Experience Pawtucket

Posted on May 3, 2014

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We are back for Round 2 with Graham Sheridan, Brown Political Review. Last week we learned about life after death for shopping malls. This week we dive into Pawtucket, Rhode Island. What’s notable about Pawtucket? We’re not sure but Graham will make it interesting and memorable.

Background Check

Graham Sheridan is a second year candidate in the Master’s in Public Affairs program here at Brown. He went to undergraduate school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA and hails from Greensboro, NC.

Experience Pawtucket


May 2, 2014

Some big things are happening one town to my north. Up in Pawtucket, RI (yes, where Peter Griffin works on Family Guy), a coordinated effort has been made to revitalize the downtown. Pawtucket’s downtown has many amazing buildings, but has fallen victim to a familiar series of problems in Rhode Island: overreliance on one industry, that industry’s decline, and a corresponding loss of population. Now, Pawtucket has many beautiful historic buildings, but far too many sit empty.

Aaron Hertzberg Photo from Pawtucket Foundation
Aaron Hertzberg Photo from Pawtucket Foundation

Fast Stats on Pawtucket:

  • 9 square miles
  • Population of 72,000
  • Borders Providence to the South, Massachusetts to the East

When I went to visit Aaron Hertzberg, executive director of the Pawtucket Foundation he took me on a tour of the downtown and told me about the efforts of the foundation and others to turn the area around. Aaron, a classmate of mine at Brown, simply overflows with ideas for the little city.

The Pawtucket Foundation sees its role as bringing people together. For example, it offers corporate days to get people involved in the community. On these days, people come from their offices to plant trees, pick up trash, or implement pop up urbanism ideas.  The Foundation wants to work with government to create a unified vision for Pawtucket to tie all the investment in the city together. They want to promote the town’s fascinating heritage as the cradle of the industrial revolution in America, a tale of a scalawag named Samuel Slater.

Early in the industrial revolution, Slater smuggled plans for water-powered mills out of England and found his way to Pawtucket.  There, he teamed up with the Brown family to create the first river-powered mill in America in downtown Pawtucket. Soon the Blackstone River in Rhode Island and Massachusetts was dotted with mills, turning Rhode Island into a wealthy industrial powerhouse.

Pawtucket’s Riverfront Town Hall

New England spent several decades as the manufacturing center of America.  Eventually, though, the mills left Rhode Island for the South, and left the south for abroad. Now communities across America must reinvent themselves for the 21st century. Pawtucket is trying to do that in several ways.

Pawtucket’s Riverfront Town Hall

One exciting development is the creation of the Blackstone Valley National Historic Corridor, which runs through Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A series of historic sites with a headquarters in Pawtucket, the corridor teaches American history in a hands-on-see-for-yourself way. There is even talk of turning the Historic Corridor into a National Park, which would direct more resources into Pawtucket.

Pawtucket has also been growing due to an arts community. Famed interior designer Morris Nathanson moved from SoHo home to Pawtucket and began coaxing other artists to follow him there.  His firm, Morris Nathanson Design works with historic buildings, including some very high profile ones. Over the years, his presence has attracted many artists to Pawtucket, filling a riverfront arts district.

Also, no article about Pawtucket could be complete without mentioning the Pawtucket Red Sox, a farm team for the Boston Red Sox. Just as I write this (May 1), the PawSox are participating in their first nationally televised game, a great way to promote Pawtucket nationally.

With several projects going on, still a lot left to do, and limited resources, Hertzberg and his group have to prioritize their actions. He talks often about the “end user” of his work. This would be the business leader, resident, or developer who will be living in and investing in Pawtucket. For that reason, his group made sure Pawtucket’s website, www.experiencepawtucket.org, was seamless with the city calendar and materials.

The Blackstone River in Pawtucket

The Blackstone River in Pawtucket
The Blackstone River in Pawtucket

Public and foundation investments, he believes, should connect the private investments together, to make an interconnected experience for users. For example, if new apartments are coming in near downtown, how can we make a walkable path from the apartments to downtown?

The Foundation also works to make the streets more fun to be on, developing parklets and street trees in the city center. They want to turn an old phone booth to a small library.  Connecting all the pieces can be long and frustrating work, but it’s good to know people want to improve their communities.

Supplemental Reading


Pawtucket Downtown Design Plan

Pawtucket Foundation Announces Executive Director

It’s Not a Mall World After All by Graham Sheridan

Downtown design well-received

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