Ownership and Identity in Kennedy Plaza



Ask anyone where the center of Providence is and they’ll point you to Kennedy Plaza.

Geographically it is a natural center, located in a river valley between two hills. College Hill (to the east) is home to Brown University, and Federal Hill (to the west) is the heart of Providence's Italian-American community. Kennedy Plaza's layout follows the traditional colonial pattern, with the Providence City Hall facing the U.S. District Court. (According to local legend, when mayor Buddy Cianci was on trial he would walk across Kennedy Plaza to make his court dates.) The plaza is also a transportation hub, first as the home of a train station from 1847 to 1980, and now as a bus depot.


Components of Kennedy Plaza. Source: Greater Kennedy Plaza

Kennedy Plaza’s assets don’t necessarily add up to its status as city center. The State Capital and the Providence County Courthouse are located elsewhere. The first central plaza in Providence, Market Square, is located across the river. The bus depot is ugly and loud and takes up half the plaza’s usable space. But while other spaces can claim equal proximity to public buildings, greater historical importance and aesthetic advantages, they stand empty while Kennedy Plaza bustles with loiterers, tourists, commuters and professionals.


Market Place, the former center of ownership and identity in Providence. Source: City of Providence

Kennedy Plaza stands out because it has become a symbol of identity and (contested) ownership for the people of Providence. It is a reminder of what Setha Low, director of the Public Space Research Group at the City University of New York and author of "On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture" describes as the “phenomenological and symbolic experience of a space as mediated by social processes such as exchange, conflict, and control.”

The making of Kennedy Plaza is not a story one can Google and, as a relative newcomer to Providence, I am not in the best position to tell it. According to William McKenzie Wormwood, a historian at the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, Kennedy Plaza “is the city's most constantly reworked space, and fully interpreting its history would fill a book that could be a landmark in understanding American urbanism.” That said, I can guess at several key historical processes behind the plaza's current centrality.


Providence City Hall.

First was the construction of City Hall in 1878. While arguably not the most important political building in Providence, City Hall is the most approachable. The modest facade is removed from the sidewalk by only a few steps, welcoming democratic participation in contrast to the state capitol’s grand walkway and imposing dome. City Hall, not the State House, is the primary voice in government for the average Providence citizen.


Joaquim DeBarros waits in front of the Kennedy Plaza transportation center. Photo by Bill Murphy. Source: Belo Blog

Second is the bus depot, redesigned and formalized by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority in the late 1990s. To the probable chagrin of the plaza’s more well-to-do tenants, the bus depot attracts the homeless and unemployed by providing benches and a constant stream of pedestrian traffic. Kennedy Plaza provides rare visibility for the dispossessed, who in other cities are often vetted away from the central public space.


Snow falls on Occupy Providence. Source: Occupy Providence

Third is local politics. The status of Kennedy Plaza as a space of contested ownership became most obvious when Occupy Providence moved into Burnside Park in October 2011. And, in fact, many of the participants had been occupying Kennedy Plaza for years through frequent demonstrations, petitions and orations in front of City Hall or the Court House.


Festival Ballet Providence performs in Kennedy Plaza. Source: Greater Kennedy Plaza

Recently the Greater Kennedy Plaza coalition has been working to reinvent the plaza once again, part of an initiative to “transform Downtown Providence into a lively public square, rich with activity.” The coalition includes several foundations, more than five state and local government bodies and Bank of America, among others. I see their project as another bid for ownership of this contested space.

This post is part of a collection of Featured Places from around the world. If you'd like to share photos of a place you find interesting, just add them to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org and we'll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

Credits: Photos of Kennedy Plaza by Melanie Friedrichs unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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4 comments:

  1. very much enjoyed these reflections on what makes an active public space and how places are shaped and influenced by city residents. i would love to see kennedy plaza included in a historical study of american urbanism. keep these featured places coming!

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  2. Perhaps it is insuring that Kennedy Plaza continues be contested space, not dominated by any one use or user groups, that will insure its ongoing evolution, openness and increasing public benefit. Indeed that seems to the goal of the Greater Kennedy Plaza Working Group. Its performance as a public space can continue to be undermined by single uses and isolated spaces separated by large roads, or it can become a center that invites, challenges and inspires all dimensions of Providence to compete to contribute to the space. There is a currently a unique alignment of efforts that can build on this rich history to make Kennedy Plaza the dynamic center the reflects the culturally rich neighborhoods and populations of Providence.

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  3. Interesting piece, although I'm not sure how rare the "visibility for the dispossessed" really is. In fact, I'm having a hard time thinking of an American city where one won't find large homeless populations in its center. The New Haven Green, Center City Philadelphia, L.A.'s Pershing Square--all these spaces are usually crowded by the "dispossessed." This makes sense, since the most public space of the city is, well, the most public. When the homeless aren't found in these spaces, these are usually exceptional cases, where the squares were gentrified in a very calculated way. San Francisco's Union Square exemplifies this, although one might argue as to what the true central public space of that city. Civic Center and Powell/Market, which both have large homeless populations, also come to mind as contenders.

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  4. cAN YOU TELL ME EXACTLY WHEN NTHE PLAZA WAS RENOVATED LAST AS A MAJOR BUS DEPOT AND WHAT THE TOTAL COST OF THAT WORK ENDED UP BEING. i BELIEVE IT MUST HAVE BEEN AROUND 1997 OR SO BUT i AM NOT SURE. PLEASE EMAIL ME AT DGLOAN@AOL.COM

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