hill neighborhood of Providence. Photo Courtesy of RI Historical Society.

Urban renewal is defined as “a program of land redevelopment often used to address urban decay in cities.”

At face value, the term “urban renewal” doesn’t evoke a sense of loss, but one of progress. For Black communities across America, however, urban renewal brought neighborhood erasure — not growth and positive change.

After being redlined in the 1930s, several Black communities were effectively wiped-out to make way for new developments, mostly catering to White residents and often only to White residents.

Providence, Rhode Island was no stranger to this harsh reality.

In 1946, Rhode Island passed the Community Redevelopment Act, which allowed for the formation of the Providence Redevelopment Agency (PRA) as its main tool for urban renewal. The R.I. General Assembly passed the Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Act in 1950, which gave the PRA the right to acquire private homes and properties in blighted areas through eminent domain.

The PRA recommended that a quarter of the city’s real estate — 11,000 buildings — be demolished and redeveloped in the 1960s.

In April 1959, residents in the predominantly Black and immigrant neighborhood of Lippitt Hill received pamphlets on their doors from the PRA, warning them that Lippitt Hill had been identified as “blighted” and was to be purchased for redevelopment. It was also one of the oldest African American communities in the state.

Roughly 650 units in Lippitt Hill would be destroyed, with 450 of them (around 70 percent) occupied by non-White residents. The neighborhood was replaced with the University Heights housing complex and a supermarket (Whole Foods on N. Main Street, today).

Stories like this would play out throughout the city.

The predominantly Black neighborhood of Mount Hope was destroyed in the name of urban renewal and replaced with a highway and USPS distribution center. More than 700 homes were demolished in Mount Hope alone.

Across the city , another largely immigrant neighborhood was wiped-out to make way for an I-195 highway extension. Residents of Fox Point were displaced in large quantities when the neighborhood was designated as a slum by the PRA in 1959.

Some stayed and fought the development, to no avail.

A young man looks at the Lippitt Hill Redevelopment Project construction. Photo Courtesy of Rhode Island Historical Society Collections.

Displaced with nowhere to go

Black people made up only about 5.5 percent of the total Providence population in 1960, but 33 percent of those displaced through urban renewal were Black.

The displaced were seldom assisted with finding new housing, and Black people experienced further discrimination when White landlords refused to rent to them. Many were forced into ill-maintained and segregated public housing projects.

Black families were systematically denied access to affordable homeownership. Between 1934 and 1962, households of color received only 2 percent of all government-backed mortgages.

Looking forward

Some steps have been taken to reverse the damage of urban renewal, including rerouting route I-195 around downtown Providence and daylighting portions of the Providence River, but the devastation experienced by Black Rhode Islanders can’t really be undone.

Urban renewal and widespread discriminatory housing practices would have a lasting impact on the rate of Black homeownership.

According to a 2022 report, while 62 percent of all Rhode Islanders own their own home, only 34 percent of Black Rhode Islanders are homeowners. Rhode Island’s racial homeownership gap is even worse than the national average.

We need to combat the racist housing policies of the past with forward-thinking policies that protect, uplift and propel Black families.

The State of Black Rhode Island report states, “Effective policies must address historic and current barriers to homeownership related to intentional racial exclusion and barriers to credit access. By continuing to identify and work with national and local organizations, as well as government agencies, we can help improve Black homeownership rates in our state.”

Learn more

In 2017, Stages of Freedom conducted interviews to collect oral histories from former residents of the Lippitt Hill neighborhood.

The story of Fox Point is told in Dr. Claire Andrade-Watkins’ documentary “Some Kind Of Funny Porto Rican?,” the first in a trilogy of documentaries about Cape Verdean community in Fox Point.

A Matter of Truth: The Struggle for African Heritage & Indigenous People Equal Rights in Providence, Rhode Island (1620–2020)

Urban Renewal and Rhode Island: A Complicated History by Miguel Youngs

This post was written by Nicole Dotzenrod, Housing Network of Rhode Island communications manager.

Do you have a story you would like to uplift? Email Nicole at ndotzenrod@housingnetworkri.org to submit an idea or guest blog post.

ABOUT HOMES RI

Homes RI is a coalition of organizations working together to increase the supply of safe, healthy and affordable homes throughout Rhode Island. We believe Rhode Island can and should be a state where all residents are able to live in safe, healthy and sustainable homes in thriving communities. | homesri.org

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Homes RI

Homes RI is a coalition of organizations working together to increase the supply of safe, healthy and affordable homes throughout Rhode Island | homesri.org