3 Things I Discovered After Visiting Crimetown’s Providence.
After binging on the popular podcast “Crimetown” by Gimlet Media, I toured the city at the heart of the story and visited with locals about its checkered past.
I love podcasts and you probably do too.
For those who have not heard the show yet — and I highly suggest you download it right now — the podcast explores the history of Providence, Rhode Island, and its relationship to the east coast mob. Providence, we learn, was the headquarters of the Patriarca family. And the Patriarca family ran the biggest organized crime operation in New England. The show also features Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, the controversial mayor of the city, who not only held office for more than 21 years but who also served time in federal prison after being convicted on felony charges.
After listening to the show and diving into the history of Providence and New England, I spent a few days exploring the area, visiting the sites mentioned in the podcast, and talking to the locals about its history and character.
1. Providence: The People
Having lived in the Midwest for quite some time, I was a little skeptical about what to expect from Rhode Islanders. After all, this is a dangerous place full of dubious “wiseguys” (mob speak for members of a criminal organization), cunning made men (mob speak for fully initiated members) and corrupt officials. As it turns out, my skepticism was completely unfounded.
On our first morning in Providence, I decided to check out Buddy Cianci’s former residence (see photo below). We stopped by Coffee Exchange, a trendy coffee shop in the Fox Point neighborhood, for a quick cup of “CAW-fee”. As we struck up a casual conversation with the employees, I couldn’t resist mentioning the podcast and my fascination with the city’s history, the Patriarca family, and its most infamous mayor.
“It is all about family connections in Providence” said Brad, our young barista who was born and raised in Providence. “There is less than a million of us in the whole state, so everyone knows everyone here.”
Brad’s comment was a recurring theme. Familial connections in Providence run deep and like nearly every family: drama is inevitable. Favors, alliances, grudges, and rivalries shaped the history of the town.
At the end of our brief chat, Brad said “you guys are too friendly to be from the East Coast, where are you from?”
After telling him where we’re from and what brought us here, Brad said: “welcome to Providence, the coffee is on the house!”
Over the next few days, we had many wonderful interactions that are too numerous to mention here. Almost every local resident we talked to was amiable, welcoming and kind. We were truly taken back by the hospitality and warmth of the people we met. And that means a lot given that we come from the friendly Midwest and land of Minnesota Nice!
2. Providence: The City
“Providence is essentially two hills, on either side of a river. On one side is Federal Hill, Patriarca’s domain. The other bank is the east side. It’s where Brown University is, where the doctors and lawyers and professionals live. Between these two hills is City Hall.”
If you’ve listened to the podcast, you would’ve heard that description of Providence on every episode.
The city is truly beautiful. We started off by touring the Rhode Island State House.
The Rhode Island State House features the 4th largest self-supporting dome in the world, and it is truly marvelous.
After touring the State House and learning about Rhode Island’s history, we headed towards City Hall, where Buddy Cianci ruled for more than 21 years. The last episode of the podcast talks about the unveiling of Buddy’s portrait, our next quest.
After a good hour of searching inside the building, we finally found Buddy’s portrait.
Our next stop was Federal Hill. According to Crimetown, this is where the Patriarca family, under the leadership of Raymond L.S. Patriarca, was headquartered. The epicenter of this operation was a vending machine company located at 168 Atwell Avenue. Today, a mediterranean grill has taken the place of the infamous coin-o-matic.
Federal Hill is a beautiful neighborhood, dotted with restaurants, fountains, and sidewalk cafes. Italian restaurants are definitely the most prominent feature of this neighborhood. It was a gorgeous spring day, and we enjoyed an authentic Italian meal and a glass of wine at one of the local restaurants.
And last, but not least, was our pilgrimage to the Foxy Lady, a popular gentlemen’s club among members of the Providence mob family, especially Charles “The Ghost” Kennedy. The Ghost was one of the biggest drug traffickers on the East Coast in the 1980s. Since I failed to convince my wife Emma that we needed to visit the club for “historical research,” a simple drive-by had to suffice.
During our stay in Providence, we had the opportunity to see most of the popular landmarks and sites in the city and in the greater Rhode Island area, including the nearby resort city of Newport, home to some of the most stunning mansions that you’ll ever see. Rhode Island has a long and proud history; it was the first colony to renounce its allegiance to the British Crown and many consider it the the birthplace of religious tolerance in America.
3. Providence: Today
The days of widespread mob influence are a thing of the past. “They’re all into real estate these days,” says a long-time resident of Providence. Organized criminal activity, after years of legal prosecution and infiltration by government informants and federal agencies, has practically been shut down.
Another factor has been the changing demographics of Providence. A city that was dominated by Italians and some Irish, is now a melting pot of many ethnicities. The election of mayor Jorge Elorza, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Guatemala, is a case in point. He defeated Buddy Cianci during the latter’s last run for office in 2014.
Like many other cities, Providence was hit hard by the 2008 recession, but it has since recovered. As of May 2017, the city seems to be doing well financially and attracting large businesses and major corporations, thanks in part to a suite of tax incentives initiated by Gov. Gina Raimondo. Its many colleges and universities are another long-standing economic boon. Most importantly, in my opinion, Providence’s economic recovery is built on a foundation of its peoples’ resilience, entrepreneurial drive, and work ethic.
Providence’s relationship to its criminal past is complicated by its interwoven and prodigious layers of alliances and family connections. Many of the folks I talked to spoke highly of Buddy Cianci and credited him with reviving this capital of the smallest state of the union and ushering an era of development and economic well-being its citizens still enjoy today. Even the Patriarca family was revered by many of locals I talked to, especially in the context of the contributions that they made to their local communities, communities that historically faced economic challenges and a lack of state and federal support during difficult times.
After spending a week in Providence, here is what I learned:
- Providence has some of the friendliest, kindest, and most hospitable people that you’ll ever meet
- This city is an economic powerhouse, with large corporate headquarters, thriving businesses and a large educated workforce
- Today, Providence is a vibrant and diverse city, full of educational, historical, artistic, and cultural attractions
Goodbye Crimetown; welcome Providence.