Providence?s historic image -- downtrodden, corrupt, and desolate -- radically shifted in 2003. That was the year Mayor David Cicilline took office, and that he was openly gay didn?t stop him from getting 84% of the vote, making Providence the first U.S. state capital and at that time the largest American city to have an out mayor (Portland, Ore. has since taken that title). Cicilline soon transformed the debt-ridden city of 185,000 into a gleaming, prosperous enclave. Nearly $3 billion of investment has been pumped through Providence?s veins in the last five years, and luxury condos, revamped hotels, and chic shops now line the immaculate, historic streets. The crime rate is the lowest in 30 years, tax credits are given to restore landmark buildings, and a future relocation of the Interstate 95?Interstate 195 interchange will open 19.5 acres of waterfront redevelopment. The city?s dramatic turnabout recently led The Wall Street Journal to name Providence one of the world?s top 10 up-and-coming travel destinations (the only U.S. city to make the list). It?s no wonder the mayor?s thriving popularity has him considering a run in 2010 as the nation?s first out governor.
Providence has been a refuge of tolerance ever since 1636, when the defiant Roger Williams set up a colony there that espoused religious freedom and liberty. The city has also long been a major arts and intellectual capital, home to the academic powerhouses of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, alma mater of gay filmmaker Gus Van Sant. Providence?s relatively small size might lead you to think it doesn?t have much gay life, but the city has over two dozen gay bars, clubs, and other venues and a sizable lesbian scene; its pride festival in June dominates the entire downtown. Many gays in New England choose to reside in Providence because of its inexpensive prices, friendliness, and gay tolerance. And as fall approaches, it?s a great time to visit, with the leaves turning, the air crisp, and the universities bustling.
Providence is located between New York City and Boston on Interstate 95. The T. F. Green/Providence Airport (401-737-8222) is serviced by several major airlines and is just south of the city in the suburb of Warwick. Better yet, grab one of the frequent Amtrak trains (800-USA-RAIL); the surprisingly modern station is right in town. The train ride is under 45 minutes from Boston, and under three hours from NYC.
A.M. Start your exploration of Providence at the dramatic Rhode Island State House (82 Smith St.; 401-277-2357; call to join guided tours on weekday mornings), a neoclassical Georgian marble structure that dominates the city from its hilltop perch. Completed in 1904, the edifice boasts one of the largest self-supported domes in the world, topped by the statue Independent Man, the symbol of the state?s forward thinking. Head east to Benefit Street; it?s one of the oldest neighborhoods in America and filled with vintage wooden homes. From mid June through mid October, the Rhode Island Historical Society (401-273-7507 ext. 62) hosts guided walking tours of the area. Duck into the Providence Athenaeum (251 Benefit St.; 401-421-6970), a library that has occupied the same stunning Greek Revival building since 1838. Waltz up the hill to the grand entrance of Brown University (45 Prospect St.; 401-863-1000) and explore the majestic John Carter Brown Library (with over 45,000 rare books printed before 1825). Just a few blocks north of Brown is the Rhode Island School of Design (2 College St.; 401-454-6100). Peruse the top-notch jewelry and photography produced by students at the Woods-Gerry Gallery (62 Prospect St.; 401-454-6142), housed in a brick mansion. Then relax at the RISD landmark Carr House Coffee Shop (210 Benefit St.), a funky, casual caf? run by undergraduates in an old residential building, which serves gourmet coffees, pastries, and sandwiches. A must-stop is the labyrinthine RISD Museum (224 Benefit St.; 401-454-6500), with its diverse multicultural collection including Roman sculpture, Japanese watercolors, and Turkish textiles. Opening in late September 2008 is the museum?s adjoining steel-and-glass Chace Center, with an exhibition by celebrated gay glass sculptor Dale Chihuly (an RISD alumnus).
P.M. To be as cool as the RISD art students, hang out at AS220 (115 Empire St.; 401-831-9327), with its Edward Hopper?like diner and adjoining crisp white contemporary art gallery. Or partake of Rhode Island?grown fare like littleneck clams and grilled quail at the swank new wood-paneled Local 121 (121 Washington St.; 401-274-2121). Then catch a performance at the nearby Tony award?winning Trinity Repertory Company (201 Washington St.; 401-351-4242), run by out director Curt Columbus, formerly of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, who debuted his gay-themed musical Paris by Night here in 2008.