Letter from Providence, Rhode Island

Regional ReviewQuarter 1, 1998
by Scott Turner
Many of us choose to live on Burlington Street because its tree-lined sidewalks brim with little children. The mix of three-bedroom houses on our stretch of Burlington Street has sheltered working families since before the Great Depression, and most of the dwellings today are the first homes bought by young couples. We work as teachers, firefighters, and computer technicians, while devoting our best time and energy to raising our children. Our neighborhood sits just a block from a thriving commercial strip of seventy-five mom and pop businesses. The local mix of stores allows us to walk for food, clothing, or toys; get our hair cut; visit a restaurant; or call upon the dentist. The entrepreneurs are also neighbors. Combined with homeowners and renters, we form a collective power that makes this a safe, sound place.

We are a middle-class community in an urban environment, a rare commodity. Our part of the world is busy and diverse, and ours are some of Rhode Island's highest property values.

But one night last fall, our quiet avenue was disrupted by a wall of sound. Drumbeats pounded, a car alarm wailed, people shouted. My wife pulled a pillow over her head. Our two-week-old daughter stirred in the bassinet. My fists clenched. Suddenly, partying next door disrupted the good quality of life we had found. It took two squad cars of police to quiet the revelers. Next morning, neighbors stepped out to collect beer cans off lawns and to shake their heads at this loss of civility at their front doors.

The disturbance had come from a house that was rented to three men last year. Unlike the scattering of renters on the block, these fellows had little regard for the mutual respect paramount to Burlington Street's success. They partied loudly and repeatedly.

I was angry and consulted a neighbor, a World War II veteran and retired firefighter in his fourth decade on the block. Dubbed "the Mayor of Burlington Street," he spends the warm months watching over our homes and kids from his front porch perch. "The Mayor" smiled, noting my fierceness in defending my family and block. But he took a "this too shall pass" attitude. "They're okay chaps, approachable," he said. "I can ask them to tone it down. If that doesn't work, contact their landlords." The one-two punch worked.

"The Mayor" spoke with the men, and they quieted down. But their noisemaking eventually flared up again. I called the landlords, who told them to rein in the monkey business. In fact, the landlords have repaired the home and put it up for sale. At night, Burlington Street is quiet again.

Scott Turner is associate director for science and medicine at the Brown University News Bureau.

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