Ray Watson, Greg Gerritt and David Kolsky find their bearings on an insurance map from the early 20th century.

Ray Watson, Greg Gerritt and David Kolsky find their bearings on an insurance map from the early 20th century. Sue Korté (left) provided the maps.

About 20 neighbors took part in our “Where the East Side Used to Be” History NIght on Tuesday, November 23 at Church of the Redeemer. This neighborhood history event was organized in partnership with the Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association to give everyone a chance to share their own stories about the past of our neighborhood. After looking at maps from the 1900s and 1950s, we made a short list of vanished stores, restaurants and schools. We agreed to continue exploring the past by seeking knowledge, photos and other records of the past from our neighbors with more events and projects in 2010.

We focused mainly on the area between North Main Street or the Moshassuck River on the west to Hope Street on the east and from Olney Street north to Pawtucket. About 20 people attended. The first joint History Night was held in September of 2008 and focused on the history of North Main Street, including the Providence Steamroller football team, (1928 National Football League champions!) which held games on the site of the present Shaw’s Plaza.

Maps and images

After introductions, we got up to inspect two sets of maps on display. One set of photocopies of Sanborn insurance maps from 1957, showed what the neighborhood looked like about the time it first reached full “build out” (all land developed) but before major projects like University Heights, Route 95 and Miriam Hospital expansion occurred. We also had a few images of buildings from the Historical Society collection and Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association.

Another collection of original, full-size color insurance maps, brought by Susan Korté, showed different sections of the neighborhood from sometime prior to 1920, perhaps as early as the 1890s. These maps showed some very interesting “used to be” sites:

  • · A reservoir on the site of Hope High (Hope Street High was across the street).
  • · The Metcalf Botanical Gardens at the site of Brown’s Alumni Stadium.
  • · Brown’s sports field taking up several blocks between Camp and Ivy Street.
  • · Open space north of Rochambeau between Summit and North Main.
  • · More undeveloped land from Top Street to Hope where Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Streets are today.
  • · Many more neighborhood schools, all named for streets: Montague Street, Doyle Avenue, Camp Street, Rochambeau Avenue and Summit Avenue.
  • · A surprising number of greenhouses.

Attendees were invited to share recollections of businesses, schools and neighborhood groups by adding Post-it notes to the maps. Here were some of the places we could remember:

Camp Street Businesses: Miss Garr’s, Al the Barber, Biller’s Supermarket, Izzy’s Drug, Kay’s Launderette, Forrest Drug Store (corner of Forrest) and “some shoe store.”

Hope Street Businesses: Lad & Lassie Shoes, A&P Grocery at Fourth Street (current RI Festival Ballet), the Hope Street Theater (later Cinerama, now the CVS), Al Abelson Restaurant, Skipper’s Restaurant, a 5&10 Cent store on Rochambeau close to Hope, and another on Hope near the north end of Lippitt Park. Delise’s Grocery across from [Lippitt Park?]

Schools: Summit Avenue School, Nathan Bishop Middle, RI School for the Deaf, Hope High, the Montague Street School (later Mt. Hope Daycare, now YMCA Daycare)), St. Raymond’s School

After lively informal small-group discussions prompted by the maps, we collected to talk about how to gather, share and preserve more knowledge of the past.

What do we want to know about our history?

  • Schools in our neighborhood.
  • Immigration
  • Professions and livelihoods
  • History of businesses: Hope Street businesses
  • Who has lived in my house?
  • What was the role of farming, food growing and greenhouses here?
  • How have we changed this place over time? Have we changed it for better or worse?
  • Transportation: the College Hill trolly/bus tunnel, trolley lines on North Main, Hope and Blackstone
  • Race relations and the history of the University Heights area
  • Sports and entertainment
  • The Rhode Island Auditorium – teams and performances
  • Cycle track, football team and later drive-in movie at Shaws Plaza
  • Fields behind the Auditorium where circuses were held and zeppelins landed.
  • Child work in stores (and other businesses?)
  • Scandals in the neighborhood.

Where should we look for more information?

  • · Oral histories and personal recollections.
  • · Photos from personal and family collections
  • · Ethnic societies: Jewish Historical Society, Black History Society
  • · RI Historical Society
  • · RI Public Library’s Rhode Island Room, newspaper archives and online catalog
  • · Brown University Libraries
  • · Summit Ave. School Facebook group (Al Chin maintains)

What should we do now?

  • · Solicit personal reminiscences for publication in Summit News and online.
  • · Try to get article in RI Historical Society magazine – some people strongly preferred a published product to an online focus.
  • · Get together as a group periodically to continue discussions.

Everyone was interested in having another history night. March, after the SNA Annual Meeting in February, seems like a good time for the next public event. In the meantime a number of people were interested in meeting more frequently. I will set up a meeting in January where we can refine and follow through on the ideas we put forward tonight.

Anyone interested in joining in may contact Jon Howard (contact information below).


Jonathan Howard
178 Ninth St