Planning Pawtucket Exhibition

Funded by a grant from the City of Pawtucket and the Pawtucket Foundation, Planning Pawtucket was an exhibition held in downtown at the Grant on Main Street in April 2007.


Pawtucket, guardian of the Blackstone River, birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, home to the first American diner, gateway to first generation immigrant communities, host of historic families and neighborhoods, has flowed with the successes and tragedies of the small American city. Its downtown, once teeming with social and economic life, first suffered from disinvestment following suburbanization and the change to a service-based economy, and then the stigma of environmental damage and economic hardship.

The recent real estate boom in New England and decades long efforts from residents has offered new hope for an economically vital, pedestrian-friendly, socially energized downtown once again.

Community-sponsored efforts, public investment and private ventures have all motivated this small downtown to re-emerge, with an emphasis on the arts, cultural diversity and natural beauty. This exhibit seeks to better understand the last fifty years of change in downtown Pawtucket, and imagine where it could go from here.


Industrial decline: After its promising start in the revolution, Pawtucket was devastated by industrial decline: larger production methods and new technology pushed manufacturing south and the industrial boom came to an end. Not only did the jobs move as large-scale manufacturing disappeared, but the residuals of the industrial model remained: environmental damage, working class families less able to transition into new capabilities, and empty buildings that became ruin. The Blackstone River, the engine of the revolution, was left in ecologic tatters. The families that prospered for generations either fell with the times, moved out, or saw many the city’s brightest hopes in the next generations look for opportunities elsewhere. This decline, in combination with the Great Depression, precipitated a dramatic change in Pawtucket’s way of life– these were emerging conditions the city was entirely unprepared to sustain.

The automobile effect after the Depression and war, the mid-twentieth century made many promises to American life: a high standard of living, brought by new technology, transportation freedom, and economic prosperity. The interstate system was a symbol of these hopes, but also a mechanism for further loss of Pawtucket’s downtown economic and cultural energy. Interstate 95 destroyed a vibrant neighborhood over a long decade, eventually, slicing around the downtown offering quick access to suburban shopping filled with easy parking, bargain goods, and new spacious middle class housing developments. Public space of the early century– the street of the 1920s, the vibrant space of exchange, full of people, goods, trolley cars, where the interior of buildings spilled to the outside– disappeared, replaced by private individual vehicles and climate-controlled malls.

But the ONCE CITY did not go down without a fight– generations of citizens, planner and politicians imagined what could foster re-growth. Since the entry of the freeway, Pawtucket has sought change, and has sponsored planning initiatives to reshape itself. These plans imagined cultural centers, civic spaces, shopping districts, bridges, riverfront housing, commercial development, and even a heliport. Sometimes these ideas were in alignment with larger economic and cultural systems, but many times not– instead hoping that by building buildings, revival would follow. Some projects were done with great success and others with tremendous unexpected misfortune.


A PLACE OF POTENTIAL: When one arrives in Pawtucket today, not knowing its complicated politics and history, one finds tremendous resources: great people, a beautiful recovering river, and elegant historic structures, in a small-scale, dense downtown. In its people, the city has both legacy and energy from its historical layers of immigrants, including communities of people from countries from all over the world, a burgeoning art and design community, and new groups forming around music and performance. The river, once again, is a source of connection to other communities and natural systems in a precarious global future. The beautiful historic buildings lost in so many other cities remain here, and stay a source of connection to the past. The urban fabric itself offers what many cities will never have again– a core of public space with urban edges that connects it all. While it was not prepared for the last century’s great shifts, Pawtucket has a great potential to take advantage of the next wave of global changes: a return to local, dense, intricate, culturally diverse economic, and social networks that fit harmoniously in nature.

This collection of work is intended to broaden thinking, foster ideas, and generate discussion within the community as it undergoes initiatives to reshape the downtown. These projects are futuristic, historical, successful, or notorious; the goal is simply to display work from outside and inside points of view to better understand our history and potential future.

Inevitably, planning a future Pawtucket will not just be a singular vision that is imposed upon a constituency, as cities are made up of intricate connections and specifics of place, we are all involved in changing our city. We are all responsible for connecting to others, fostering change and supporting our community. This means, for some people, getting involved in the external process, being heard or learning more; for others it simply means making small choices in daily life that, when added to thousands of other small choices, affect and shift the patterns of an entire region.