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Running head: PRETTY SURFACES

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Pretty Surfaces: Understanding Superficial Changes on Thayer Street
Eli Neuman-Hammond
Brown University
Earlier this year, Providence’s Department of Planning and Development unveiled the
“Thayer Street Planning Study,” a 116-page document that seeks to assess current issues in the
Thayer Street district and outline a plan to improve the district over the next three years.1 In
2006, the City of Providence established Thayer Street—one of the most heavily trafficked
commercial corridors in the College Hill neighborhood—as a Business Improvement District
(BID), putting it under the stewardship of the Thayer Street District Management Authority
(TSDMA), which comprises some owners of the more than ninety businesses in the district,
merchants, and representatives of Brown University. The change in power structure on Thayer
reflects a trend of bringing private actors together with public actors to govern spaces with
significant economic activity. Since the 1970s, the United States has created more than onethousand BIDs (Cloar, 2011); Thayer Street is the second BID in Providence, the first one being
a coalition formed to manage the Downtown region of the city. First, I will argue that the
improvements planned for Thayer Street aim to extract as much money as possible from the
space of the district. Even improvements such as widened sidewalks must be seen in the context
of property-owner ideology; taking this perspective on apparently unprejudiced improvements
reveals the inherent conflict of interest in giving private actors governance power. I will then
look at the superficial program of the TSDMA, which is a misguided attempt to create a unified
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A slew of official stakeholders helped conduct the study, which was commissioned by the City
of Providence and funded by Brown University: the College Hill Neighborhood Association, the
Providence Preservation Society, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, the Wheeler School,
the Providence City Council the Rhode Island School of Design, the Thayer Street District
Management Authority, and Brown University

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brand of Thayer Street. Measured against the myriad interests that coalesce on and create Thayer
Street, the design recommendations are woefully inadequate, and serve to design certain people
out of Thayer.
The planning study frames Thayer Street as what Ronald Kramer (2010) calls a “growth
machine”: a site of economic transaction and a source of profit. Arguably, this is one of Thayer
Street’s main uses, if not it’s most prominent use, and the powerful actors collaborating to
redevelop Thayer Street want to reinforce this. Therefore, most of the problems and
recommendations in the study can be traced back to an agenda to maximize profits on Thayer
Street. When Thayer is discussed as a street or a transportation hub, it’s only in so far as people
need a way to get to Thayer Street in order to consume there. One issue raised is the perennial
lack of parking spots on Thayer Street. Since Thayer Street has no metered parking spots and
because police officers tend to patrol Thayer at intervals longer than the legal time limits on
parking spots, the status quo is for drivers to park their cars on Thayer for long periods of time.
The study proposes a few solutions, such as adding metered parking spots on Thayer Street,
adding bike-lane markings and bike racks to encourage alternative modes of transportation, and
improving the public transportation infrastructure on Thayer Street. All of theses changes would
help to open up Thayer Street’s parking lane, among other things. If more people can park on
Thayer Street, more people can spend their money on Thayer Street.
The new public spaces proposed in the study—the parklet in front of the Brown University
Bookstore, expanded sidewalks, and Green Alleys-–are also inextricable from Thayer Street’s
private spaces. Public spaces are vital to cities because they are open to everyone: they serve as
forums for different voices to come together, for marginal populations to move and express
themselves, and for anyone to perform actions that do not necessarily conform to the

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expectations and rules of owners of private space, whether they be political activists or human
beings at play. Public spaces are therefore an essential site of power for people without economic
capital. The public spaces on Thayer Street, however, only invoke their status metonymically;
while they are public spaces in name, funded by the City of Providence, they are also spaces
conditioned and regulated by the context in which they exist, which is a privatized, commercial
corridor. Although the parklet, for instance, is open to anyone, it’s location in front of the Brown
Bookstore and Blue State Coffee mean that customers, with money to spend, will be the primary
users of the space, and more space will open up inside the store, which is often crowded. Also,
there is a sign on the parklet that forbids people from smoking. While not explicitly excluding
people from the space—nobody is forced to smoke cigarettes in that space, even if they are
“smokers”—the regulation implies that smoking ruins the space for some inhabitants, and thus
creates two categories: smokers, who are not welcome, and non-smokers, who are welcome.
Again, this is a superficial distinction: anyone can be a smoker. But this theoretical status betrays
the real social meanings surrounding cigarette-smoking: poorer people smoke cigarettes more
than wealthy people and less educated people smoke more cigarettes than more educated people
(Aguku, King, & Dube, 2014). The actual perceptions and realities about who smoke cigarettes
must be considered when examining a space that regulates smoking, especially a public space
that should be open to everyone, in theory and in practice. The public spaces of Thayer Street
cater to consumers, who purchase the right to occupy spaces within stores and restaurants, and
have no need for genuine public spaces, which are open to anyone with a will to be there. On
Thayer Street, public spaces are designed for private consumption.
Apart from the practical recommendations of the study, there are also long passages that
meticulously detail more superficial changes to be made on Thayer Street. An entire twenty-nine

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pages of the study are devoted to “Design Recommendations,” which are supposed to serve as a
“template for the desired character of development and the character of the public realm
envisioned for the District” (Planning Study, 2014, p.76). These recommendations have little to
do with the use-value of Thayer, and more to do with its image. In this section, the aesthetic
program of Thayer Street’s redevelopment unfolds in guidelines for new architecture,
storefronts, and sidewalk space, guidelines which ultimately serve to unify Thayer Street into a
distinct brand, something which can be summarized, digested, and sold.
The problem with a program to preserve or unify Thayer Street’s “character” is that such
preservation denies the very process by which it was born. History is the midwife of genuine
character: history in the Tolstoyan sense, where no one dominates, no one predicts, and everyone
participates. Thayer Street in its current form is the product of so many different actions,
intentions, movements, constructions, and destructions. Outside of the official stakeholders who
lead the study, there are a slew of unofficial stakeholders who use and create Thayer Street every
day. There are the ten thousand students who live near Thayer Street, whose faces change every
four years, the panhandlers and bikers who use Thayer’s sidewalks and streets, the graffiti
writers who write on Thayer’s walls, the three thousand residents who live near Thayer, the
eleven thousand employees who travel to work near Thayer, the drivers and bus riders who roll
down Thayer, the private street cleaners and “yellow-jacket” security guards who clean and
patrol Thayer, and skateboarders who ride and slide around Thayer, the buskers for whom
Thayer Street is a stage, the clubbers who traffic Thayer’s new entertainment venues like Shark
and Viva, and the flocks of tourists who explore Thayer St. when they visit Providence.2 And

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Of course, there are also the scant trees and little critters who live on Thayer Street, but they
lack the ability to communicate their interests in the human-dominated discourse of
development.

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these are just some of the participants on Thayer Street today: College Hill is Providence’s oldest
neighborhood, and Americans have occupied the space of Thayer Street since the seventeenth
century. (And before that, the land was home to the Narragansett tribe.) It was only during the
twentieth century that Thayer Street began to resemble its current form as a bustling commercial
corridor. All of this is just to say that Thayer Street has a long history, shaped by countless
actors, which has determined what the report calls its “character.”
The design recommendations for Thayer Street are different than past changes because they
seek to replicate what is already there, in a very conscious way. For example, one architectural
recommendation is to have building entrances built at intervals of fifty feet “to prevent long,
uninterrupted extents of buildings without entrance” (Planning Study, 2014, p.78). This would
follow the current language of Thayer Street, on which one frequently walks past entryways.
Historically, the reason for Thayer’s dense pattern of doorways is that it used to be a residential
street, occupied by small, single-family homes. Given the design vernacular of family houses, it
was natural for doorways to end up about every fifty feet. As the street gradually morphed into a
commercial zone, this pattern persisted, although it was no longer residential. But the
recommendation for new buildings to follow this pattern comes without the same motivation for
the original buildings. There is now no practical reason to have lot-modules every fifty feet. The
reason to provide such a recommendation is entirely superficial, and dedicated to a conservative
approach to Thayer Street which aims to protect its current status as a commercial venue. But the
only way that Thayer Street became a commercial venue in the first place was through flexible,
creative development, not conservative development. In this sense, the design recommendations
are very short-sighted: while they might perpetuate Thayer’s commercial relevance for a period,
they do not leave room for exciting, new changes, the kind of changes that no one can predict.

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Bob Azar, the Providence City Planner, called the current development initiatives on Thayer an
example of organic development. I would say that they could more aptly be called examples of
inorganic development, seeing as the recommendations are artificial causes for phenomena that
previously had more “organic,” use-driven causes.
The superficial recommendations for Thayer Street aim ultimately to augment its exchange
value and encourage consumer use of the space. The Stakeholder Committee would like to see a
street of theatrics, where all of the trees are the same and contribute to “uniformity,” where lights
“accentuate architectural character” and nothing obscures “architectural details,” where values of
consistency, cleanliness, and order rule, and where “corporate colors should not be used” so that
consumers can make believe that they participate in and support local culture (Planning Study,
2014, p.85-86).3 Furthermore, in denying the divided, agonistic clashes and contracts between
many different actors, a number of these actors will be literally designed out of Thayer Street. As
efforts are made to “increase police presence” on Thayer (Planning Study, 2014, p.8), as biker
gangs are pushed out by ordinances on straight-pipes and parking, as graffiti is removed weekly
by hired street patrol, and as street merchants and panhandlers get asked to move along (Hayes,
2014), more and more ways of being have already been made “out of place” on Thayer, despite
their role in creating the place (Cresswell, 1996).

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The way in which the TSDMA privileges of form over content has led me to see the aesthetic
program of Thayer Street as inheriting certain values of fascism: making a brand out of Thayer
Street and striving for a formal coherence and order are both lessons straight out of Mussolini’s
book.

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References
Aguku, I. T., King, B. A., & Dube, S. R. (2014). Current Cigarette Smoking Among Adults—
United States, 2005-2012. Washington: Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
City of Providence Department of Planning and Development. (2014). Thayer Street Plannning
Study. Providence: City of Providence.
Cloar, J. (2011). International Downtown Association. Retrieved December 13, 2014, from
https://www.idadowntown.org/eweb/docs/2010%20Web%20Docs/BID%20Census%20synopsis.pdf
Cresswell, T. (1996). Geography, Ideology, and Transgression: A Relational Ontology. In T.
Cresswell, In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression (pp. 11-27).
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hayes, S. (2014, December 5). Building Exclusion into College Hill. The College Hill
Independent , p. 16.
Kramer, R. (2010). Moral Panics and Urban Growth Machines: Official Reactions to New York
City, 1990-2005. Qual Sociol , 297-311.