Providence, Rhode Island as It Acts to Build on Its Distinguished Past, Preserved in Its Many Old Buildings, the City Tries to Forget Its Notorious Past, Preserved in Its Reputation for Political Corruption Series: There Are Some 20,000 Historic Sites in Rhode Island (12,000 of Them Nationally Registered), a State That's the Size of a California County. PHOTOS BY ROBERT HARBISON - STAFF. MAP: Providence, Rhode Island, Locater and Detail. Angela Ulm- Staff. CHART: City Facts/State Facts. SOURCE: Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Angela Ulm-Staff

Article excerpt

PROVIDENCE envisions a renaissance that plans for the future but remembers its past. It's a selective memory, though: There's another past that people would rather forget, one that is tainted with political and financial scandal, scandal that has fueled the fires of reform.

Rhode Island is the smallest in the union and the second-most densely populated (New Jersey is first). Sixteen percent of its people live in Providence, population 160,700 - about the size of Salt Lake City or San Bernadino, Calif. Rhode Island would fit into Kansas 63 times, Texas 200 times.

The thing that most distinguishes Providence from other cities is historic preservation. Rhode Island has some 20,000 historic places, (12,000 are nationally registered). "Considering we're the size of a California county," says Al Klyberg, director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, "that's an incredible number." Historic homes abound

Walking down Benefit Street through the surrounding area of College Hill in Providence, one sees scores of homes displaying plaques with the names of original owners and the year they were built: "William G. Angell House, Alpheus Morse, Arch., 1869"; "Built by John Jenckes, 1774." Architectural styles range from late Colonial and Federal to Greek Revival and Colonial Revival.

North Main Street has the oldest Baptist church in America. Further downtown, the Arcade is the country's oldest indoor shopping center, built in 1828. The list goes on.

Another very visible aspect of the city is its concentration of colleges and universities, including Brown University (seventh oldest in the country), the world-renowned Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Providence College, Johnson & Wales University (known for its culinary arts), Rhode Island College, and others. An estimated 6,000 students graduate each year from colleges and universities in greater Providence. On a warm fall day, Brown and RISD students study outside or walk to class toting books and water bottles or insulated travel mugs, today's college accessories.

Down the hill, behind Kennedy Plaza, the feeling is quite different. At a sign that marks the future juncture of Memorial Boulevard and Steeple Street, cranes are visible in all directions. Bulldozers plow; construction workers mill about. Among the many projects in the works: the Rhode Island Convention Center, scheduled to open next month; the ongoing Capital Center project involving the redirection of the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers, and a pending Providence Place retail mall. Riverfront and city planners say people will be able to travel through the city by water taxi in the future.

Historian Klyberg calls the waterway dig "a great turnaround," noting Providence's history. Intersected by several rivers and situated on Naragansett Bay, Providence has always been a transportation hub, he says. "This re-beautification just emphasizes that."

To Vincent Cianci Jr., the mayor of Providence, things just couldn't be better. "We've got over a billion dollars of construction going on, all within a several-block area," he boasts. Mayor Cianci, affectionately known as "Buddy," is certainly one of the city's more colorful characters. He was elected mayor in 1974, convicted of assault (he believed the man was his estranged wife's lover) and forced to resign in 1984. …