Smith Hill was part of Roger Williams' original package land deal from Narragansett Sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi in 1636. The area west of the Moshassuck River, which includes Smith Hill, was used as common land for farming and grazing livestock when settlers came with Roger Williams shortly after the purchase. Historically, Smith Hill is defined as the area bounded by the Woonasquatucket River to the south near Promenade Street and the Chad Brown public housing complex on the north, and includes the area surrounding the State Capitol between Route 44 (Smith Street), the railroad downtown, the West River, and Interstate 95.
Due to the proximity of this neighborhood to the original settlement in Providence, the first industry in Providence was established at the eastern edge of Smith Hill along the Moshassuck River. It was a community grist mill operated by John Smith. He settled in Providence in 1636, shortly after he was banished from Salem, Massachusetts for his religious beliefs. Two years later, he built a combination home and mill on the western side of the Moshassuck River near present-day Mill Street. The Smith family remained on the same land into the 18th century and consequently their name became a point of identification for the area: "up on the hill by the Smith's." Eventually, the area was named Smith Hill and the major artery in the neighborhood was named Smith Street.
Smith Hill was basically divided among a few families. Building did not occur until after the 18th century. Most of the construction during the 18th century and early 19th century was limited to country retreats. By the early part of the 19th century, most of Smith Hill's roads added to the earlier routes in the north and west. The Douglas Turnpike, later Douglas Avenue, was chartered in 1805 and opened in 1807. The Powder Mill Turnpike, later Smith Street and also Route 44, was chartered in 1810 and opened shortly thereafter. Until the middle of the 19th century, Smith Hill was considered a rural addition to the more developed parts of the East Side and downtown.
This changed in the next 100 years, from 1830 to 1930. During these years Smith Hill became a dense urban neighborhood. Two major factors that contributed to this growth were industrialization and immigration. Although Smith Hill never became a hotbed of industry, the industrial development of neighboring communities in more densely settled areas of Providence, like Olneyville and Valley, did seep in and contributed to Smith Hill's growth. During the 19th century, industrialization spread from two points along the Moshassuck River and the Woonasquatucket River. Both locations provided the necessary power to run the mills. In addition, the development of the railroad further aided this heavy expansion of industry.
Between 1860 to 1870, there was tremendous industrial growth around Smith Hill as sites along the river became filled with factories supported, to a great extent, by the Civil War. The nationally known Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing Company moved to Smith Hill and in the beginning of the 20th century, became the largest single employer of Smith Hill residents. When the company moved to North Kingstown, Rhode Island in 1965 it was as significant to Smith Hill's decline as it was to the growth of the neighborhood upon its arrival in 1870.
Industrialization was also supported by the rise in immigration. The first wave of immigrants arrived during the 1820s and were from Ireland. Later immigrants came here from eastern Europe and the Balkan countries. By 1910, Smith Hill was a well established Irish neighborhood. Neighborhood institutions such as public schools and political associations were dominated by Irish-Americans. In 1910, about half of the teachers, police officers, and firemen on Smith Hill were Irish. The Smith Hill Irish also involved themselves in both municipal and statewide politics. In fact, former Rhode Island Governor J. Joseph Garrahy once lived on Bernon Street in the heart of Smith Hill.
First, there had been a small group of Jewish immigrants from Germany who settled along the eastern border of Smith Hill in the 1840s. But the first group of the second wave of immigration to Smith Hill, during a time when Providence was injected with many new cultures and nationalities, was mostly Russian-Jewish. They settled on Smith Hill between 1890 and 1920. By the turn of the century, many Armenian immigrants began forming a substantial community along or close to Douglas Avenue. In addition, a significant group of Swedes settled in Smith Hill during the 1880s. Although the Armenians still maintain a presence in Smith Hill, most remaining near Douglas Avenue, the Swedish and Jewish communities have mostly left.
Extensive construction and development changed the look of the neighborhood in the 1870s. Between 1860 and 1890, real estate development reflected the growing industry and immigration patterns over the period. Most of the areas were lined with small cottages and multiple-family homes to accommodate the growing population of industrial workers. By the 1920s, Smith Hill had reached its peak. Most of the land was occupied. The community remained heavily Irish with various pockets of other ethnic groups.
By the 1950s and onward, the construction of Interstate Highway 95 through the heart of Smith Hill resulted in the demolition of many historical buildings. Commercial establishments continued to be built near the intersection of Smith Street and Chalkstone Avenue. During this period of apparent stability, signs of urban decay were starting to show. The popularity and the increasing affordability of the automobile promoted mobility and thus, suburban sprawl. The Providence City Planning Commission documented a continual decrease in the population of Smith Hill starting in the 1920s. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Smith Hill hard due to the numerous factory lay-offs and the many blue collar workers living in the neighborhood left without work. By 1940, nearly 20 percent of homes on Smith Hill were vacant compared with 3 percent for the city at large.
In addition, the construction also separated institutions such as St. Patrick's Church from much of its parish and further isolated the Smith Hill plat of 1830, an area with the earliest settlement, from the rest of the neighborhood. The latter was an important factor in its eventual abandonment and gradual decline as a residential area. The great move in the 1960s, when many industries relocated to the suburbs, hurt Smith Hill. During this period when several large plants, including Brown and Sharpe, Nicholson File, and American Screw moved to the suburbs, many of their employees moved with them. Many lost their jobs during the infamous Brown & Sharpe strike of the early 1980s.
During the late 1950s, the West River Redevelopment Project created an industrial park to the north of Smith Hill, but it is isolated by railroads and highways. This made it less attractive as a neighborhood industrial area. Most of the employees came from outside Providence. There were several neighborhood efforts in the years that followed. Two of the most influential were the Capitol Hill Interaction Council and Project SHURE (Smith Hill Urban Revitalization Effort), both begun in the early 1970s.
For most current information visit provplan.org