Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Old Home Providence

Of the various places I have lived, my very favourite is of course London, but the second favourite is Providence, Rhode Island. My history with Providence goes back to 1974 when Bob was offered a graduate place in Brown University's Linguistics Department. And now much of a lifetime later, we have come back full circle to another Providence connection through our son-in-law who is working there at an internet start-up company.

We lived in Providence from 1974 until 1978 when Bob finished his Ph.D., left for four years in San Diego, and returned to Providence, with two children, in 1982. I desperately wanted to raise my children in Providence, but sadly there were no jobs for an unemployed Ph.D., even with re-training for the 1980s finance boom, and by the end of 1983 we had packed up and left Providence for good. Wall Street and New Jersey became the future. As Bob says, living in London has been the reward for that forced march to New Jersey.

We have been back to visit since 1983, but the wrench of leaving was so painful, we cut off all contact with the people and the place during the New Jersey years. When Bob was offered a Boston job in 1991, we briefly considered the commute from Providence as an option, but the nightmare of the long commute on New Jersey Transit for seven years quickly brought us to our senses. Now of course poor Barnz is suffering the commute in reverse from Hingham.

Last Thursday, Veterans' Day, the only holiday, except Christmas and New Year, not Monday-ed in the States meant no school for Bibs and three children at home all day, so Megan popped us in the mini-van for the Great American Tradition of Visiting-Daddy-at-Work. Sadly there was no time for photocopying favourite stuffed animals — 25 years ago, we had some dynamite copies of Susan's favourite woolly mammoth from several angles done at Moody's Xerox machine — but the children acquitted themselves well and have been dubbed the Barna-babies by office colleagues.

And I had a chance to see a bit of Providence, which is such a different place from 1974, despite the economic hard times of the past few years. Rhode Island has had an unemployment rate second only to the perennial first place Michigan recently. In 1974, Rhode Island was nicknamed the "armpit of New England" with Providence the axilla at the head of Narragansett Bay. We were charmed by the place, but endlessly gobsmacked by its eccentricities.

Rhode Island is not an island, although some of its area includes islands in Narragansett Bay, and as the smallest of the states, is more like a city-state — think medieval Florence — than like any of the other 49 states, except perhaps Hawaii, which is a real island state. Geographers talk about the lasting importance of Initial Occupation, which in the case of Rhode Island, if you don't count the Native Indians, was Roger Williams, a true eccentric. Born in Smithfield London, educated at Cambridge where he became a Puritan, he emigrated with his family to Massachusetts in one of the early years of settlement. Living in the Massachusetts theocracy, he managed to piss off everyone with his rabid belief in the complete separation of church and state, and his dedication to treating the Native Indians fairly. He was eventually tried for treason and heresy and found his way into the Narragansett tribe's territory where he established a settlement he named Providence Plantations which joined with the settlement on Rhode (now Aquidneck) Island to form one of the original thirteen colonies — the first to declare independence, the last to adopt the Constitution — more eccentricity. The official name is still the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, affirmed earlier this month, when residents voted down an initiative to drop the Providence Plantations from the state's name. Puritanism was too tame so Williams founded the first Baptist Church in the New World, and the classic meetinghouse built during the 1770s is still the site of Brown University's undergraduate commencement. He then went on to join other fringe sects.

Soon after our arrival in 1974, Buddy Cianci was elected mayor of Providence and the world turned upside down. The 1970s was my favourite decade because that was the last time I remember when problems could be confronted honestly and sometimes things even got done smoothly and correctly. Prime example, Nixon was a crook and a liar, and when that was evident to all, he was ousted. The Sixties overturned mores; in the Seventies, for a brief few years, we still believed we could change the world. Providence was falling apart in the mid-1970s, the last department store — The Outlet — where I bought my first beloved Bernina sewing machine closed down, and the centre city was essentially moribund. At the same time, the country was gripped with commemorating the Bicentennial of the United States, and few cities could offer up a feast of history like Providence could.  The Providence Preservation Society had been protecting houses and streetscapes on the tony East Side from incursions by Brown since the 1950s, but they were expanding their interests to the greater city, and with support from the new city administration, hotels were rehabbed, theatres and performing art centres were opened and reopened by the time we left in 1978. Sadly Buddy Cianci was also on his way to court and possibly jail by then too.

Another eccentricity of Rhode Island — once again think medieval Florence — is that smallness breeds familiarity, tribalism, and ultimately crime. In this case some of it organised crime, since the premier New England Mafia operated out of Providence at the time, but much of it more on the order of: we grew up together on the Hill (several to choose from: Federal (Italian), Smith (Irish), College), you help me, I help you, everyone gets what they need. When we were having trouble with a new car, a kindly neighbour offered to have it stolen so we could collect the insurance. He knew the parking lot where it could be best done. (We declined the offer, but did consider.) A few years later, he headed up an important City Board that he was probably not really qualified by expertise to sit on, but he had grown up on the right Hill, and he needed a job.

After we left for good, Buddy Cianci returned as Mayor and really undertook a massive overhaul. A giant downtown enclosed mall brought department stores back, condos and office buildings, and the project he is most associated with is uncovering the river. The American Industrial Revolution began in the village of Pawtucket, at Providence's northern edge, when Samuel Slater illegally slipped out of England having memorised the design of Arkwright's Derbyshire cotton mill machinery which he promptly sold to the wealthy Brown family of Providence. Mills needed water power, and there were plenty of rivers at the head of Narragansett Bay. When steam took over, rivers were in the way of development, and often channelised and paved over for roads that were by then more essential. By the Millennium, every successful city boasted a waterfront or a riverfront, so Providence tore up the roads at the foot of College Hill to uncover the rivers beneath, created the RiverWalk greenway, and thousands visit the city on Summer weekends to view the thrilling WaterFire Festival events.

Soon enough, Buddy once again was back in court and back in jail a few years later, accompanied by quite a few colleagues this time. Including someone I worked with briefly in the 1970s, but I am happy to see that his old job was held for him because Rhode Island is a forgiving sort of place, and he was a very nice guy, and I'm sure he didn't really mean any harm by whatever it was that he did. I have no doubt he was just doing something to help a friend he grew up with on the Hill, while doing good for his wife and kids. just the Rhode Island way. In recent years, the boom and bust of the past decade have not been kind to the city and the state. Saving treasured places is always an uphill battle, and often one that needs to be fought more than once.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Autumn Glory

When we say we live in London for the food and the weather, people tend to think we are either joking or being cruel. We are telling the truth. I now have three grandchildren, all born in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. The first was born in July — much too hot that time of year to want to be in New England; the second was born in February — much too cold that time of year to want to be in New England. The third grandchild has hit it right — born in October, my very favourite month to be in New England. The leaves turn colour in September in the northern New England states, then the colour line moves southward week by week. This year I arrived in mid-October when our southern Massachusetts leaves were reaching their glorious colour peak. 
Our house where the elm has already shed all its leaves.
Our overgrown back field is beginning to turn
A maple at peak colour 

A mix of colours carpet my friend's deck

The view from a friend's window

My favourite shade of autumn leaves is this reddish gold
The grounds of a local cemetery

Down the street from our house

So it is true that in this one season of the year, I might rather be in New England than in old England.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's Election Day. . .

A dejected future voter
It's the first Tuesday in November, Election Day, in the US. The rest of the world holds their collective — socialist? — breath waiting for the results every two and four years. The rest of the world may pay more attention than US citizens since not very many people care enough to go out and vote. In Presidential election years 50% to 60% of eligible voters bother; in non-President years, the turn out of voters doesn't even reach 40% of those eligible.  Once upon a time I might have vented about dereliction of duty as a citizen, etc., but I can no longer work up that sort of ire, when most outcomes of elections seem to run the gamut from disappointment to outright disaster. Election fatigue also needs to be seen as a major factor in suppressing voter participation. For months, citizens have been subjected to a barrage of political adverts in the press, in the post, on TV and radio, and very worst are the robo-telephone calls, whose frequency force people to turn off their phone ringers for a bit of household quiet. Last night the robo-calling reached such a crescendo that Bob could not telephone us from England because the message "all circuits are busy" was a constant refrain. I read that something like $5 billion dollars has been spent this year on the election — yes I did say Billion; a third of the country is on food stamp assistance and 50 million people have no health insurance, but the political machine rolls on.

I have voted in every Presidential and Congressional election by absentee ballot in the 12 years since we moved to London. Today I was able to go to the polling place at our town's high school to vote — taking a black marker to fill in the boxes denoting my choice of candidates on the large A3 size card ballot. I also voted NO on the three silly and damaging voter initiatives, such as reducing the state sales tax, when this state, like all 49 other states, is nearly broke, but I did vote YES on my support for medical marijuana if such a law is ever considered by the state legislature. So I have done my civic national and international  duty, but I have little hope for the outcome that will trickle out tonight and tomorrow from across the country. Friends are talking about making inquiries on the possibilities of moving to other, saner, countries.

Meanwhile, the post-Halloween pumpkins are still cheerfully adorning front steps around us here in New England.

Bibs and Bobs with our pumpkins.
The Jack-o-Lantern designed by Bibs
Down the street . . .

Up the street . . .