The old business district of Providence offers an exceptional array of fine historic buildings dating from the late Federal and Greek Revival periods, when stores and offices began in earnest to cross the Providence River from their original colonial center ranged along Main Street. As in most American cities, however, before the 1960s this core was in serious jeopardy from challenges by suburban malls and the move of a number of businesses out of the center city, leaving it vacant and increasingly dilapidated. For the historic downtown this decade turned out to be something of a watershed. The tight sweep of the Interstate 95 and 195 interchange around two sides of the old downtown (fortunately narrowly outside it rather than through it), begun in 1958, was completed in 1964. Consonant with the interstate's streamlined zip as a sign of modernity, plans to demolish much of the architectural past for glassy replacements set on landscaped plazas appeared in 1961. Lack of funds at the time, together with the hesitations characteristic of this conservative city, permitted already strong counterforces for preservation to prevail—with ultimate victory still in the offing.
In preference to the “olde towne” label by which such “historic” districts are customarily banished from the workaday city into a gaslit touristland, this still active business district was christened in 1992, rather neutrally, Downcity. (That—and not “downtown”—seems to have been its local designation during its long heyday as the place for the city's shopping and entertainment.) Since the 1980s major redevelopment has augmented preservation efforts through a series of interrelated projects all around the Downcity core and the contiguous Jewelry District to the south.
The core business district is best traveled by foot, whereas most will prefer to drive around the surrounding orbit of redevelopment and the Jewelry District. Kennedy Plaza provides a civic vestibule to two major aspects of the civic center: from two sides into Downcity, of which the Plaza is historically a part; from the other two into the abutting Capital Center redevelopment. For an overview, stand first at the east end of Kennedy Plaza, in front of the Federal Building; from there this guide makes a clockwise examination of the most significant buildings individually.
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