The Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck and Providence Rivers, long buried beneath railroad yards, a post office and the world's widest bridge, are being exhumed in a $40-million waterfront renewal that planners hope will give the entire city a lift.
The reshaping that began last week will propel Providence into the 21st Century by reviving many features of the 19th, city officials say.
"We're building on our dreams of the past," said Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr.
The mayor hopes to erase Providence's longtime image as a center of organized crime and corruption.
Raymond L. S. Patriarca, the reputed longtime boss of the New England mob, had his headquarters here until his death in 1984, and his son, Raymond J. (Junior) Patriarca of suburban Lincoln, is considered by lawmen to control his father's old organization.
Paolino's predecessor, Vincent A. Cianci Jr., was forced from office in 1984 amid allegations he assaulted his wife's lover and that city employees were stealing municipal asphalt and curbstones.
The Cianci administration began planning the redevelopment that Paolino hopes will eradicate the negative perceptions of his city, but Paolino said his administration has reshaped the project--and city government--substantially.
"People who have had indictments or convictions from the corruption days of the previous administration have been eliminated from city government," he said. The redevelopment has produced little opposition, mostly because the area to be developed was largely used only for parking lots.
Some critics have accused the city of concentrating on glitzy downtown development at the expense of affordable housing in the neighborhoods, but Paolino said development benefits the entire metropolis.
"To have a run-down, shabby downtown is a reflection on the rest of the city," he said. "We need each other."
If all goes according to plan, the Capital Center area separating downtown and the Statehouse, long given over to railroad yards and parking lots, will be bristling with office buildings and a $350-million shopping center within five years.
The Woonasquatucket will flow through the center of the development, pausing at a small cove in a park, before joining the Moshassuck to form the Providence River in front of a tower that will house the headquarters of Citizens Bank.
The rivers now join underneath the downtown post office, which is staying where it is while the rivers are moved 500 feet to the southeast.
In the early 1800s, there was a cove on the Woonasquatucket right about where the city's plan calls for the new one. The cove grew smaller and smaller as the city expanded, finally vanishing underneath the Union Station rail yards.
At the time they were buried, the rivers were not considered civic assets, said Providence College history professor Patrick T. Conley.
"They were treated as open sewers, frankly," Conley said.
Chip Young, spokesman for the environmental group Save the Bay, said the rivers have become somewhat cleaner.
"It's good to see them doing this," Young said at ground-breaking ceremonies for the river relocation project. "Now, the challenge will be to keep them clean."
Union Station, a 90-year-old landmark that was gutted by fire two years ago, is getting a new copper roof and should reopen as an office complex in about a year, developer Ron Marsella said.
Amtrak vacated Union Station two years ago and moved to a facility closer to the Statehouse, clearing the way for developers to remove the old rail yards and open the area to development.