UNDER NORMAL circumstances, it's not too difficult to differentiate Venice, Italy, from Providence, R.I. But on certain summer nights, the magic of Venice is clearly reflected in Providence's three canal-like rivers, especially when two authentic black-lacquered Venetian gondolas manned by equally authentic blue-and-white-stripe-shirted Venetian gondoliers pole their way past dozens of burning braziers, their flames dancing across the gently rippling waters and accompanied by recorded symphonic strains.
It is indeed a sight to be both seen and heard, and every year, visitors come to downtown Providence to take in the son et lumiere show known as WaterFire.
The brainchild of Rhode Island School of Design's Barnaby Evans, WaterFire began humbly enough in 1994 with just 11 metal-grated braziers, each rising a foot above the water in symbolic representation of the fragility of life. These days, 100 braziers illuminate nearly a mile of the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers, burning some 500 cords of salvaged wood, and igniting a very impressive $40 million in economic activity.
Not surprisingly, most Providence residents see WaterFire as even more symbolic of the city's late-20th-century Renaissance. Infamously dismissed by The Wall Street Journal in 1983 as "a smudge on the road from New York to Cape Cod," Rhode Island's capital has come a long way in the past two decades -- so far, in fact, as to have been proclaimed by Money Magazine in 2000 as the best city in which to live in the eastern United States, the corruption conviction of its flamboyant mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, notwithstanding.
Thirty-five years ago, I myself had concluded that Providence would be a great place to spend the next four years of my late adolescent life. Unfortunately, the admissions committee at Brown University decided otherwise, and it wasn't until I moved to Connecticut in 2003 that I finally became a regular visitor to New England's second city. Now I can't recommend it enough -- even as an alternative to the behemoth of Boston -- and definitely as a practical counterweight to chi-chi Newport. Providence offers not just a bit, but a lot, of everything -- history, culture, ethnic diversity and now urban aesthetics -- and all in a relatively compressed, eminently walkable area.
The best place to begin -- and one of the few places where you are pretty much guaranteed of finding a parking place -- is where it all began, the Roger Williams National Memorial on the east bank of the Moshassuck River.
Here, in the spring of 1636, Williams, an ordained Anglican minister whose free-thinking ways about the limits of ecclesiastical authority had resulted in convictions of heresy and sedition in Puritan-ruled Salem and compelled a midwinter flight into "the howling wilderness," greeted the native Narragansett Indians in their own language with the salutation "What cheer, netop [friend]."
In short order, Williams would purchase from the Narragansetts the land for an English settlement that he would christen in honor of "God's merciful Providence unto me in my distress." Unlike other colonial communities, Providence would make no religious demands upon its citizens, regulating them "only in civil things," and thus formalizing for the first time the now bedrock American principle of separation of church and state.
Appropriately enough, the tranquil 4.5-acre wooded site is now the backdrop for the enormous white marble dome (the world's fourth-largest unsupported) of the Rhode Island State House, itself topped by the larger-than-life gilded bronze statute of the symbolic "Independent Man."
'Mile of History'
From the Roger Williams National Memorial it's all uphill -- literally, since it lies at the foot of Benefit Street, Providence's "Mile of History," which is billed by state tourism officials as "the most impressive concentration of original colonial homes in America."
Benefit Street is unquestionably the showcase of Providence's East Side (not to be confused with East Providence, a separate municipal entity across the Seekonk River). And its finest jewel is the First Baptist Church in America, a magnificent white wood house of worship adorned by an even more magnificent 185-foot steeple. Founded in 1638 by Williams during his brief stint as a Baptist, the current structure dates from 1774-1775 and was built largely by master craftsman from Boston forced to find work elsewhere after the British closed their port in response to the tea party.
Having failed on two previous occasions to get inside, I made sure that I was there at precisely 12:30 p.m. one recent Sunday for the hourlong public tour. After coffee and cookies downstairs with parishioners, church historian Stanley Lemons led us upstairs and explained that the design is really a composite of two styles, the English Renaissance (Georgian) and the Puritan, the latter evidenced by the square shape, white walls and complete lack of religious iconography. He said that its size -- large enough to accommodate one-third the late-18th-century population of Providence -- is owing to its "worldly" function, to accommodate commencements at nearby Brown College.
Directly across from the church is the Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum, one of the great small museums in America -- except that it really isn't all that small. Three floors and 40 galleries take you from ancient Egypt to the present day in a stylishly designed (this is RISD, after all) free-flowing structure that also incorporates the Federalist-style Pendleton House, opulently decked out in the finest American decorative arts, especially furniture, from the 18th and 19th centuries.
A little farther up Benefit Street is the Providence Athenaeum, built of gray granite in the shape of a Greek temple in 1753 and still exquisitely fulfilling its original mission as a public lending library and exhibit space. A block farther, and pre-dating the Athenaeum by nearly 50 years, is 10-time governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence Stephen Hopkins' red clapboard home, whose interior is tastefully furnished in period antiques. Not surprisingly given Hopkins' late 18th-century prominence, George Washington really did sleep here -- twice.
Just off Benefit Street, past the First Unitarian Church, stands the John Brown House, Providence's premier house museum, built in 1816 and boasting the largest bell ever cast from Paul Revere's foundry. Completed in 1788, the magnificent three-story brick edifice was merchant, civic leader and family patriarch John Brown's notice to the world that he had finally "made it."
One of the ways that Brown had made it was via the slave trade. In this, however, he was not alone. As we learned during the hourlong tour, an estimated 60 percent to 90 percent of American-flagged slave-trading ships in the late 1700s hailed from Rhode Island, even though the colony itself had prohibited the importation of slaves as early as 1774. The Brown family's involvement in human trafficking is traced in a poignant exhibit downstairs, just as the material fruits of it are displayed throughout the meticulously restored mansion.
It was Brown's abolitionist nephew, Nicholas, for whom the fledgling College of Rhode Island was renamed in 1804, and no exploration of the East Side is complete without a stroll through Brown University's leafy, compact campus atop College Hill. Many of the older libraries and galleries around the Quad are open to the public, so don't be shy about opening doors. But don't even bother with the ornate, iron Van Wickle Gates: They are only opened twice a year, first to let out the graduating seniors, then again to let in the incoming freshman.
After a mile of history, visitors to Providence may think they've seen it all, but that isn't the half of it. The other half is the commercial downtown, known as Downcity, which lies just across the Providence River. This was the part most in need of reviving. A stroll along Riverwalk's stone-sculpted passageways to Waterplace, a circular basin in the Woonasquatucket reclaimed from decades of not-so-benign neglect, reveals that Downcity really has cleaned up its act.
Towering behind Waterplace, ground zero as it were of WaterFire, is Providence Place Mall, a 1.4-million-square-feet retail behemoth that spans the Woonasquatucket on the site of what had once been a parking lot. Providence Place is the most conspicuous example of Downcity's multibillion-dollar revitalization, but other very big renaissance babies include the former Union Station (now offices and restaurants), the Dunkin' Donuts Center and the Rhode Island Convention Center. Nor is the process over: Two luxury condominium towers overlooking Waterplace are slated for completion this summer, and ground has been broken on One Ten Westminster, a 40-story combination office-condo-hotel that will eventually become the city's tallest building.
But there are some vintage gems here as well. Cobblestoned lower Weybosset Street, the traditional heart of corporate Providence, has an appealingly Bostonian feel to it and is home to The Arcade, America's oldest indoor shopping mall, constructed in the Georgian style in 1828. Inside the three-level, stone-colonnaded structure be sure to take in the show at Johannson's Bakery, a training facility for culinary students at nearby Johnson & Wales University. On a recent trip, my 7-year-old daughters were positively mesmerized watching chocolate layer cakes being professionally decorated.
And beginning less than a mile west on Atwells Avenue is the Federal Hill neighborhood, which, unlike the Baltimore version, has one of the largest and most vibrant Italian neighborhoods in the country. Born of the immigrant surge of the early 1900s, "the hill" is still primarily a residential community, and out-of-towners can take a seat at one of the outdoor cafes in Depasquale Square, load up on prepared provisions at Constantino's Venda Ravioli, and gawk at the artistic homemade pastries at Scialo Bros. Bakery.
For those who still haven't seen enough -- or have even more time -- there's Victorian-era Roger Williams Park, whose 435 landscaped acres are home to a zoo, a museum and planetarium, and a new $7.7 million botanical center. With 12,000 square feet of tropical and Mediterranean displays in its two, internally connected glass superstructures, the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center now ranks as the largest indoor public garden in New England.
For a museum of a more alimentary nature, feast your eyes on the thousands of items on display at the Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson & Wales' Harborside campus. Everything related to the long and sometimes strange history of food preparation can be found here, beginning with 4,000-year-old Native American cooking stones.
After you've gone from soup to nuts, just plain go nuts with the frenetic fans of the Pawtucket Red Sox (better known as the Pawsox), Boston's AAA franchise, which plays at 10,000-seat McCoy Stadium, about five miles north of Providence. Completely renovated in 1999, McCoy Stadium might not look much like Fenway Park, but the action is just as intense while the price tag is no green monster.
There is no shortage of enlightening things to see and do in Providence these days, especially for those who are able to coordinate their trip to catch a positively enchanting WaterFire. For a few flickering hours, those visitors might even think they're in Venice -- a mistake that would be entirely Providential.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE Providence is located 375 miles northeast of Baltimore along Interstate-95. Roundtrip airfare from BWI Marshall on Southwest Airlines starts at $139, while roundtrip tickets on Amtrak from Penn Station (roughly six hours one-way) begin at $150.
LODGING There are three options: historic B&Bs; on the East Side or behind the Capitol, upscale commercial hotels downtown and lower cost chains near the airport (8 miles south) or north of downtown along I-95. Summertime visitors should inquire about weekend discounts, especially downtown.
DINING Providence is blessed with a wealth of dining options, from gourmet opulence to stand-up hot dog joints. While good and even great restaurants are interspersed throughout the city, the most intense concentrations are along Atwells Avenue in Federal Hill (Italian) and Thayer Street (eclectic) adjacent to Brown University -- just walk the streets and let your nose and wallet be your guides. For views of WaterFire, make reservations well in advance at:
-- (1 Finance Way; 401-272-1040) and
-- (1 Citizen's Plaza; 401-421-2525) overlooking the Woonasquatucket River or
Hemenway's Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar
--(121 S. Main; 401-351-8570) and
3 Steeple Street Bistro & Bar
-- (125 Canal Street; 401-272-3620) overlooking the Providence River.
-- Returning for its 12th year, WaterFire is a free event. Scheduled summer dates include June 23, July 14, July 28, Aug. 18 and Sept. 1. For more dates and information, call 401-273-1155 or visit waterfire.org.
-- Forty-minute rides are available May-October for $79 for two people with each additional person (up to a total of six) for $15. During WaterFire, prices go up to $139 and rides go down to 30 minutes. Reservations are recommended by calling 401-421-8877 or visiting gondolari.com
Providence & Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau
-- 1 West Exchange St., Providence, RI 02903; 800-233-1636; pwcvb.com. [MARSHALL S. BERDAN]