Walking the Interstate, or Where 195 Used to Be

What makes a city? A dense and diverse collection of structures and people and activities? Sure... but stop there, and a shopping mall or a cruise ship or a music festival can be a "city." A real city is an anchor in time and space. This means robust interconnection with a wider region, and a sense of permanence that lies under its ever-changing surface. Physical infrastructure -- roads, rails, pipes, and wires -- is the city's connected permanence in material form.

Infrastructure is both embedded and sprawling. It is meant to serve present and future needs by delivering some commodity (like water, power, or commuters) from far-out regional sources to points of concentration. It is enormously expensive, and unlikely to be altered in a major way once built.

So the case of Interstate 195 in Providence is most unusual. Since 1958, this highway snaked through the heart of town, connecting the north-south Interstate 95 with the rest of the I-195 east to Cape Cod. Curiously, this urban connector was built years before either of the highways it connected, and this fact largely explains its tortured alignment and short lifespan.

​​Starting in 2008, the state replaced the mile-long crosstown segment of I-195 with a new alignment to the the south, leaving an empty trace now being incrementally (and contentiously) filled in. Ian led a Jane's Walk earlier this month to take advantage of this brief moment, when I-195's cut through the city is open and visible.

The walk considered the spatial legacy of the old I-195, like the granite-faced retaining walls and ramps and underpasses cutting off the Jewelry District from Downcity, now recorded by odd vestigial boundaries.


We also looked at the remade "city" now replacing the highway. Already, the promise of a healed, rejoined, urban fabric has made way for architectural scar tissue, as we discovered at Eddy Street. But there are more hopeful signs of new growth, like the long-awaited pedestrian bridge finally nearing completion atop the foundations of the old highway bridge.

A hundred years ago, steamers docked where the new bridge will land at the foot of Dorrance Street. Passengers could walk down the gangway and just a few blocks up into the heart of the city. Westbound pedestrians and cyclists on the bridge will soon have the same experience. With the right pieces on the riverbank, then the infrastructure that once disrupted the city can be repurposed for a great moment of arrival.


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