East Side of Providence

Tour curated by: Elyssa Tardif

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.

This tour was produced in partnership with the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau (PWCVB) and supported by a generous grant from the Providence Tourism Council.

Locations for Tour

At the crest of Smith Hill, once pastureland for a sleepy colonial town, sits a marble giant, the Rhode Island State House. Designed by the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, responsible for the design of the Boston Public Library…

A visionary and independent thinker, Roger Williams (c. 1603 – 1683) was warned by the Puritan authorities in Massachusetts Bay Colony to refrain from spreading his “new and dangerous opinions.” Williams’s “opinions” did not sit well with…

Providence began as a sleepy farming village along the Great Salt Cove and The Great Salt River (the Providence River, today). It stayed that way into the eighteenth century, even while seaports like Newport amassed incredible wealth through the…

Rhode Island is perhaps inordinately proud of its superlatives and firsts: first to establish religious freedom, first to rebel against the British crown, longest hold-out before ratifying the newly minted Constitution.  And, in the 20th century,…

Providence’s tightly-knit community of artists and collectors created the Providence Art Club to congregate, create, and display art. It is the second oldest art club in the country after the Salmagundi Club in New York City. The westernmost of the…

As the population of the East Side grew in the 18th century, residences sprang up quickly along Benefit Street. Intended for “the common benefit of all.” Benefit Street encouraged the construction of homes higher on the ridge of modern-day…

The Rhode Island School of Design, most commonly known by its acronym RISD, is an internationally acclaimed leader in art and design education. Established in 1877 by 34 members of the Rhode Island Women’s Centennial Commission, the school embarked…

As you stroll the streets of the East Side, pay attention to the street signs: many of the streets you pass bear witness to some of the significant people and structures that have come and gone, making and remaking the city. Power Street, for…

In the mood for a seance? If you were a member of the cultural elite in 19th-century Providence, all signs would have pointed to yes. East Side artists and intellectuals attended seances held in private homes, which also played host to literary…

This home of Declaration-signer Stephen Hopkins (1707 – 1785) is among the oldest still standing in Rhode Island and the oldest in Providence. Hopkins lived here with his family and their slaves, in eight rooms that are now chock-full of antiques,…

Only two months before Washington would burn at the hands of British troops during the War of 1812, Providence would witness the destruction by fire of a major monument atop the East Side. A victim of arson, the First Congregational Church (1795) was…

Success, ambition, and glamour dominate this block of Benefit Street. John Brown became wealthy from his family’s shipping business, which included privateering, the China Trade, and Triangular Trade. John, along with his brothers Nicholas, Joseph,…

If the walls of University Hall could talk, they might tell you about the time they met George Washington (although don’t believe them if they tell you he slept here). The first building constructed on Brown’s campus, University Hall, has played…

Prominent textile manufacturer Henry Lippitt, his wife and six children lived in this opulent Italian Renaissance Revival house, a testament to the burgeoning wealth of industrial Providence. Lippitt’s business ventures and investments proved so…
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