That Hope Street Magic

What one East Side neighborhood is doing right in a challenging retail climate

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When you walk down the street in Hope Village, past the restaurants full of diners and the shops where customers are carrying at least one bag from a nearby store, it’s easy to see the allure of the place. Someone’s walking to a car with an armful of flowers, and others are fresh from the salon with new haircuts. Kids are coming in and out of dance class in their Festival Ballet finery, and across the street, people are lined up out the door of Seven Stars Bakery, waiting for a cup of that excellent coffee.

Try to find another neighborhood in Providence with this concentration of shops, restaurants, and services, that’s full in equal measure of people who live a block away and who live across town. You won’t. There’s no place in the city quite like Hope Street, where the majority of businesses have been there for many years, and almost all of them are independently owned – and thriving.

 

Improvements to the street in recent years, like the installation of public artwork and the traffic-calming sidewalk bump-outs, make the popularity of Hope Street feel like it’s a new phenomenon – but in reality, the area has always been a neighborhood-first kind of place.

“I chose Hope Street because I live in the area,” John Goldman says. He’s been running Green River Silver with his brother Dan since opening at the intersection of Hope and Rochambeau in 1999. “It truly is a neighborhood where everyone knows each other and it has all the amenities one could hope for.” Kim Turner Clark, who opened her progressive gift shop Rhody Craft five years ago, has a similar story. “I’ve lived right off of Hope Street for my 26 years in Rhode Island,” she says. “This is my neighborhood, so it’s the only place I’d have the courage to open a small business.”

“I grew up in this neighborhood,” says Pam Hargraves, who has run her florist shop, Blooming Blossoms, on Hope Street for over 20 of its 31 years. “I used to walk to the butcher shop and Davis Market with my grandmother. That’s why this neighborhood thrives – because you can walk and get a little of everything.”

“It was more of a service district,” Camera Werks owner Pat Zacks recalls, of the Hope Street where she moved her business in the late 1980s. Then, it had more food stores and fewer gift shops. “Consumers came to the street for necessity and purchased their weekly supplies here,” she says. “There was a family history on the street. Many businesses were generational.”

In the early years of Camera Werks, though, the environment was different on the street. “Crime and theft became a problem in the mid-'90s,” Zacks says. “It was not unusual to discover a business was broken into or a storefront window crashed through on a weekly basis, mine included.”

“Seven Stars was an abandoned gas station,” Goldman adds. “There were many empty storefronts and the neighborhood seemed to be in flux. Now it’s totally turned around.”

 

That turnaround came from merchants bringing in more police force, but also from giving people good reasons to patronize the street. Lynn and Jim Williams opened Seven Stars Bakery in 2001, around the same time that Nina Tegu opened artful boutique Studio Hop, and Asher and Erin Schofield opened their eclectic gift shop, Frog & Toad, both just down the block.

“It checked all of the boxes for what we were looking for,” Asher Schofield says. “A neighborhood and community where we could lay roots for the indefinite future.” Those boxes: nearby amenities like banks, access to public transportation, ample parking, “and a rich tradition of locally owned, independent businesses, in addition to just a really cool neighborhood and community.”

“It was already nice when we moved in,” says Line Daems, who opened textile shop Kreatelier with Pernilla Frazier in 2007, “but it is getting better every year.” Dixie Carroll and Bill Jette came in shortly after with J Marcel, which opened as a shoe store but evolved into a women’s clothing and accessory boutique. These relatively new shop owners could see promise, but they saw issues with the street, too.

 

“We got there in June,” Carroll says, “and by September we were already forming the Merchants Association because we recognized that a street with half empty storefronts had a problem that needed solutions.” She, Schofield, Daems, and Goldman were among the founding members of the Hope Street Merchants Association (HSMA). “The number one concern was creating a shopping district to get people to go from block to block,” as opposed to parking in front of one store, shopping there, and then leaving.

Those early efforts included beautification of the street – now, the bus shelters, trash cans, and bike racks are designed by local artists – and large-scale events to draw in people from outside the neighborhood, and show them what was happening on Hope. “The first festival was maybe 500 or 1,000 people,” Bill Jette says. Now, there are two highly anticipated annual events: the Hope Street Winter Stroll in December and the Hope Street Block Party in May, which has had everything from fire dancers to a fashion show down the middle of Hope to semi-professional wrestling matches. “The last spring festival [in May 2019] was probably 10,000. When you think about the cumulative effect over the years, that brings a lot of people who have never been here.”

Also responsible for drawing in people from other parts of the city: the food. Of course, Seven Stars continues to thrive, now owned by Bill and Tracy Daugherty, along with other neighborhood establishments like Chez Pascal, Hope Street Pizza, Ivy Tavern, KG Kitchen, Pizzico, and Wara Wara which have loyal followings. Plus, the city’s appetite for the new keeps more restaurants opening, like the forthcoming restaurant from Nick Rabar of Avenue N American Kitchen in the old Cook & Brown Public House spot, and Little Sister, a coffee shop and cafe from Rebelle Artisan Bagels’s Milena Pagan, opening at the intersection of Hope and Rochambeau.

“While Hope Street was definitely gaining new, energetic businesses in 2012 when I opened Stock Culinary Goods, it wasn’t a sure thing at all,” says owner Jan Faust Dane. “In the 15 years I’d lived off Hope, I’d seen plenty of hits and misses.” (Pat Zacks estimates that she’s seen 150 businesses come and go in the neighborhood in her 30 years operating a business there.)

Dane says that the economy was still depressed from the 2008 recession, especially in Rhode Island, where recovery was among the slowest, and retailers were struggling to adapt to the online shopping revolution from Amazon and other digital retailers. “But one key advantage Hope Street had was the little economic engine that could, Seven Stars. What Lynn and Jim did to that gas station, in concert with what others were doing, made the whole thing seem actually viable. It definitely primed the pump for what came.”

 

Support from the HSMA was also a huge factor in her success, Dane says. She received “priceless and essential information” from Schofield and Daems about setting up her business. “The integrity of this group and its willingness to collaborate to make Hope Street better has been one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever seen. In many scenarios, a bunch of people selling things side by side might feel competitive, but the culture of the HSMA has always been one of collaboration, sharing, and encouraging one another.”

Elise Mischel has run her women’s clothing shop, LuLi Boutique, on Hope Street for over nine years. She recently finished serving a term as HSMA president, and is now vice-president of the association. Mischel believes that the collaboration between merchants — not only in helping to start new businesses, but in talking to each other about what’s working and what’s not working — is a crucial element to Hope Street’s success. “People are listening, and that makes a huge difference to the customer,” she said.

“I’m a [HSMA] member and I was from the minute they asked me,” says Priya Himatsingka, who opened pH Factor, a gift shop where she also sells her handmade jewelry, just under a year ago. “In theory we should be competition, but in my experience everyone in Providence is really supportive.”

Beyond throwing events and supporting each other, though, the HSMA plays a crucial role in protecting the interests of its members and neighbors. When the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) announced a massive construction project on Hope Street that would basically shut down the street for the holiday season in 2012, the HSMA was able to negotiate better terms. “This is case number one of why I suggest other neighborhoods do what we did,” Schofield says. “We were able to negotiate the most favorable terms for that project to happen.”

Those terms included moving the project to winter 2013 to protect the crucial holiday season, and adding those sidewalk bump-outs to slow down traffic on the street, which would have been impossibly cost-prohibitive for the neighborhood to do on its own. “You can’t exist more than 10 years without some sort of invasive roadwork project if you’re on a main street,” he says. “It’s the type of project that can really put people out of business.”

The larger vision for the neighborhood is a huge part of what keeps the neighbors so invested in supporting Hope Street businesses. Besides the convenience of having so many independent stores in close proximity to the Summit and Hope neighborhoods, “those people are super supportive of small business and aware of what ‘Main Streets’ like Hope contribute to the community and their own quality of life,” Kim Turner Clark says.

“Hope Street was an easy choice for us,” says Sue Benzuly, who opened Evolve Apothecary, an all-natural beauty shop and spa, in 2015. “The neighborhood appreciates having a vital main street, and goes the extra mile to support us.”

 

One major factor that separates Hope from other retail centers on the East Side is that the landlords are more interested in preserving the independent spirit of the neighborhood, and in what their tenants can do for the community, than they are in cultivating corporate tenants for higher rents and longer leases. “The landlords are great around here,” John Goldman says. “That makes a huge difference.”

“Maybe we got lucky with landlords who charge realistic market value rent for spaces instead of price-gouging and keeping space empty while holding out for big chains with deep pockets,” Clark adds. “We have the neighbors in part to thank for that. When a Dunkin’ Donuts came in at one point, people chose not to patronize it, they didn’t have neighborhood support and they left. On the flipside, our independent bakery thrives. So maybe the secret ingredient is the combination of supportive, outspoken neighbors, reasonable landlords, and smart, dynamic, community-oriented, entrepreneurial business owners.”

Elise Mischel agrees. “It’s the merchants and the combination of unique stores,” she said, but it’s also support from the landlords that allows the street to thrive. “It’s the landlords not price gouging us with our rents that allows us to stay open. So many of us have looked around and couldn’t afford different neighborhoods in the city. They don’t kill us with giant rent increases every year.”

“The way we approach things is to be mutually successful, and not to create the highest rents possible,” says Ozzie Kooloian of Kooloian Realty, and whose family owns the block of Hope between Fourth and Lauriston Streets. “If a tenant is successful for a long time, that makes us successful. To me it’s hand in hand. We try to go about it as more of a partnership approach when it’s possible.”

“There is also a kind of anti-corporate sentiment on Hope Street. We like the way it is,” Carroll adds. “We want to make improvements and change Hope Street, but to us that doesn't mean putting a Lululemon or a West Elm on our street. If we want a home furnishing store, we want it to be an independent person who opens that and runs that.”

Part of preserving that independent spirit, and staving off chain stores, comes from cultivating businesses that offer things you can’t, or don’t want to, find online. “I think consumers are starting to understand that ease isn’t always everything, and that there are tolls to online shopping,” Jan Faust Dane says. “It seems that news about poor warehouse environments and overworked delivery drivers, and the ecological expense of shipping a single box are starting to make people think twice.” 

“The result for us has been a real uptick in very kind and friendly shoppers who come and say, ‘I wanted to try you first,” she adds. “I feel like every year people are getting nicer and more understanding of the challenges and the benefits of having lively, active stores in their community.”