Pond Street: A Lost Neighborhood

Only a stub of Pond Street remains, tucked between Interstate 95 and the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Before the interstate was built in the late 1950s, Pond Street stretched west up the hill and across the Central and Classical High School campuses to Pearl Street. Today, the void of the interstate and the wide-open playing fields and parking lots give no sense of the densely built web of narrow back streets and broad avenues that once existed here.

In the mid-20th Century, redevelopment programs demolished large stretches of historic Providence, devastating communities and disrupting our collective memory. This tour tries to reconstruct some of that lost city, to look back to what once was, who lived here, and what their struggles and achievements were. This neighborhood tells the story of the city of Providence, and the story of Providence is the story of our country. Without memory and story, we lose a sense of who we were and the ability to imagine who we want to be.

Pond Street tells us of the many things that Providence was: the city of slavery and the cotton trade, the industrial boom city with towering brick smokestacks, the city of the clanging trolley and vaudeville theaters, the city of immigrants as well as the city of tradition and assimilation, the dynamic city of change and progress and turmoil, searching for its future, rebuilding itself layer by layer.

This tour is one piece of a much larger puzzle. I am proud to work with the Providence Public Library to create a web archive that gathers much of the information, census data, and primary source materials that inform this tour into a project that makes accessible more stories from the past--and to look for ways to engage the community in the rediscovery of our common history.

Explore the layers of that historic city. Imagine what Providence was and what it could be.

1638: The Pequot Trail

Right here in the heart of the city lies a trace of an ancient trailway used by the Indigenous Peoples who inhabited this region for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. This stop is located on a ridge of land looking east over the…

1710: The Plainfield Road

Colonial era roadways tell us something about the story of Providence. Over the course of the 17th century, the English village settlement on the banks of the Moshassuck and Providence Rivers grew, and other settlements were established on…

1812 - 1864: Reverend Edward Scott

Reverend Edward Scott was a political activist and anti-slavery agitator who had, himself, escaped from slavery in Virginia before becoming a minister and community leader. Scott was born a slave in Virginia around 1812. He freed himself as well as…

1828: High Street Bank

In the early 19th century, the agricultural and mercantile economy of Providence was transformed by the Industrial Revolution in America, begun in nearby Pawtucket at Slater Mill. One essential ingredient for this transformation was capital. Money.…

1830: Arnold-Palmer House

The redevelopment of Cathedral Square in the late 1960s left few traces of what this busy city intersection once was. One of those remaining traces is the Arnold-Palmer house, moved in 1967 through the prescient preservation efforts of the Beneficent…

1836: High Street Congregational Church

While redevelopment often erases a city's past, the constant re-building of a city over time also leads to the loss of historical memory. One such site is 755 Westminster Street, a historic building from 1899, which replaced the High Street…

1838: Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul

During the early 19th Century, textile mills, like Grant Mill in the city of Providence, were being built across Rhode Island.  The textile industry required hands to work the many machines that produced the new wealth, and Providence’s population…

1842: Second Free Will Baptist Church

The Second Free Will Baptist Church (SFWBC) is one of the oldest Black congregations in Providence, formed around 1830 by a group who left the African Union Meeting House, itself formed from the departure of African-American congregants from the…

1848-1929: Maritcha Lyons

Maritcha Lyons was an African-American teacher, writer, and activist who testified before the General Assembly as a 16-year-old girl to desegregate the Providence Public School System. In 1869, she was the first African-American to graduate from…

1861: Benjamin Brayton Knight Mansion

Providence's population grew at an extraordinary rate throughout the 19th Century, from about 50,000 in 1850 to 175,000 in 1900, driven by the region's ever-expanding industrial complex. Providence was at the heart of New England's…

1862: Perry Davis' Vegetable Pain-Killer

In the summer of 1840, Perry Davis was sick. Physically, debilitatingly sick. His businesses had failed, one after another. His family was living in penury. He had, however, an enterprising spirit and creative mind. He concocted a combination of…

1869-1947: Eva Belle Clemence

Eva Belle Clemence lived and worked in Providence as an independent artist, a difficult space for a woman to find success in early 20th-Century America. Clemence was born in Worcester, Mass., in 1869, but her father Martin was from Rhode Island,…

1878: English High School

In September 1878, a "magnificent" new high school was dedicated on Pond Street from plans made by prominent Providence architect William H. Walker. The old high school at Benefit and Waterman Streets had been overcrowded for years. The expansion of…

1889: YMCA and YWCA

In 1889, the Young Men's Christian Association opened a grand new Romanesque Revival building on a prominent corner of Westminster Street in Cathedral Square. The building contained a gymnasium, auditorium, classrooms, libraries, parlors, and…

1902: The Imperial Theatre

In 1800, Providence had about 7,000 people. By 1900, the city was bursting with over 175,000 and still growing. The downtown commercial district, once centered on a stretch of North Main Street by the Market House, now extended across the Providence…

1902-1948: Arshile Gorky

Arshile Gorky was a significant Surrealist painter and a father of the American Abstract Expressionist movement. He was a refugee from Armenia in 1919, where Turkish forces engaged in a mass genocide of the Armenian people. Gorky, originally named…

1915-2015: Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs was an activist for equality and labor justice, working with her husband James Boggs in Detroit, and reached a global community with their campaign for workers' rights and understanding across racial and ethnic boundaries. Boggs…
Funded through a grant from the City of Providence Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism