A Place Prepared: The Demolition of “Lippitt Hill”

“ Lippitt Hill Revisited.” From the WPRI-TV Collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
August 30, 2021

Rai Terry is a Black queer visual scholar, audiovisual archivist, and multimedia artist. They are a 2nd year graduate student in the Public Humanities program and Fellow at the Center for Slavery and Justice. They are engaging the spaces, both physical and digital, that Black queer people occupy and adorn as reclamations of life and freedom.

If you were a Black American traveling to Providence, Rhode Island in the year 1947 you likely utilized the “Negro Motorist Green Book[1] to find safe, Black-owned business to patronize. In that year, you would find several such businesses on the East Side of the city; but just twelve years later, only one listing remained. This decease occurred when Providence took up many redevelopment projects following the Federal Housing Act of 1949. The results of this legislation ended up dis-housing many more people than it housed, and building highways and shopping centers that cut right through Black neighborhoods in almost every city in America.

The projects of the Providence Redevelopment Agency, formed in 1947, had displaced over 5,000 people by 1965. One of the areas most affected was known as “East Side,” and was predominantly Black American, along with Native, Jewish, and Italian residents. Further east, the bustling Cape Verdean community of Fox Point would be similarly reshuffled around the city. Developers and local media began to refer to this neighborhood as “Lippitt Hill,” to differentiate it from the area where Brown University is located. They designated the area as “blighted” and scheduled it for “slum clearance”—an almost total demolition of the neighborhood. Through eminent domain, the agency took possession of fifty-seven acres of land in 1956 and gifted it to the development project of “University Heights.” [2]

The Rhode Island Historical Society has in its holdings news film from local stations WJAR and WPRI that discuss the “Lippitt Hill controversy” at length, including interviews with developers, residents, and preservationists. These can be found in its segments titled “Fifty-seven Acres” and “Lippitt Hill Revisited.” At one point in the WPRI programs, a reporter points to the camera and states: “Although you may not be in direct contact with Lippitt Hill, it does touch you, in an economic way, and it touches the whole city that way. The city is getting much less taxes from this area than it did in 1925, and that affects you.” Amanda Tillotson’s article “Pathologizing Race and Place” discusses the use of pathology against Black neighborhoods during this period. She notes that “rhetoric in popular media connected ‘slums/ghettos’ to pathology, and that this connection helped to legitimate urban renewal and slum clearance policies. The destruction of existing communities was warranted by the need to prevent this pathology from spreading.”[3] The University Heights project promised to be an integrated community of multiple socioeconomic classes, but it specifically scattered minority communities. This demonstrates that while actions of urban renewal may at times be necessary, the lives of marginalized groups are uprooted, rather than accommodated, in order to achieve its goal. In contrast, those of the privileged class are restored, adorned, and celebrated.

One must ask why the dilapidated buildings of streets adjacent to one another are deemed fit to be razed, while others are restored. As Tillotson writes, “Early on, arguments about physical disease were invoked along with those about social disease. These areas were connected to illnesses such as tuberculosis, typhus, and venereal disease.”[4]  A December 1960 report in the Brown Daily Herald details the Lippitt Hill project and reasons for the demolition there, characterizing it as a location with “areas of ill health, transmission of disease, juvenile delinquency, welfare and morals (referring to the “legitimacy of birth”).”[5]  In the paragraph immediately following, they happily note that the “East Side Renewal Project,” with its focus on the restoration of Benefit Street, was being launched by the newly formed “Providence Preservation Society.”

Rai Terry Blog image 2_0_0.jpg
Boy looking at the Lippitt Hill Redevelopment Project construction.
Rhode Island Historical Society Collections, RHiX173732.”

At this crucial moment in American history, when East Side homes sport “Black Lives Matter” signs in yards and windows, I propose returning these histories to visibility. This involves bringing them out of the obscurity of the archive and placing them in their original contexts; doing so allows current residents and community members can re-understand the history of the place where they now stand. The visual artist Shimon Attie (b. 1957; http://shimonattie.net) has created a number of works that deal with the interruption of historical amnesias. In his 1991 work, “The Writing on the Wall,” Attie projected photographs of pre-World War II life from the Jewish quarter of Berlin at the same locations where they were taken sixty years earlier. Attie takes fragmented moments of history and re-introduces them “into the visual field of the present. Thus parts of long destroyed Jewish community life were visually stimulated, momentarily recreated.”[6] Just as Attie injects the present with a past moment, re-centering this history in the current narrative, I believe the contemporary residents of the East Side, and greater Rhode Island community, deserve to have access to their neighborhoods’ histories as well, and that the former residents and their descendants deserve to receive atonement and restitution. 

Aspiring to create this possibility, I am working on an audiovisual intervention which reactivates this history within the public memory of the city. In doing this project I hope to see the creation of potential for redress concerning this and other discriminatory housing policies that have plagued long-term residents of the city. The memorial landscape of Rhode Island is sharply deficient when it comes to commemorated the struggles of those it has oppressed, while it is littered with the active celebration of colonists, enslavers, and inhumane acts of war. There are very few memorials dedicated to the history of enslavement of Native peoples, or to the state’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade, despite the small state’s outsized role in each. It is time to bring marginalized groups out of the footnotes of Rhode Island history and to illuminate the disparities they have had to struggle through, including the losses and dislocations from their homes, as well as their triumphs over them. 

I end with the sentiments of an East Side resident who was interviewed about his opinion on the redevelopment in 1959:

“Having seen the condition of the neighborhood within the last ten to twelve years, and after having stayed in the neighborhood from 1926 up until this present time, I do believe that redevelopment of the neighborhood at this time. Owing to the fact the publicizing of the redevelopment has been going on so long, until people have moved out, vandalism has set in, houses are being broken up. I do think that it would improve the neighborhood, there’s no doubt about that. But, as far as I’m concerned individually, from 1926 until this present time, I have tried hard to prepare a place wherein I could live with my family and be at ease when I reach an old age. I’m almost there now and to be broken up from the place I’ve prepared, or tried hard to prepare, and to find relocation is going to come hard to me, and my family, and my business.”[7]

[1] Green, V. H. (1947). The Negro Motorist Green Book: 1947: A Classified Motorist's & Tourist's Guide Covering the United States. New York City, NY: Victor Hugo Green. Retrieved December 9, 2020, from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/29219280-892b-0132-4271-58d385a7bbd0.)

[2] Providence Redevelopment Agency. “Official Redevelopment Plan, Lippitt Hill, Project R.I. R-3. April 1959.”

[3] Tillotson, Amanda Rowe (2010). "Pathologizing Place and Race: The Rhetoric of Slum Clearance and Urban Renewal, 1930-1965," Agora: The Urban Planning and Design Journal
at the University of Michigan
, 13.


[5] “Lippitt Hill Redevelopment,” Brown Daily Herald, (December 2. 1960).  p. 2. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:1019681/.

[6] Attie, Shimon. Photograph found in The Writing on The Wall, Berlin, Germany. Retrieved December 9, 2020, from http://shimonattie.net/ (Originally photographed 1991-92).

[7] Lippitt Hill Revisited [Motion picture on 16mm news film], 1959. Collection: WPRI.