The Studentification of Wanskuck

Student housing in Wanskuck, Photo: courtesy of 02908 Club

If you have lived in Providence for a long time and love the city, what would drive you away?

  • Noisy neighbors?
  • Illegal parking?
  • Dangerous drivers?

For Michael Veracka, living for decades in the Wanskuck neighborhood, it was “chronic illegal dumping” in the lot next door.  A landscape ecologist and retired professor, he proved no match for the “corporate property owner” who refused to care for the lot or the city’s regulators who “pay lip service to neighborhood resident concerns, dole out inconsistent zoning and code enforcement and avoid real solutions to pressing issues.”  City residents are caught between city policy, city enforcement, and the multiple forces of change.

Michael Veracka’s neighborhood, Wanskuck, was once Wanskuck, the mill village.  Its brick and wood houses were originally built as housing for mill workers at the Wanskuck Mill.  And, later, when the mill closed, houses remained affordable for the working and middle classes.  Unfortunately, for Wanskuck, however, its proximity to Providence College has put that housing at risk.

Wanskuck Mill

It was recently named, along with Elmhurst, Smith Hill, Washington Park, and College Hill as “Neighborhoods Under Pressure from Student Housing Gentrification” by the Providence Preservation Society (PPS).  By changing its Most Endangered Properties List this year to a Most Endangered Places List, the Society “seeks to celebrate and protect our shared cultural landscape, helping to build a more just, equitable, and inclusive city.”  According to Adriana Hazelton, formerly of PPS, preservation should not mean blocking all change, but rather preserving a “relationship with the history or identification of an area” and “making sure residents have some say in development.”

The Preservation Society can help focus residents to have their say in development, but it has no authority to block demolition of historic houses.  Over thirty historic houses surrounding Brown University have been lost in the last decade:  “The College Hill Historic District may still have a strong, beating heart along northern Benefit Street and on the southwestern side along John, Power, and Benefit Streets…But in 10 years, these four blocks [Thayer, Waterman, Brook, Euclid] saw the loss of almost 30 late-19th century houses and the conversion of 3 more away from historic status.”  All the neighborhoods named by the Society are affected by “studentification.” Neighbors in Wanskuck and Elmhurst complain about quality-of-life issues like parking, loud music, and public drinking around Providence College.  More threatening, student housing can drive up the cost of renting.  A resident of Elmhust, Daniel Morris, says “I live in fear that my small-time landlord will sell my apartment to 02908 Club or Strive, who will then jack up my rent and force me out of where I live.”

Strive and 02908 Club are just two of the companies renting to students in the neighborhood around Providence College. Some houses owned by Strive are “branded” with their name, easily recognizable.  In fact, Strive properties are so ubiquitous, especially along Admiral Street, that some residents refer to the area as “Striveville.”  Wanskuck was originally a mill town with company mill housing.  The branding of rental housing recalls that kind of monopoly in the market.

Providence Councilwoman Shelley Peterson of Ward 14 says often whole streets are in the hands of one company.  Raising rents on current residents is one effect of market forces surrounding a college, a university, or other institutions like hospitals.  Councilwoman Petersen and many residents have also expressed worries about developers buying up single-family homes and thus making it hard or impossible for working class families to come to their neighborhood as homeowners, an attraction that Wanskuck in particular has been historically noted for.

The Wanskuck branch of the Community Libraries of Providence

Residents of Wanskuck organized with the help of DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) in protest of Strive’s proposal in 2021 to demolish a two-story structure and replace it with a 5-story apartment house at 663 Admiral Street. The complaints were similar to those about the recent proposal for a 5-story apartment building on Wickenden Street on the East Side.  Even though Wanskuck residents complained that the building would function as an off-campus dorm and was out of character with the neighborhood,  the City Planning Commission approved the preliminary proposal. Construction has not yet started.

“Studentification” in Wanskuck means about 800 Providence College seniors and some juniors each year are looking for off-campus apartments, according to PC spokesman Steve Maurano.  He believes well over a hundred 02908 Club properties surround the college, a change from a generation ago, when off-campus students rented in owner-occupied houses.  Maurano adds that students from Johnson and Wales, Bryant and Brown, can be found in the neighborhood, increasing the total number of students.  Councilperson Shelley Peterson thinks the total is at least 1,000.  Maurano advises residents that any PC student cited by police for any violation will find that their citation is sent automatically to the college, where a process is followed to determine consequences.  PC requires students to be on campus for three years, but with enrollments that increase every year, the number eligible to move into the neighborhood increases as well.

Solutions for quality-of-life issues in Wanskuck might be targeted, like the proposal by Mayor Smiley to photo and record loud vehicles.  For more significant changes, Wanskuck residents are being urged to use the current Comprehensive Plan process to guide its next ten years of growth and development. The top priority is the need for quality, affordable housing, and navigating that goal with transparency and honest communication is dependent on city residents holding their leadership to the aspirational outline of the Comprehensive Plan of 2024.

City policies that regulate development encourage change that benefits the city as a whole, as well as the residents of Wanskuck.

“I do think change just happens, and it happens, and it happens and it happens,” said one member of the City Plan Commission, after a meeting in Wanskuck.  “We try to blame for change, we try to attribute change. It just happens.”  Meanwhile, residents put their faith in well-reasoned policy, and believe that lack of policy enforcement is what drives residents out of the city.  They feel that change that “just happens” is change without community input, without transparency, without follow-through; change unplanned.

Wanskuck neighborhood

Roseanne Camacho is a retired educator who came to Providence from the South for graduate school. She has a PhD in American Civilization from Brown University, having taught students from eighth grade to graduate school. She is active in the Friends of Knight Memorial Library, The Community Library of Providence, and lives in Elmwood.