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American Impressions, Chapter 16: Rhode Island

The theme of the art show that opened at the Westerly, R.I., Artists’ Cooperative in April was “Looking Out My Backdoor.” The result was very wet. Two out of every three paintings in the 30-piece exhibit featured a seascape of some sort, with works titled as evocatively as their limited subject matter allowed—“Rocks and Spray,” “Driftwood Beach,” “River Ice,” “A View From a Deck.” It couldn’t be otherwise. In Rhode Island, it is difficult to look out many doors without seeing either a shoreline or Connecticut in one direction and Massachusetts in the other. Most eyes focus on the shoreline, being one of the few mighty things tiny Rhode Island can call its own.

The smallest of the 50 states, Rhode Island is officially sized at 1,231 square miles, including 186 square miles of lakes, rivers and canals that help make it look bigger than it really is. Strictly landwise, Rhode Island is barely half the size of Polk County. Its coastline is 40 miles long, but if its shoreline were stretched end-to-end, it would measure 384 miles—still nothing compared to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts’ 45,800 miles of shoreline (5,000 miles of which belong to Florida), but the operative word in Rhode Island is manageable: It is possible to travel close to the entire length of the Rhode Island shoreline, leisurely, in a few days, and feel as if one has become intimate with the state.

Intimate, too, with the variety, conflicts and beauty of coastal America, which was what I was most curious about. In a clamshell, Rhode Island’s shore has it all—the myths, the history, the battles between coastline developers and preservationists, between fisheries and vacationers, between cities and the sea (hurricane storm surges devastated Providence, the state capital, in 1938 and 1954). Rhode Island also is a prism into one of the most dramatic but unnoticed internal migrations of the past 30 years. We seem constantly to be reading about the demographic shift from cities to suburbs. But we seldom read about an equally significant shift along the coastline, which is being redefined from a productive, sometimes dangerous work space into a giant water park, with leisure developments along the Atlantic forming a sea wall that is becoming longer, more imposing (and less attractive) than the condo-less Great Wall of China.

”The idea of living by the coast has become much more attractive over the years,” says David Griffith, an anthropologist at East Carolina University and author of “The Estuary’s Gift: An Atlantic Coast Cultural Biography,” to be published this fall. It is one of the rare books that takes a big-picture look at coastal America and the relationship between people and the sea.

Years ago coastal environments were associated with bad health. That’s changed, Griffith continued. The coast is now being sought after by a relatively wealthy crowd, commoditized and privatized. As that occurs, a lot of people who’ve been on the coast for generations are being marginalized. Fishing families in particular. The coast is now being seen more as a location for leisure activities, but commercial activities are still important, so there are disputes between these traditional users and developers.

But it’s clear who’s winning.

The paintings on the walls of the Westerly artists’ cooperative reflect how “we focus on pleasant things,” as Lynn Anderson, one of the painters, puts it. There are sunsets and lolling sailboats in coves, stacks of empty lobster “pots” (traps, that is) on a pier, empty rocking chairs on a deck overlooking an inlet. Every day is Sunday. The leisure of the paintings betrays the leisure of the painters, who themselves reflect the predominant class of today’s shore-dwellers—easy-going, well-to-do professionals for whom the sea is a backdrop of serenity. Painter Winslow Homer’s dark green visions of the sea as a bottomless gamble have left no trace here. Danger is as absent from the paintings as fishermen, for whom the sea was temperamental livelihood, are absent from the seashore. Westerly and many small towns like it have become resorts along the Rhode Island coast. The front door leads to upscale restaurants serving Thai curry sauce. The back door leads to art-class vistas. Fishermen, most of whom are descendants of Portuguese and Italian immigrants, have had to migrate again.

Soft-brushed paintings like “Endless Summer” and “Afterglow” aside, the coast remains true to Homer in ways chambers of commerce and tourist brochures prefer to mute as much as possible, the sea’s dangers having been effectively segregated away from the leisure class. Along the Rhode Island coast up to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, six fishermen died last year; 10 died along the New England coast; and 86 died along all of America’s coasts (129 vessels were lost). The Coast Guard is estimating that if this year’s trend persists, fishing deaths will reach 120. (By way of comparison, coal mining, another notoriously dangerous industry, recorded 30 deaths in 1997).

The week I was in Rhode Island the Coast Guard was still investigating the January sinking of the “ Cape Fear,” a 112-foot ocean quahogger, or clammer, that worked far off shore. Two men had died in the Atlantic’s 37-degree waters as the boat sank at night, 10 minutes after it started taking water in 6-foot seas, snow and wind gusts of 30 miles an hour. Three men survived.

Rather than imagine the unimaginable, I was reminded of an evening I’d spent with a family of fishermen in Kodiak, Alaska, a few months ago, a fishing island sharded by some of the nation’s most fatal coastline. Talk had circled for a couple of hours around the island’s culture and heated politics when my hosts’ son-in-law, Matt Corriere, began talking about the winter night, five years ago, when his fishing boat struck a reef, rolled over and plunged him and three shipmates into icy, black waters off Kodiak.

”I found it very exciting at the time,” he said, laughing. “I was joking with the other guys, laughing. I thought this was great. Young crab fishermen have an idea that they are invincible, and I didn’t think anything was going to happen. I mean, I’m in the water in the middle of the night. This is just part of fishing. I remember saying that. They were all kind of freaking out and I said, ‘Hey, we’re crab fishermen, this is great.’ Not for one minute did I think that we would not make it.”

Matt was 23 at the time. His fishing mates were all in their 40s. They all died—one of a heart attack as he was jumping in the water, the other two of hypothermia, even though all wore survival suits designed to resist the water’s lethal cold, at least temporarily. Matt blames alcohol and drugs, which were found in the skipper’s bloodstream. The skipper had fallen asleep as he piloted the boat to a different destination at 3 a.m., and he struck a reef, opening a 9-foot gash in the bottom of the boat.

Whether because he was younger or healthier or in a different mental frame of mind, hypothermia spared Matt long enough that he made it to a rocky shore, where he was rescued by the Coast Guard helicopter that had already retrieved two of his three shipmates’ bodies.

Correre stopped commercial fishing, but he has no fear of boats, or of the ocean—the ocean he cussed and cursed after making it to the rocks of Humpy Cove the night of the accident.

For all its impending transformation into one more Club Med destination, Kodiak is still a fishing island immersed in the workaholism and perils dictated by the sea. In the small, gentrified towns along Rhode Island’s southern shoreline, with names like Jerusalem and Galilee and Watch Hill, the sea has become a backdrop, an immaterial expanse that exists only when vacationers do. The towns are dead until late spring, when day-trippers and summerhome owners fill them up, dictating the same array of specialty shops and Starbuckses that fill their suburban neighborhoods around Boston, Providence, Hartford and New York.

There are corners of extreme quaintness, like Watch Hill’s Book and Tackle Shop, so-called because the store sold fishing worms until it started scaring off customers. The place is run, summers and weekends, by Bernie Gordon, a geology professor who commutes from Boston, writes books in his spare time, and otherwise leaves stacks of books outside his store, suggesting that interested buyers leave $3 under the door for every volume they buy in his absence. But those small towns, which hedged their fortunes on the daily rhythms of the ocean’s tides, now hedge everything on the single tidal wave—this one coming from the opposite direction, on the mainland—that brings people in May, and takes them out by September. The ocean’s tides are of little consequence anymore.

Providence likes to claim to be America’s Venice. It has the architecture (300 years’ worth) and the history. It is built on an estuary, with two rivers cutting through downtown. It doesn’t have the gondolas yet, but it has the pollution. Whatever swims in either the Woonasquatucket or the Providence River tows its share of dioxin, a reminder of Providence’s—and Rhode Island’s—powerful manufacturing past. B.B. & R. Knight, better known today as Fruit of the Loom, once operated 22 mills, 12,000 looms and half a million spindles in the state, alongside a jewelry and precision tool industry that was unrivaled in the country. But mills and factories dumped all their waste in the rivers back when toxic spills were known as drainage. The rivers got so filthy that Providence literally paved them over in the 1960s, with the enormous Crawford Street Bridge. It was folly compounding folly, sealing off rivers but also Providence’s fate as one of the 1970s’ and 1980s’ most infamous urban dumps in the nation—“the pits,” as Bette Middler put it when she came to town for a concert.

What a difference 10 years have made.

”They’re calling Providence the ‘ Renaissance City,’ I’m sure you’ve heard by now,” Capt. Joe Dempsey is telling me, piloting his boat along the Providence River through the heart of the city. “It’s considerably cleaner than it was. It sustains life at this point, put it that way. Oysters, eels, crabs. Not that you’d want to eat them.”

The riverfront sustains a different kind of life, too—city life, vibrant, varied, completely restored. Unlike Cleveland, which has lumped its revival in the one-dimensional windfall of pro sports, Providence has revived itself with a mixture of industry, retail, art and entertainment, and by successfully convincing graduates of the city’s Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University to live and work there after graduation. You can see the lobbying’s results by the hundreds along the riverfront at lunch time. They’re in suits, in money, in a hurry.

The revival began a decade ago when Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr. realized the waterfronts that had made Providence a great city in the earlier part of the century could do so again. Under his leadership, the Crawford Street Bridge was demolished, rivers and roads rerouted, and plans to divert an interstate that cuts through the city put in motion. The rivers have been reclaimed by the likes of Dempsey, who for eight years has chartered his boat and shuttled weekend revelers on restaurant- and bar-hopping excursions along the waterways. Last year, President Clinton designated the Providence River’s whole watershed area an American Heritage River, one of only 15 such designations in the country (along with riverine eminences like the Mississippi and the Rio Grande).

Upriver, right by the city’s Peace Memorial, Dempsey meets another river entrepreneur and his wife—Joe and Donna Baer, who run a 90-boat kayaking and canoeing outfit—Paddleprov—on the city’s rivers.

”When we first started paddling across the river, people thought we were in trouble and would send cops to help us,” Donna Baer says. But Paddleprov is the sort of business that has changed people’s attitudes about the city. The opening of the river has actually brought the city together, and the use of the river as a crosstown park has improved its quality of life and its image.

The rivers are “a way to put life and color and activity in the city for everybody, regardless of what socio-economic background you’re in,” Joe Baer says in his Brooklyn accent (Paddleprov gave free boat rides to 3,000 kids last year as part of a city-run program). “It’s a wonderful fresh vantage point to enjoy urban life, and it opens up hundreds and hundreds of acres of recreational area for a fraction of what it would cost to do on land, where the only way you can go is up.”

Joe Dempsey illustrates that very point when he picks up three teenage boys who, leaving their indifferent and sun-tanning girlfriends behind, beg him for a brief ride on the boat. They were cutting school (and proud of it). One of them had been suspended for fighting. He was proud of that, too. Throwing all their cool to the winds, they couldn’t contain their thrill of being on the water. For six minutes down the Providence River, Dempsey’s taxi-boat was their Titanic.

Before completing the coastal trail at Sakonnet, at the far eastern end of the state, I rode around Newport looking for beachfronts and finding only rich people’s homes blocking the view, as they do in Watch Hill and many other points along the coast. Newport, of course, has those Gilded Age mansions that do more than block the view: They have become the view, attracting 800,000 gaping visitors a year. Newport’s Bellevue Avenue is a particularly arresting section of the Atlantic seawall.

I stopped in at Marble House, which William Vanderbilt built as a summer house and 39 th birthday present for his Alabama-born wife in 1892 at a cost of $11 million, the equivalent of $195 million today. (The Vanderbilts were divorced three years later; she got the house). Sooner or later on this journey across America I was bound to find occasion to use the word “opulence.” This was it. But tackiness is more like it—not because the house, with its fanatic devotion to things French and European, lacks taste, but because it displays that turn-of-the-century snobbery of rich Americans who, like Henry James, didn’t think American art and style ritzy enough for them even as Mark Twain was twisting back their upturned noses into parodies of themselves.

The Mansions were dead history even in their prime, a century ago. The dying fishing community of Sakonnet, where massive, rusty anchors rise in piles near the waterfront, like stacked-up grave-markers, is becoming history of a different sort. The small port will soon be prime real estate for the Atlantic seawall, and the fate of the lighthouse at Sakonnet Point will say it all: It’ll blink more for the tourists’ cameras on the mainland than for any fishing traffic on the sea.



Rhode Island in Brief


Total area: 1,231 sq. miles (rank: 50)

Population (1997): 987,429 (rank: 43)

State Capital: Providence

Economy: Services, manufacturing, fishing, jewelry.

Nicknames & Motto: Little Rhody; Ocean State; Hope.

Entered union: 13 th of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution (May 29, 1790).

Notable facts: Before the years of reform that turned the state around, Rhode Island in the early 1990s was hit by the scandalous failure of the organization which insured the state-chartered credit unions, then with the indictment and imprisonment of former Governor Edward D. DiPrete—who was first elected in 1984 and left office in 1991 -- for accepting bribes and extortion. His son, Dennis, also was indicted.

The state in quotes: “This town being in the direct way between the cities of New York and Boston; and the passage from New York to Providence being cheap, safe, and commodious by water, and the navigation around Nantucket and Cape Cod dangerous and tedious, will always necessarily cause Providence to be a great thoroughfare for people, goods, and business between the capital towns of Boston and New York. From all these considerations, is it not probable that, under the new Constitution, the town of Providence will become what Antwerp was heretofore to the adjacent country on the river Scheldt, one of the principal marts of New England?”
(From the United States Chronicle, a Providence newspaper in colonial days, July 17, 1788.)


* David Griffith’s “The Estuary’s Gift: An Atlantic Coast Cultural Biography” will be published by Penn State University Press in November.
* “At the Water’s Edge: Coastal Images of America” is two artists’ rendition of the American coastline through paintings and watercolors (1998).
* “The Evolving Coast” is a more empirical study of the coastline published through the Scientific American Library Paperback series, and priced at about $20.

On the rivers: Should you find yourself in Providence and eager to experience its rivers, Paddle Providence’s number is 401-453-1633; Capt. Joe Dempsey’s Providence River Boat Company’s number is 401-453-0154.

Web sites:

* The Navy maintains a very informative site on Rhode Island’s naval and shoreline history at

* Rhode Island tourism:

* Watch Hill:

* Newport Mansions:


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