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History and Gentrification Clash in a Gilded Age Resort

Newport, Rhode Island, is a small New England beachfront town with a permanent population of 26,000 and an amazing collection of historic homes. Billed as “America’s First Resort,” the 350-year-old city on Aquidneck Island hosts more than 3 million tourists every year. They come for the boating, the famous folk and jazz festivals (both canceled this summer), and the architecture.

The narrow streets of the Point along the waterfront are lined with hundreds of modest homes from the early 1700s, one of the largest ensembles of colonial architecture in the country. On Historic Hill sits an assortment of grander antebellum, classical and Gothic Revival structures from the latter part of the 18th and early to mid-19th century, many built by Southern plantation owners. Newport also boasts what is probably the most opulent thoroughfare in the country, a several-mile stretch of Bellevue Avenue lined with shade trees and palatial limestone mansions built by Gilded Age robber barons and industrialists.

But in many ways Newport has become a victim of its success. Its historic streets clog with tourist traffic during the summertime, and its downtown waterfront is being choked off by large hotels catering to vacationers and wedding parties. Some complain that the historic preservation laws and zoning regulations responsible for keeping Newport so unique are inadequate, and those that are in place are increasingly being violated, if not in law then in spirit. The city is also a study in contrasts, with an unemployment rate over 14% and one of Rhode Island’s worst-performing public schools. About 15% of the housing in the city is publicly subsidized, one of the biggest percentages of any municipality in Rhode Island. Most of that housing is clustered in the city’s lower-income North End neighborhood. Segregated both by discriminatory housing policies and infrastructure, the North End is a place that tourists and summer residents don’t generally see.

The North End has also been the focus of an increasingly intense battle over development. A massive state transportation project is set to reconfigure the exit ramps of the Claiborne Pell Bridge, opening up land that since the late 1960s has walled off the North End from the more affluent southern half of the city. Nearby, the Carpionato Group, a Rhode Island-based development company, has proposed replacing a long-vacant casino, the Newport Grand, with a $100 million mixed-use office, retail and apartment complex called Newport North End. If built, it would be the largest private development in Newport’s history, and the anchor for a proposed tech-focused “Innovation District” that promises to bring jobs and economic opportunities. 

But many North End residents fear that the project will instead bring only low-wage jobs and displacement. Since the 2000s, the Newport Housing Authority has been making ongoing investment in the neighborhood under the Hope VI program, which provided federal grants to redevelop distressed public housing projects. While there has been progress — drab barracks-style public housing projects have been replaced with mixed-income buildings such as Newport Heights, which is designed in a neocolonial style and painted in vibrant cheerful colors — residents worry about rising housing costs. “We have seen it more than once where businesses come in and contribute to gentrification,” says Niko Merritt, founder of Sankofa Community Connection, a local organization dedicated to African-American empowerment. “People cannot support their families off $15 an hour. What is their future going to look like?” 

The development’s opponents in the North End have allies in the town’s affluent landmarked neighborhoods on the other side of town: There, leaders of a well-organized opposition see the project as an anti-urban assault on Newport’s historic character, even though it lies outside the zone protected by preservation laws. Last October, in response to a well-organized grassroots campaign against new development, Newport’s city council took the unprecedented step of rejecting a proposed zoning amendment the Carpionato Group had presented and imposing a six-month development moratorium for the North End to give Newport’s planning department time to come up with their own zoning amendment and for community members to express their concerns. 

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab