Beyond Interstate 95 lies Providence’s West Side. A concrete bridge over a river of traffic takes you into the city of immigrants and strivers, of industrialists in Broadway mansions and mill workers in cramped triple-deckers.
Colonial Providence, huddled along the Providence River, was built on shipping and the slave trade. By the early nineteenth century, textile mills had changed the economy, the result of Eli Whitney’s gin and Samuel Slater’s industrial espionage. The new manufacturing city spread across the low-lying flats of the Weybosset side and climbed the hills south of the Woonasquatucket River.
The mills needed labor and recruiters looked abroad. First, the Irish from the mill towns of Ulster who flooded in after 1845 to escape the famine. By 1865, a third of Providence’s fifty-five thousand residents were Irish born; many settled at the east end of Atwells Avenue and further west around the mills of Olneyville.
After 1880, a sweeping current of immigration from Southern Europe poured into Providence on Fabre Line ships from Naples. The Italian arrivals worked in the mills and jewelry manufactories of the “Beehive of Industry.” The turn of the century saw massive global migrations, and many nationalities contributed to the life of the polyglot city. Germans, Swedes, Portuguese, Polish, and French Canadians. Jews escaping the pogroms of Russia and Armenians fleeing massacre. Many found a home on the city’s West Side.
By 1915, two-thirds of Providence’s 250,000 were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Income inequality was glaring, and never more visible than on the West Side where the Broadway mansions of the elite fronted the factories and tenements of the back streets. The West Side’s radicals and reformers spoke their mind and fought for change.
In 1921, the flow of immigrants was stanched by restrictive quota laws targeting Southern Europeans. Not until 1965 did the quota system change, bringing new arrivals to diversify a city struggling with the loss of industry.
Today, the West Side is a dynamic community, home to native-born and immigrant, coming from every corner of our country and our planet to build a better life in Providence: Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru and Guatemala; the Hmong, Cambodians and Vietnamese; Africans from Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria.
Walk the West Side and see the city of the Irish famine and French Canadian mill workers, the city of the Italian diaspora and Armenian refuge, and the new city being built in one of the most diverse communities in America.