As she was canvassing the neighborhood during her city council campaign this summer, Nirva LaFortune found herself standing in front of a million-dollar home on Hartshorn Road, just steps away from Blackstone Boulevard. Suddenly, a feeling of doubt rushed over her.
“What am I getting myself into?” she recalls asking herself. “How am I going to represent someone who lives here? I can’t afford to live here.”
Welcome to life in Ward 3, where being the councilperson here requires balancing your time between the requests of the wealthiest 1% of the city with more complicated issues in the less affluent part of the community. From sidewalks in Summit and Blackstone to the threat of gentrification and still too frequent bursts of violence in Mount Hope, finding common ground in a ward where residents’ needs vary so widely from block to block isn’t easy.
So is there a way to unite such a diverse community? Neighbors say it will take communication, a willingness to build on what’s already working and a level of follow-through the ward hasn’t seen over the last decade.
Dr. Dannie Ritchie, a family physician and the founder of Community Health Innovations of RI, has been working with Mount Hope residents for more than a decade. Among the more notable projects she has led recently was the painting of a mural near the corner of Cypress and Camp streets, across from Billy Taylor Park.
Ritchie says she has tried to create a community dialogue, bringing together storytellers and fostering intergenerational conversations to pass on the history of the neighborhood to younger residents. But she acknowledges capacity building can “take a lot longer than anybody expects.”
When it comes to bringing the community together, Ritchie says that one challenge is Ward 3’s “fractured history.” There has been racial tension around Mount Hope for close to two centuries and while the neighborhood may no longer see riots, there is a fear that residents of other parts of the ward may have interests that could be disruptive to the area, particularly when it comes to affordable housing.
“It’s a delicate balance because of the history of really displacing a large part of the community of color there,” Ritchie says.
At the same time, the residents of Mount Hope simply have different challenges than folks in other parts of Ward 3, according to Leah Williams Metts, a community activist who grew up in Mount Hope and attended Hope High School. She says a lack of opportunity around the neighborhood is directly related to crime in the area.
“Today, parents are forced to work multiple jobs and longer hours despite having children,” Metts says. “Pair that with the lack of jobs as well as recreational and educational programs after school and during the weekends for children over the age of 14, and you get the perfect storm.”
On the other side of the ward, Ethan Gyles says that he wants to break the social wall that exists between Camp Street and Hope Street. Gyles, the president of the Summit Neighborhood Association, says that his organization is actively seeking ways to strengthen ties between the neighborhoods.
Gyles points to several candidate forums the Summit and Mount Hope neighborhood associations held during the city council race this summer as examples of the effort to keep the dialogue open. He says he wants to lead his organization “in being cooperative” with other neighborhoods without coming off as overbearing or patriarchal.
“We’re not expecting Councilwoman LaFortune to be able to lead the charge and fix the divide overnight,” Gyles says. “We want to partner with her and find ways.”
Now, LaFortune finds herself learning on the job.
The complaints that reach City Hall are actually quite similar no matter where you turn in Ward 3. Of the 66 open cases in the community that were being reviewed by the mayor’s Center for City Services in September, half were related to issues with trees, street signs or streetlights. Other grievances included broken trash bins, cars speeding and potholes.
But LaFortune says that she’s constantly talking to her neighbors to learn about the deeper issues affecting the ward. She explains that sidewalks are the top complaint she hears the closer she gets to Lippitt Park, but affordable housing and crime are more top of mind in Mount Hope.
She is already calling on the Providence Police to reopen the Camp Street substation as part of an effort to bring more officers on foot patrols or bikes to the neighborhood. She’s hopeful that expanded community policing will lead to stronger relationships between the cops and residents.
On the campaign trail, LaFortune says that she heard loud and clear that residents didn’t feel informed about what was happening in City Hall or within the ward. While her predecessor, former councilman Kevin Jackson, would return phone calls, he had little presence on social media and didn’t issue a weekly newsletter the way Councilman Sam Zurier does in Ward 2. LaFortune plans to issue newsletters at least twice per month.
More importantly, she says, “part of the work I want to do is get more of the community engaged and the whole community advocating.” That also means making sure she’s present all over the ward. On one Saturday morning in September, that meant walking from the bagel shop on Doyle Avenue over to Billy Taylor Park, followed by a trip down Hope Street toward the farmers market. “We really should have gone to North Main Street too,” she remarks.
The early reviews suggest something is working.
Metts credits LaFortune with getting involved with a wide array of community groups throughout the ward. And Gyles reports that she was quick to act following a car accident on Fourth Street, convincing the city to conduct a traffic study that showed a need for a four-way stop sign at an intersection. It may have not solved all of the ward’s problems, but Gyles says it showed that LaFortune can deliver on promises.
“I think everyone walked away happy,” he says. “This level of responsiveness is refreshing.”