Letter from Providence, Rhode Island

Regional ReviewQuarter 4, 2001
by Carrie Conaway

“There’s no more beautiful setting for a gondola than Providence.” So proclaims Marco, the proprietor (with his wife Cynthia Days) of one of the nation’s few gondola tour businesses. He may be a bit partial — but he may also be right. The Woonasquatucket and Moshasseck Rivers join at Washington Street in the heart of the city to form the Providence River. Seven bridges, no two alike, ford the three narrow rivers. Pedestrians can walk along the water and under the bridges on warmly lit granite cobblestone sidewalks, taking in views of the Rhode Island State House, the Rhode Island School of Design, Waterplace Park, and the gleaming new Providence Place mall. Boats are welcome; in fact, many details along the waterways, such as the brass medallions on the College Street bridge and the high-water marks from past floods, are only visible from the water. Watercraft compete for space with ducks, cormorants, and two pairs of swans. Automobiles are hardly noticed, since they pass by up to 20 feet above the water level.

The narrow width of the rivers and the lack of automobile traffic evoke the famous canals of the gondola’s birthplace. “It’s not a copy of Venice, but it’s reminiscent of it,” says Marco. “We want to do things as authentically as we can.” The couple hired a Massachusetts boat builder to make their first gondola with 100-year-old specifications, at a cost of over $30,000; it is believed to be the first authentic Venetian gondola built in the United States. They imported the second directly from Venice only a few months after launching their business, when they discovered demand for rides was higher than expected. The American-built boat is slightly wider — Venetian gondolas have been narrowed in recent years to accommodate motorboats in the canals — but otherwise they are nearly identical. Both are black, as mandated by a Venetian law from 1562, and seat up to six passengers. They have an almost regal appearance with their red cording and pom-poms, removable red upholstered seats, and colorful tapestry-like carpets. Together they have over 500 feet of brass trim secured by 1,200 screws, every piece of which Marco carefully removes and individually cleans during the off-season.

Stretching to 36 feet in length and weighing 1,500 pounds, gondolas are challenging to maneuver. They are flat-bottomed, lack a keel for balance, and are steered with a single 14-foot oar used on only one side of the boat. Rivers are particularly difficult to navigate because the gondolier must sometimes row against the tide and the current. Marco worked with a Venetian gondolier for several months to develop his rowing skills. But watching him in action, you’d never know he doesn’t have Venice in his blood. Wearing the traditional navy blue and white striped shirt, black pants, and straw hat, he guides the gondola through the river with barely a sound, never lifting the oar out of the water. He can turn the boat in circles or keep it completely still against the current. He also sings on request, though ironically, this is the least authentic part of the experience. Despite popular belief, Venetian gondoliers rarely sing.

All this would have been impossible less than a decade ago. Back then, the city’s three rivers were completely covered by the massive Crawford Street Bridge. The original bridge was built in the 1890s, and it was expanded progressively over the next 30 years to provide more space downtown for roads, trolleys, and parking. By 1930, the rivers lay hidden under the world’s widest bridge — a slab of concrete 1,147 feet wide, barely recognizable as anything other than a roadway or parking lot. But beginning in 1982, a redevelopment project reclaimed part of the waterfront to build Waterplace Park, an outdoor amphitheater and public gathering place. In later phases, city planners redirected the three rivers, removed the concrete decking, and built seven new bridges. The last piece of decking over the Providence River was removed in October 1995, exposing the waterways in downtown Providence for the first time in a century.

Even with the new accessibility of the riverways, a gondola business in Providence might not have been obvious. Indeed, La Gondola ended up in Providence more by fluke than by design. Marco and Cynthia had built the gondola in late 1996 intending to move it to Florida, but while home visiting for the holidays, Cynthia gave birth to their first child two months prematurely. Driving over the Point Street Bridge every day to visit his daughter in the hospital, Marco took notice of the newly revitalized riverfront. He and Cynthia agreed it was even more beautiful than any setting they had found for the gondola in Florida, and they decided to launch their business in Providence instead.

Their timing, though coincidental, turned out to be opportune. Since La Gondola opened for business in 1997, the rivers have become an increasingly integral part of Providence’s landscape. Pedestrians stroll the river walks day and night, and music lovers attend concerts at Waterplace Park. In the summertime thousands come to see WaterFire, a semi-weekly public art installation with 100 wood bonfires lining the rivers and international music piped throughout the waterfront area. And then there are the gondolas. Voted Providence’s best place to pop the question in 1998, they provide a unique and romantic vantage point on the city. “I have guests who travel by here every day on the way to work, but until they view it from this perspective, they never appreciate how beautiful it is,” recounts Marco, who has ample opportunity himself to appreciate the rivers with 95 percent of his rides booked.

The transformation of Providence’s rivers has been accompanied by a transformation of the city itself, from a declining urban area to an increasingly appealing place to work, live, and visit. Indeed, its rebirth has been so impressive that the National Trust for Historic Preservation this year chose the city as the site for its annual conference. Marco, for one, is glad to see the change. “Providence is in a renaissance,” he says. “In a small way, we’re a part of that.”

Stay Connected

contacts email alert Twitter RSS podcasts careers faqs videos
Regional Review Links