It Takes A Village

New vision meets historic charm in Wickford

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You are sitting in a kayak, in the middle of the harbor. Sailboat masts rise all around you. The skyline is studded with colorful cottages, trees, waterfront parks. You smile approvingly at the white window trim, the shingled siding and roofs. As you paddle past the weathered remains of bygone piers, a low bridge looms close. Narrowly passing under it, your kayak glides down an inlet toward Academy Cove. The banks are reinforced with stone and greenery.

Wow, you think to yourself. This is just... beautiful.

From every angle, Wickford Village looks like a lavish landscape photograph – and locals have carefully maintained its frameable ambiance. Wickford still grooms its iconic coastal beauty, primping every square foot. The village center comprises just a couple of main streets; the total population is only a few thousand. Yet Wickford has survived the test of time, and historic references are prominently displayed. Vine-covered trellises stand everywhere; carved mermaids and figureheads decorate the 200-year-old houses. You would not be the first compare it to a Winslow Homer painting. Or the set of Gilmore Girls.

Wickford has also stood firm through the ages, adapting to new types of visitors. Once a prominent port, Wickford Harbor is now crowded all summer with private boats, fishing vessels, stand-up paddleboarders, and yes, kayaks, thanks to the massive Kayak Centre on Brown Street. On certain mornings, you can spot yoga classes doing warrior poses on their stand-up paddle boards. To see Wickford from the water is to appreciate its centuries of nautical traffic.

“You can paddle past the docks,” says Rachel McCarty, who works for The Kayak Centre. “It’s a shallow harbor, and there aren’t many powerboats. You can see a working fisherman’s wharf. We do moonlight tours, sunset tours. There’s a lot to see."

 

The Grand Highway

The history of Wickford is full of surprises, starting with its bizarre geography. Within three square miles, there’s Wickford Harbor, Wickford Cove, Fishing Cove, Mill Cove, and Academy Cove, which all connect. Land is broken up into various points, inlets, and islands, and the terrain changes every few hundred feet; one minute, you’re strolling past the white picket fences of Washington Street. Walk for five more, and you stumble into the busy marina of Wickford Shipyard. Six minutes beyond that, you step onto the sands of North Kingstown Town Beach, seemingly far from anywhere.

These sheltered waters have attracted mariners since time immemorial, from Narragansett fishermen to Roger Williams himself, who purchased the parcel in 1637. From the moment the English merchant Richard Smith opened his trading post – then called Cocumscussoc – Wickford became one of the most important harbors in the state. A memorial plaque on Main Street shows an illustration of its heyday: The “Grand Highway” is busy with horses, workers, women in bonnets, and gentlemen in top hats.

But Wickford elders made some risky decisions. They voted against a railroad line through town, and the resulting station, Wickford Junction, is actually two miles inland. “The overly ambitious Wickford waterfront property owners raised wharfage prices,” reads another plaque, and a lot of the shipping business moved elsewhere. Making up for lost income, Wickford became a steamboat port and summer getaway, as well as a train stop between Providence and Newport.

In 2015, Wickford faced another economic crisis: Wilson’s of Wickford, a well-known clothing store, would close its doors. The family-owned store had been a pillar of Wickford’s retail economy for 70 years. Many feared a downward slide; Wickford is scenic, but it’s easy to bypass on Route 4. Wilson’s was a major draw, and locals wondered what could replace it.

And then, other businesses began to fill that void.

 

A Retail Renaissance

On a warm morning, Shayna’s Place is pretty much always busy. Street parking is all taken. Patrons occupy bistro tables out front. There’s probably a line. 

“We focus on an inclusive, community-driven environment,” says Matthew Olerio, co-owner of Shayna’s. “Food has always been a big part of our family.”

The Olerios have long been based in Rhode Island. Matthew’s parents are former bandmates (they once opened for Tina Turner), and they used to run an open air fruit stand. Matthew’s wife Joanna grew up in Maine, and they met during college in Boston. The couple moved around a bit, including a stint in New York. When the couple found themselves in a “transitional period,” the extended family banded together to open a food-forward diner in Wickford.

“Wickford has always had that center-of-town feel. There’s a real openness [here].”

The restaurant takes its name from Matthew’s sister. She’s an avowed foodie, and she serves as the resident DJ, picking much of the music that plays in the dining room. She also has Down syndrome, a fact that informs Shayna’s inclusive atmosphere. As it happens, Special Olympics games are held annually on URI campus, and North Kingstown is considered a welcoming community for folks with special needs. Two Shayna’s Place sandwiches are named after local advocates: “Dr. Sig” wrote a book about Down syndrome, and “Coach Lisa” is named after one of Shayna’s athletic trainers.

Shayna’s has quickly become a pillar of the Wickford community; regulars drive from surrounding towns to enjoy breakfast and coffee, and one sandwich (Vinny’s Kitchen) won mention from USA Today for “Best Grinder in New England."

A similar success story is Tate’s Italian Kitchen, opened the same year and located a block away. Karen Bruno and Jack Mutell were successful restaurateurs in Long Island, but when they saw an ad for a defunct diner on Brown Street, they made the shocking decision to relocate their business to Wickford Village. The restaurant, with its rustic interior and 153-year-old shell, serves elegant Italian fare, and it’s drawn regular patrons (and dining critics) from across New England.

“It’s actually the restaurants that are the anchor,” says Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce. A South County native, she used to visit Wickford when she was a kid. After 20 years out-of-state, Kristin loves to see the town continue to flourish, and she seems to have close relationships with every proprietor in town. “Wickford feels warm and inviting. The business owners really care about unifying their storefronts. People appreciate the history and beauty of Wickford, but they’re also keeping up with trends.”

Downtown Wickford has always been a destination, and summer visitors are diverse. The streets are lined with boutiques, antique stores, art galleries, specialty shops, and places to eat. Some of these businesses have elaborate backstories: The clothier Green Ink has occupied four locations in Wickford since it first opened in 1972 and recently expanded with a second location in Providence’s Wayland Square. Green River Silver Co. first started in Providence, then opened a second store in Wickford about 18 years ago, and also has a third location in Bristol. Gardner’s Wharf has been selling fish and live lobster for seven decades.

But new businesses are popping up as well. The Captain’s Table sells kitchenware, food products, and dessert truffles. Radiance Yoga, the village’s first dedicated yoga studio, just opened up last November. The bar and restaurant Wickford on the Water opened in March. And next, the town’s defunct library will be renovated as a theatre. Momentum, it seems, is building.

 

The Enchanted Village

Throughout the year, Wickford hosts several community events, and visitors come from all over. During the winter holidays, the Festival of Lights illuminates the town. The spring equivalent is Harbor Lights, when the waters become a galaxy of floating lamps.

The granddaddy of local culture is the Wickford Art Festival, which will celebrate its 57th year this month. For two days, more than 200 artists set up their stalls on Wickford’s streets, and they show their works to a tidal wave of regional art collectors. The first iteration, back in the early 1960s, was so successful that it helped launch the Wickford Art Association, which has been promoting local artists and leading workshops ever since.

Diminutive as it may be, Wickford enchants travelers, whether they’re road-tripping to Newport or bicycling 1A to Narragansett. After all, not every village has its own “Rune Stone,” that mysterious rock etched with Norse-looking script. Nor does every village have a brick, fixed into the pavement of a municipal park, that reads, “Marry Me.”

“I fell in love with the location,” says Kostas Karampetsos, owner of Tavern By The Sea. “I always wanted to have my own place, and I really liked the area.”

Tavern By The Sea is unique in Wickford – at 13 years, the venue is neither brand-new nor especially old. Kostas grew up in Athens, Greece, and he attended Johnson & Wales. But Wickford was where he wanted to base his business. The restaurant specializes in wine and seafood, and its expansive decks overlook the water. Locals gather at the granite bar, and the host’s station is decorated with an authentic captain’s wheel. Kostas has seen businesses come and go, and he welcomes the new arrivals.

“I have a great relationship with everyone,” he says. Then, with a satisfied smile, he adds: “It works.”

Such a delicate balance is rare, among rural crossroads. Some grow too big, and quaint centers get lost in the sprawl. Others implode, turning into ghost towns. Wickford is that magic mix, persevering through the years, converting age-old buildings into attractive new venues. It’s beautiful, you think, passing through. But that’s not the half of it.