Like Richmond, Providence, R.I., is a city inexorably tied to its river. A U.S senator tells Style how his city has come to realize the river's potential. 

Rivers Run Through Them

On May 19, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island was in town to discuss canals, economic development and downtown revitalization with an after-work gathering of about 40 movers and shakers at the canal turning basin on 14th Street. A few days later, the first-term Democrat and native of Providence (a city whose ambitious revitalization efforts are centered along two miles of riverfront) spoke with us via phone from Washington, D.C.

Style: How did you develop an interest in cities?
Reed: I grew up just outside Providence and attended high school there. Everybody went to hockey games downtown. It had department stores, it was the place. You never thought it would change. But in the late '60s and in the '70s, like many cities, it really declined. It bottomed out.

Style: What was the catalyst for Providence's recent renewal?
Reed: There was the perception in every quarter that Providence wasn't working well. An institutional response was the creation of a Capital Commission which brought together federal, state and city resources for planning. Bill Warner, a visionary architect, was key because he advocated not just a little bit of cosmetics but advocated opening up the river. It had been covered with a large parking platform. In the '30s and '40s people didn't see rivers as anything but a nuisance to [vehicular] travel. Recently, Providence moved the railroad tracks some 200-250 yards, and rerouted two rivers to be come together in a large 'V' before entering Narragansett Bay. A huge urban mall has been built at the beginning of the project. It's really booming. The next phase is to get more people to live downtown.

Style: What has the Clinton administration done for cities?
Reed: There's been a great effort to keep programs going that were established by previous administrations like Section 8 and housing programs. In the '60s and '70s there was a burst of direct spending. But there have been major fiscal and philosophical changes. A major initiative, New Markets and Renewal Communities, provides tax credits for investments in low-income urban neighborhoods. Of course, in a city like Richmond, with its old building stock, historic tax credits are key.

Style: What are your impressions of Richmond's efforts along its reconfigured canal?
Reed: I think it's terrific. The new canal has already headed this in the direction of this becoming a vibrant area. Richmond is a beautiful city. There are a lot of basic similarities between Richmond and Providence. Both cities have water going through them and both have rail systems. You have a flood barrier, and we have a hurricane barrier.

Style: Do American downtowns have a future in light of increasing sprawl?
Reed: We [the Federal government] provide great incentives for sprawl by funding highway construction and a host of things. But cities are essential; they are the crossroads of culture and commerce. They are changing demographically. After World War II there was a generation of servicemen who came back and wanted to start their families in new houses away from the old neighborhoods. We are seeing a reverse. Now, young and single people are making a reasonable amount of money and want to spend some time living in cities. But until we get more industry and strengthen the tax base of cities, they will continue to be weak. Schools are critical. Until we fix that, development of cities will be curtailed. We've got a lot of work to do. Cities rise and fall. But Rome is still very strong. I'm sure in 15 A.D. someone was saying the same thing, "This place is falling

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