Providence Neighborhood Profiles
Washington Park in Depth: Background
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Washington Park

The community of Washington Park lies in the southwestern quadrant of Providence, bounded by the waterfront on the east, the city of Cranston on the south, and Interstate 95 on the west and north. The major transportation arteries run northwest and southeast and include both Broad and Eddy Streets. These thoroughfares are generally commercial strips and intersect near the Broad Street elementary school and the entrance to Roger Williams Park in the center of the Washington Park neighborhood.

It is interesting to note that because much of Washington Park was developed as a "suburban" setting and because the houses were built during the same period of time, many of the streets were given names that belonged to a certain theme. This process continues today in the construction of suburban subdivisions across the United States. In the case of this neighborhood, many of the streets were named for states which were in existence during the late 19th century. For example, while New York, Alabama, Vermont, Ohio and Massachusetts Avenues run through the heart of Washington Park, Alaska Street was constructed much later and is in the North End section of the city.

Narragansett Boulevard is also a major neighborhood artery when it becomes the residential extension of Allens Avenue. Most of the streets, between Broad Street and Narragansett Boulevard however, are specifically residential. The western half of the neighborhood is adjacent to Roger Williams Park, the largest urban park in the State of Rhode Island.

Although Roger Williams never lived in Washington Park, he owned a large tract of land in the western part of the neighborhood. His heirs farmed this land for generations. Early activity was limited and was generally unsettled when the property was sectioned off as part of Cranston in 1754. In 1773, Nathaniel Williams, Roger Williams' great grandson, built a small gambrel roof cottage for his son, James, on the family land just east of present day Elmwood Avenue.

After the War of 1812, Edward Babcock bought a large farm that ran east from Broad Street to the waterfront area neighboring the Williams family land. The Babcocks were horse racing enthusiasts and by 1851 Edward Babcock and his son William opened a race track on the farm. During the 1860s, Amasa Sprague joined the venture, and the track was called the Washington Park Trotting Association. The business was highly successful and for several years the Grand National Circuit Races were held there. Babcock Street, in the western part of the neighborhood, still carries the founder's name.

In 1848, when Washington Park was annexed back to the city of Providence, the area was still mostly undeveloped. In 1871, when Betsy Williams, Nathaniel's granddaughter, offered the city the Williams' farms three miles from downtown to be used as a park, the city was rather reluctant to accept because of the area's remoteness. However, the offer was accepted because the city lacked recreational facilities. In 1873, the city annexed back the portion of the Williams farm which still remained in Cranston.

Early in the 1870s, Providence experienced a boom along with the rest of the nation. Real estate speculation increased the price of suburban land to record levels. The Babcocks abandoned the racetrack and sold most of their large farm to speculators for a large profit. During this period, Washington Park was inundated with developers who platted the neighborhood, setting up the street pattern as we know it today. However, the panic of 1873 put further speculation to a halt and real estate prices dropped. Up until 1890, only a few dozen houses stood scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Washington Park experienced rapid and heavy development with the improvement of transportation. By 1875, horsecar lines were running along Eddy Street, Thurbers Avenue and Broad Street, reaching the heart of the neighborhood. By 1879, the line was extended to the village of Pawtuxet on the Warwick and Cranston border and by 1895, it extended along both New York Avenue and Narragansett Boulevard.

Another factor that encouraged development was the Home Investment Company, led by Colonel Isaac Goff. Home Investment bought the undeveloped parts of Babcock Farm and started to sell vacant lots both with and without houses. Development rapidly followed. The company introduced a market strategy by selling its real estate in Washington Park on an installment plan to make it easier to purchase.

Development recovered after the panic and, on the whole, was occurring at a steady pace. By 1918, most of Washington Park south of New York Avenue was built. A decade later, the tracts north of New York Avenue were filled, as well as the small area east of Narragansett Boulevard on Carolina and Georgia avenues. During the beginning of the 20th century, there was an increase in the demand for housing.

The residential section of Washington Park is adjacent to Roger Williams Park on one side but on the other, abuts land associated with the Port of Providence. The only sewage treatment facility in the city is located there. But there were other uses for that land also. During the 1950s, one of Providence's two drive-in movie theaters was located on Field's Point.

World Wars I and II helped foster war-related industries at nearby Field's Point, thereby further contributing to the demand for housing. By this time, many single-family houses were divided into two or three family buildings to deal with an increased market for rental units. About 72 new houses were built after 1940 in response to rising housing demands.

Washington Park became home to many Irish families who abandoned South Providence after Route 95 was built. Also, there remains a significant Portuguese population in the area of Narragansett Boulevard that has remained strong over the years. In fact, nearly 20% of the neighborhood population claims Portuguese ancestry. Along with Fox Point, Washington Park remains a neighborhood with a significant Portuguese population.

Today, Washington Park is a developed residential community with tree lined streets. Because of the rapid development concentrated in the span of 40 years between 1890 and 1930, it is somewhat architecturally homogenous. Most of the houses are single or two family dwellings that are common in most middle class suburbs. Triple-deckers, so prevalent in other parts of Providence, are rare in Washington Park.

According to the 2000 Census, 7,802 persons reside in Washington Park, a 6 percent decrease from 1990. Washington Park, like Elmwood, is one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods. About 20 percent of residents are African American, 30 percent are Hispanic, and almost 5 percent are Asian. About a third of all residens were foreign born and about half speak a language other than English at home. In 2000, 56 percent and of Washington Park adults of age 25 or older were high school graduates and almost a fifth (17.3%) had a college degree or higher.

Manufacturing is the major source of employment for Washington Park residents, accounting for nearly a quarter of all jobs. Education, health and social services (21%) and arts and enterntainment related work (15%) were other prominent sources of employment. The unemployment rate in 2000 among Washington Park residents was 12 percent, about three percentage points higher than the citywide rate of 9.3 percent.

Median family income in Washington Park in 1999 was $35,550, 9.8 percent higher than the citywide median of $28,342. The proportion of persons (19%) and families (17%) living below poverty in 2000 was slightly higher as that reported for 1990, as was the percentage of children (25.4%), while the elderly rate (17%) experienced a slight decline.

Housing tenure in Washington Park has been stable over the past three decades, with about half of all housing units owner-occupied (53.1%) and half were renter-occupied (46.9%) in 2000. Four out of ten housing units is a single-family detached home, half are two to four family homes, and less than 5 percent of the housing units in Washington Park are located in buildings with five or more units. Eight out of ten housing units were constructed more than 40 years ago.

The median residential sales price in 2004 was $193,500, 12 percent below the citywide median value. The median rent in Washington Park was 6 percent higher than the citywide median. About a third (32%) of all residents moved into their present housing unit within the past five years according to the 2000 Census; four out of ren residents had lived in his or her present unit for more than 10 years.

Sources: Washington Park: Neighborhood Analysis, Department of Planning and Urban Development (City of Providence, 1977) and Providence: A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources, edited by William McKenzie Woodward and Edward F. Sanderson (Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1986).

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