Home to one of the oldest community-based civil rights organizations in the United States.
By examining the site’s history, we can all be reminded of the layers embodied in one site. Located on Prairie Avenue, where Comstock Avenue, Robinson Street, and Willard Avenue meet it from the west, the building is at the intersection of structure and culture, and worthy of acknowledgment.
The site is prominently located in Upper South Providence next to two important neighbors, the Liston Campus of the Community College of Rhode Island to the east and the massive hospital campus of Rhode Island Hospital, Women and Infants, and Hasbro Children’s Hospital to the north. With its placement on Prairie Avenue, the Urban League building serves as a gateway to the residential neighborhood to the west. Some may view the 120 parking spaces and development potential of the site as more important than the reuse of the existing building—without paying deference to the site’s local civil rights and African American and immigrant history.
The Urban League was established nationally in New York City in 1910, and locally in Rhode Island in 1939, as one of the oldest community-based civil rights organizations in the United States. Our state affiliate continues to promote economic empowerment by helping neighbors transition from dependency to financial independence.
What may not be known to younger generations or newcomers is that this site was the first official urban renewal project in Providence: Willard Center Redevelopment in 1954. The project included a shopping center, the Edmund W. Flynn Elementary School (closed in 2012 and recently demolished), and a park. The redevelopment itself displaced as many as 200 families who occupied the 18-acre site—which had more than 70 19th century buildings on it per the 1900 Sanborn map.
Displacement, disinvestment, and decline led to disturbances, violence, and arson at or near the Willard Avenue Shopping Center beginning with the Emancipation Day freedom rally in 1966 and culminating in 1970. The original shopping center was demolished, and the current building replaced it.
The repetitive pattern of voluntary or forced resettlement of immigrant populations within a city can be found all over the United States, and South Providence is no exception. Irish and Italian neighborhoods become Jewish centers that become African American communities that today are home to more recent arrivals from Latin America. (See also the listing of the Broad Street Synagogue). And, unfortunately, the record of government-orchestrated urban renewal largely failing the people it was meant to benefit is also a pattern that played out across the country. These two threads, resettlement and urban renewal, represent two critical chapters in the history of South Providence that are still visible in the built environment.
We have since learned many hard lessons about urban renewal’s effects on community and what happens when the people who live in these communities are not prioritized. In 2022, the property was turned over to the Providence Redevelopment Agency with promises that whatever the new revitalization plan, the Urban League and surrounding community would be involved in deciding its future. Whether or not the building remains a part of the plan, it is essential that the PRA follows through on these statements. PPS hopes that the incoming mayoral administration will keep these lessons in mind when envisioning a new program for the Urban League site – one that prioritizes the Urban League, what made it a historically and culturally significant community anchor, and the South Providence community.