2016-02-11 / Opinion

Entering Newport: A Strategy for Restoring Civic Pride

To the Editor:

The sense of entry can be a powerful precursor for defining a sense of place. Newport’s entryways from the west, north, and east do not currently articulate the promise of what is to come. One runs the gamut of commercial businesses unrelieved by amenities. We encounter overhead wires, commercial detritus, countless signs listing directions and naming civic organizations, and, sadly, the absence of monumental trees. These are narratives of civic dysfunction and private sector carelessness.

Traveling into town after exiting the Pell Bridge is particularly painful because the powerful thrust of the bridge gives us time to anticipate the drama of arrival. But no drama here, simply barren land and chain link fencing on one side and a mini-strip mall on the other. The avenue through the historic graveyard then deposits one at a deserted train depot and a dated Visitor’s Center.


Before and after possibilities for a new entryway into Newport, looking north off the current Pell Bridge exit ramp. 
Design courtesy of Jon-Paul Couture, Couture Design Consultants, Providence. Before and after possibilities for a new entryway into Newport, looking north off the current Pell Bridge exit ramp. Design courtesy of Jon-Paul Couture, Couture Design Consultants, Providence. On a second gateway into town, traveling south into town on West Main as it becomes Broadway, one is greeted by a franchised pizza place and a former gas station/ clothing recycling center that masks an outstanding Greek Revival house.

From the east, entry into Newport from 138A adjacent to the former Atlantic Beach Club is still dominated by utility poles and blacktop. Several pines on a grassy patch of shore, twisting in the wind, bravely frame our first beach view.

Certainly all three entryways cry out for a better vocabulary of traditional landscape elements that can set the stage for one’s arrival into Newport.

The question then is how to deploy such a vocabulary so that it holds the eye. We don’t need the gimmickry of new landscape forms, but a resonance of traditional elements that evoke our best memories of New England. This was a land gridded with stone walls, still apparent on portions of East and West Main roads, a place once dominated at its core with great trees: beeches, now going, and elms, long gone. It holds in the mind’s eye the most majestic of memories, for it was elm-bowered avenues of an earlier age that defined traditional New England townscapes.

So let us see these entryways as the precursors to what can come. They will transport us through magnificent columns of new elms at city edge to a dynamic city center bound together with corridors of tree bowers. They should beckon us with a sense of promise; they should usher us to a center where memories join with new realities that re-establish our pledge to this special place.

Finally, once downtown, Newport’s “heart of green” at Washington Square will welcome us with energized life, reinforced through a renewed civic confidence evidenced by the Opera House restoration. From the square, the eye can then travel east to the former Coffey gas station site where the town’s original water source bubbled forth. Today, all that remains is a hidden plaque, which will be re-imagined as a “springs of liberty” parklet commemorating the first Colonial charter recognizing freedom of religion.

Ronald Lee Fleming, FAICP Newport

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