Two Sides of Kennedy Plaza: If You Rebuild it, Will They Come?

futureKPlazaFor most non-Rhode Islanders, the name Kennedy Plaza probably conjures up images of the spot where President Kennedy was shot in 1963. That’s not entirely off the mark – Kennedy Plaza has long been a good place to get shot. Or propositioned. Or started down a path toward recreational or hardcore drug use. In any event, it’s not a place you want to find yourself after nightfall. Scratch that – historically, it’s not a place you want to find yourself at all.
But hang on a minute. Providence isn’t about to let Kennedy Plaza swirl down the drain or be amputated like a gangrenous limb. There are plans afoot. Big plans! Impressive plans! Expensive plans! Now only two questions remain – what exactly are they going to do with Kennedy Plaza? And if they build it, will they come? Y’know, people?
The plan, which has been gestating for six years – six years! – calls for an infusion of $1.7 million to rework the plaza into a grand pedestrian thoroughfare, with trees and plants and parks and outdoor cafes. The belief is that a leaner, greener, cleaner plaza will draw in families, young professionals, and maybe mimes.
Will it? Consider other renovation projects that were undertaken in major cities. In New York, Times Square was a filthy, crime-ridden cesspool filled with XXX-rated theaters, crack pipes and rats so big you could saddle them up and ride to Bayonne. In the ‘90s, then-mayor Giuliani took a broom and bleach to the area, closing down the peepshows and bringing in Elmo. It certainly helped, but it took a while for the stigma of Times Square as a hellhole to wear off. And the rats are still there.
Similar story for Boston’s infamous Combat Zone. Once a magnet for drug dealers, pimps and military boys looking for a little shore leave – wink, wink – the Combat Zone was slowly but surely edged out by urban renewal projects and an increased police presence. Thankfully, all the drug dealers and prostitutes moved into neighboring Chinatown, so you only need to cross over a few blocks to get your fix, whatever that may be. Still, the grime of the Combat Zone’s long shadows was not so easily scrubbed from the streets.
So what of Kennedy Plaza? The first announced steps toward gentrification are a reconfiguration of bus stops (which may or may not finally clear out the noxious fog that permeates the area) and improvements in front of City Hall, both slated for 2014. Of course 2014, in government speak, means that babies born today may actually see it in their lifetimes. The rest of the improvements have no set timeline.
And back to the main point – how long before the common folk will speak of Kennedy Plaza with anything but disdain? It depends. How quickly can the changes be implemented? How soon will locals come down and have a sniff around? And can an improved area remain an improved area?
We shall see. In the meantime, if you don’t want to wait for the improved bus service, the rats are saddled and ready.