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Preservationists often refer to the layers of history. Some are visible in our built environment and others are  invisible—but being invisible, intangible, or erased does not mean that they are not there. The redevelopment of I-195 District parcels following the relocation of the highway provides an important example. These are vacant, buildable parcels now, but they haven’t always been so. Prior to the building of the highway, the  affected land in Fox Point was home to businesses and houses—and people. And long before these buildings and people, this land was occupied by the Narragansett people. 

The 2022 Most Endangered Properties listing of the Tockwotton Fox Point Cape Verdean Community allows us to explore the preservation of intangible culture and history. Many of the buildings once occupied by this community are gone due to federal intervention (urban renewal and the Interstate Highway System), gentrification, institutional expansion, and PPS’ own underestimation of the threats. As the East Side I-195 parcels are reimagined and repopulated with buildings, 21st-century technology provides important tools to maintain the living history for generations yet to come. 

One hundred and thirty years ago, Cape Verdeans began arriving in the Tockwotton neighborhood of Fox  Point. They were the first Sub-Saharan African people to immigrate voluntarily to Providence, Rhode Island. Pre I-195 construction, the community stretched from Planet Street and South Main Street through to India Point  Park; Wickenden and Brook Streets up to John Street; and Benefit, Traverse, and Brook Streets to the river. 

The locus of Cape Verdean “lived history” was South Main Street, home to significant community institutions,  organizations, and businesses. Today, it is the location of I-195 District parcels, the redevelopment of which will  add a new layer of history. Recalling and understanding history can be made more accessible by pointing to buildings inhabited by ancestors. However, historians are challenged to tell an invisible story when the buildings do not survive or were demolished.  

The Fox Point Cape Verdean Heritage Place Project, Inc. (FPCVHP), incorporated in 2014, is an independent, community-based research initiative. The team, comprised of descendants of the first settlement of Cape  Verdeans, aims to open the door to generations of research by being the architects and curators of the lived history of this specific community. They have worked for over fifteen years to insert Cape Verdean history into  the stream of narratives told about immigrants to Providence, dating back to Roger Williams and the British Colonists.  

How do we capture the intangible surviving memory and generational trauma experienced by the people  displaced from their neighborhood? PPS is proud to recognize the work of FPCVHP and their team as they leverage 21st-century digital technology to preserve, maintain, and create a digital footprint of the living but physically erased history of Rhode Island’s first Cape Verdean neighborhood. The awareness and protection of intangible heritage challenges us, as preservationists, to widen the definition of place significance and to  encourage the commemoration of the unseen. 

Photo courtesy of SPIA Media Productions Inc.

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© 2022 Guide to Providence Architecture. All rights reserved. Design by J. Hogue at Highchair designhaus, with development & support by Kay Belardinelli.