Made in Providence

By Michael Morse

My great grandparents arrived in Rhode Island around the turn of the century. Paternally, they arrived in a freighter from Sweden, maternally from heaven only knows how from Ireland. They created quite a life for themselves and their offspring, and the generations that followed. Now that I’m retired I plan on finding out more about them, and hopefully those that came before them. In the meantime, I have only stories told to me by my father.

Providence was a thriving industrial city then, manufacturing jobs were plentiful, and the people who owned the factories wealthy. My great-grandmothers helped make ends meet by cleaning the homes of those wealthy individuals, and my great-grandfathers helped build them. I often thought of them, or more accurately the people that I created in my imagination from tattered, torn and yellow photographs, when responding to fires or medical emergencies in the opulent homes that line the streets of the city where I worked for a quarter century. I visualized the care and skill, pride and optimism that generations past carried with them, no matter what job they did. The houses they helped build and maintain reflected who they were; proud immigrants beginning their lives in a new country, ready to build their lives and provide for their families.

Time has not been kind to Providence. Those once majestic homes have been made into multi-family rentals. Crime infested the neighborhoods; the rich deserted the city for the suburbs and created a vacuum.

Those beautiful homes weren’t meant for the fate that has befallen them. The people who live in them were not supposed to exist in such misery. The foundation for a graceful existence lies hidden beneath years of grime and neglect. Some of these places date back to the 1700’s, a few older still. When the turn of the century and the wealth from the industrial revolution spurred another building boom, triple deckers as we call them sprouted everywhere. These homes weren’t quickly built shacks; they are works of art, if you care to look beneath the surface.

In one such home a stabbing occurred. It was hard for me to ignore the loss of dignity as I dodged the pool of blood that started in the entryway, splattered on ceramic tile carefully laid by some anonymous craftsman some hundred years ago, maybe a relative of mine. The blood led up three flights of oak stairs, lined with intricately carved railings worn bare by hundreds of hands. Those railings, at one time not long ago were polished and cleaned, and helped support people as they made their way home from work, or school, or a trip to the market. Now they support drunks and heroin addicts as they stumble toward their rooms.

Holes in the plaster that led me toward the apartment where two women were stabbed will never be repaired. Antique light fixtures in the dark hallway sat empty, their bulbs either stolen or burned out and not replaced. The blood trail grew, the stabbings happened up here, in the third floor apartment. Whoever ran away, wounded, must have controlled their bleeding as they ran toward the front door.

She sat on a dirty couch in an empty room. Her lip was bleeding. The other victim was gone, in another ambulance that sat outside. She was stabbed in the arm while fending off her attacker, the sixth stabbing in the city that night.

In a bedroom ten feet from the victim a young child slept, face down on a bare mattress. An empty crib sat in the corner. A big screen TV took up half the wall in the other room in the tiny apartment. Its presence in the place is absurd.  It signified a total vacuum of hope. When a person who has nothing decides that a two-thousand dollar TV is more important than basic furnishings, they have given up . They must have learned, or been taught that it is hopeless to dream about things that saving money may provide; a home, a family, kids education and the peace that a life well lived brings. Living in the moment, seeking instant gratification and all that it brings isn’t very satisfying. Chaos takes over, and people end up getting stabbed in a crummy crack house that once knew true love and hope.

But the roots are there. Where roots exist, so does hope. Perhaps somebody will look past the neglect, and be inspired by work done generations ago. Life is cyclical, and another chance is always on the way.

1 Comment

  • RI Transplant says:

    Great post. I love those old homes and grew up in a “double-decker”- the craftsmanship of some of the homes in the worst neighborhoods is remarkable.
    If you need some direction with resources for your family history project, feel free to reply; my project led me to numbered graves of family members who passed 100+ years ago and some history we both share. I’ll always be glad I found ancestors and made sure that their existence and passing is now acknowledged with at least a marker.

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