According to legend, when Roger Williams crossed the Seekonk River a group of Narragansett called out to their English friend, asking what news he brought: “What cheer, netop?” The legend solidifies Providence’s founding story and underscores its uniqueness. Providence was, from the start, a site marked by innovative ideas and the disruption of convention. Unlike other colonies whose dealings with Native Americans had been fraught with suspicion and violence, Providence was acquired fairly, sold by one netop to another, among friends. And, unlike other colonies, Providence offered a haven for those persecuted on religious ground. The What Cheer legend celebrates the founding and also demonstrates how origin stories can gloss over less favorable histories, in this case the growing tensions between colonists and Native Americans that ultimately erupted in King Philip’s War.
The so-called What Cheer lands of Williams’ nascent colony, the present-day East Side, are marked by the layers of nearly four centuries of history. Evidence of this rich history appears everywhere you look, from grand colonial mansions to the marbled halls of the State House.
Providence was founded on the current site of the Roger Williams National Memorial, the heart of the town ultimately moved south and west, with the Great Salt River and Cove serving as anchors for the new settlement. Providence first sustained itself as a planting community in the 17th century, and then joined the vanguard of maritime commerce. Wharves and warehouses dotted the Providence waterfront in the 18th century, and the community continued to spread west along Weybosset Neck, as more space was needed for factories.
The manufacturing boom of the 19th century ushered in a period of incredible change for Providence, marked by waves of immigration, job opportunities, and an increase in Nativist attitudes. The East Side became a cultural stronghold, home to Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Providence Athenaeum. Changing demographics caused discord among communities divided by language, ethnicity, and class, leading to violence, like the 1824 Hardscrabble Riot that pitted an angry white mob against Black residents.
During the 20th century, the East Side witnessed the displacement of communities due to gentrification as well as the construction of Route 195 at its southernmost end. Homes that had perched on College Hill for hundreds of years began to show signs of wear, but thanks to the efforts of groups like the Providence Preservation Society, many early structures escaped demolition.
For centuries, the East Side has been populated by individuals of different professions, faiths, and socioeconomic status, all bound together geographically. Revolutionary from its very beginning, the East Side served as an incubator for innovation, providing a space for people to establish homes, create game-changing businesses and organizations, and effect change in Rhode Island, the nation, and in some cases, the world.