Providence College and Smith Hill: Town and Gown Intersect

0
3014
Providence College, image courtesy of SLAM design thinkers blog.

On the evening of Wednesday April 3, around 40 people gathered at the Smith Hill Library on Candace Street in Providence for the second Providence College & Smith Hill Dialogue Series.  The topic, economic development.  Specifically, “how can Providence College and the community collaborate on promoting economic development opportunities in Smith Hill?”  Smith Hill residents and community leaders, representatives from local community-based organizations and small businesses, Providence College (PC) students, staff, and faculty, as well as Ward 12 Councilwoman Althea Graves and Ward 14 Councilwoman Shelley Peterson attended.

With a student population of about 4,800, PC, a regionally selective, predominantly white, Catholic, liberal arts college in Providence, is situated within the conflux of the Elmhurst, Smith Hill, and Wanskuck neighborhoods as well as Wards 5, 12, and 14.

Smith Hill, which abuts the southeast corner of PC’s campus, is a 0.648 square mile neighborhood with a population of about 6,100 residents.  According to the July 2020 Smith Street Revitalization Plan supported by the City of Providence, the median household income in Smith Hill is $41,161 with an 8% unemployment rate.  The report also shows that 32% of the population is “foreign born” and that Smith Hill, much like Providence as a whole, is a majority-minority neighborhood (with “Hispanic” people comprising 45% of the total population), whereas PC demographic data indicates students from historically underrepresented groups comprised, on average, 16% of the undergraduate population.  The report also shows that Smith Hill is largely a renter-occupied neighborhood (80% of the 3,150-housing units in the neighborhood are renter-occupied) with a median home value of $170,089.  Undergraduate tuition and fees for the 2024-2025 academic year at PC costs $63,400.00 plus room and board for those students living on campus.  PC freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are required to reside on-campus.

Aiming to foster communication and collaboration between PC and the surrounding neighborhoods, the first dialogue in February had focused on affordable housing.  City and State officials shared updates related to affordable housing in the neighborhood and participants raised concerns and posed questions to those who spoke.  PC administrator, John Sweney, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, was specifically questioned by residents to respond to what the Providence Eye has previously reported on as “The Studentificaiton of Wanskuck.” And Councilwoman Peterson has since launched a “Student Housing Working Group” in Ward 14 to further work towards addressing this issue.

The economic development dialogue, however, was structured to foster possible solutions by having participants break into small groups to brainstorm ideas for collaboration.  Janice Luongo, a longtime resident of Smith Hill, expressed a sentiment shared by many residents: there’s a real need to improve the quality of life in Smith Hill and the surrounding neighborhoods.  Residents believed that PC, as well as other larger institutions in the neighborhood, have a responsibility to support the collective neighborhood vision articulated in the Smith Street Revitalization Plan.  Residents described a neighborhood in the future with vibrant streets decorated with public art and signage improvements; lined with trees, sitting benches, Little Free Libraries, garbage cans, and well-lit pathways; alongside an improved small business community.

The current reality, however, is struggling small businesses in Smith Hill, including the departure of several small businesses on Smith Street, and the urgent need for pedestrian-friendly infrastructure to boost local commerce.  Furthermore, the lack of affordable housing in in the neighborhood has increased the vulnerability of renters in the area.  Another priority was community health initiatives, including investing in sidewalks, parks, and green spaces.

Councilwoman Althea Graves addresses the Dialogue group at the Smith Hill Library  
Photo: Carmine Perrotti

Throughout the discussion, the need for trust and inclusivity were underscored, particularly in relationship with institutions like PC, aiming to foster partnerships with, for instance, the college’s School of Business, Donald Ryan Incubator for Entrepreneurship, and the newly established School of Nursing and Health Sciences.  Collaboration and engaging stakeholders like PC to leverage institutional resources, with and alongside residents of, Smith Hill was something participants identified as key to the future of the neighborhood.

Following the event, Luongo shared: “I came home from the meeting and went to the PC website and read the strategic plan (2011 to 2018)…but there is no mention of community engagement that I could find. So, why waste our time and hold meetings and ask us what they can do for the community when we are not a part of their overall plan?” Luongo continued, “My reality of PC over the years is that it’s the professors who organize and show up for engagements with Smith Hill, but the administration doesn’t. If it wasn’t for the professors who bring their students to listen and be engaged, then nothing would be accomplished.”

While Councilwoman Graves expressed something similar, she remained optimistic: “Providence College has been seen by many in the community as the ‘Lord of the Manor’ and we are the villagers at the bottom of the hill.  There have been ambassadors, such as students and some dedicated faculty, who came down from the Manor to work with us.  I have seen a lot of changes in the last few years, including these dialogues where we’re sitting down and talking, truly listening and respecting each other.”  The Councilwoman continued, “this makes me think that true and widespread change is in the future, if not already here.”  However, the Councilwoman agreed that “there needs to be more of an effort from across the college to engage with the community.”  She underscored that there is still work to be done.

Other residents in attendance also remained hopeful of continued collaborations with PC but likewise stressed that authentic and trustworthy forms of community engagement need to be centered in the college’s strategic plans and that local community members, both residents and community-based organizations, need a seat at the table. Councilwoman Peterson said, “The opportunity for extended and robust neighborhood conversation is the pillar of community engagement. I applaud the efforts of creating these chances for candid discussion for students, community members and businesses alike to expand on our impact. These are certainly starting points for solving the issues that sometimes overwhelm our continued quality of life and day to day concerns as residents of these neighborhoods.”

Since 1994, PC has developed partnerships with local community-based organizations largely through the Feinstein Institute for Public Service and community-engaged academic departments, most especially Public and Community Service Studies (the first community-engaged academic program of its kind in the country) and since 2005, Global Studies (an interdisciplinary academic program focused on engaged learning locally and internationally). While the college has historically offered a range of community engagement experiences for students within several neighborhoods and with community-based organizations throughout Providence, over the past three decades, several staff and faculty from these key campus units have built a core relationship with Smith Hill community leaders and organizations working on several concerted community projects. While these projects have waned overtime, especially due to COVID-19, they ranged from affordable housing initiatives, community gardens, and afterschool programs to a youth positive space for gang-involved youth, a former café, and the PC / Smith Hill Annex, which operates as a space for campus-community collaborations that the college has rented in the neighborhood for over a decade.

Intersection of Smith and Chalkstone Avenues  photo courtesy of Smith Street Revitalization Plan, City of Providence (2020).

The momentum of the dialogue series was, in part, due to the City of Providence’s recent announcement of a new 20-year Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) Agreement with Brown University, Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island School of Design, and PC, which doubled the financial contributions from these higher education institutions compared to the previous PILOT agreement. Because these private institutions are legally exempt from paying property taxes, the PILOT serves as a legal agreement between the City of Providence and the four institutions to make property tax payments on an agreed upon schedule instead of paying the standard tax amount. In addition to these direct payments, the new PILOT agreement requires that each institution “positively impact the city” through “community contributions,” which, though still being defined by the City, can range from providing volunteer services to local public and charter schools and community-based organizations to scholarships and financial aid for local residents to attend these colleges and universities to other voluntary contributions and payments that support the City and its residents.

The event series was co-sponsored by the Smith Hill Partners’ Initiative (SHPI) and PC’s Dialogue, Inclusion, and Democracy (D.I.D.) Lab with support from the Smith Hill Library, PC / Smith Hill Annex as well as PC’s department of Public and Community Service Studies.  SHPI is a neighborhood coalition of community-based organizations, small businesses, residents, and other community stakeholders who come together monthly to discuss community development in Smith Hill.  PC’s D.I.D. Lab is a group of students and faculty who aim to bridge differences through constructive dialogue on- and off-campus.  Wole Akinibi, who wears multiple hats in Smith Hill as a resident, the co-founder and moderator of SHPI, and facilitator and community liaison for half full, llc, facilitated the February and April dialogues.  Akinibi is also the inaugural Community Dialogue Fellow with PC’s D.I.D. Lab where he aims to help foster dialogue and action on important topics, such as housing and economic development, between PC and the surrounding 02908 neighborhoods, including Smith Hill and parts of Elmhurst, Mt Pleasant, Wanskuck, and Valley.

With PC’s academic year recently coming to end, so has the dialogue series.  However, community leaders and PC stakeholders plan to continue to work together over the summer to put these dialogues into action by, for instance, embedding relevant projects into future courses as well as considering institutional responsibility and commitments to the neighborhoods and communities in which PC is anchored.

One immediate project is the annual Smith Hill Block Party, organized by SHPI.  The Block Party is scheduled for Wednesday August 14 from 3:00 – 7:00 p.m. outside of the Smith Hill Library on Candace Street.  All are welcome!  The dialogue series will continue in fall 2024, and hope remains that these events will enhance true collaboration between PC and the surrounding neighborhoods.  Further reflecting on the impact these dialogues can have on future campus community relationships, Councilwoman Graves shared: “There’s an old Kenyan proverb that says ‘sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.’ Let us add a few more sticks into our bundle and bind it up tightly.”

 

Marie Hardiman is a recent graduate of Providence College with a BA in Political Science and a minor in Public and Community Service Studies.

Carmine Perrotti, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Public and Community Service Studies at Providence College, his alma mater. His teaching and scholarly interests focus on the role of “place” in community-engaged scholarship. Much of his work considers the relationships between higher education institutions and the neighborhoods that surround their campuses with a specific focus on Providence College and Smith Hill. Dr. Perrotti holds a Ph.D. in higher education from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and a Master of Public Policy from American University.