Thayer Street

Thayer Street Past, Present and Future

A new student housing proposal brings new debates about the development of College Hill

East Side Monthly Magazine ·

A visitor from the Midwest who’s never been to Thayer Street would be overwhelmed by all of the activity: between the street vendors, the eyebrow threading salons, the hookah bars, the international array of restaurants and quirky but unique retail stores. The place is always crowded. Dining tables spill out to the sidewalks. Music blares. And as the spring returns, so too do the motorcycles for their late night fix of coffee and eye candy.

But longtime residents recall a different kind of Thayer Street that once used to function as a core shopping mecca for the neighborhood. There was parking back then, less density that attracted more of the carriage trade. There were real markets on the street like Thayer Market and A.S. Bunn Fancy Fruit & Groceries, which evolved into a liquor store. There was Arthur Palmer sporting goods (and khakis), M’s, Alba Runci Barber Shop with the horse in the window, Ashby Dean, Tom’s Tracks, the Hungry Sheik, Jone Pasha’s, Clarke’s Flowers, Ronnie’s Rascal House, Alfredo’s, Lloyd’s, College Hill Bookstore.

Thayer Street has been constantly evolving, sometimes on the cutting edge of hipness and, more recently, of national chain commercialism. The street morphs like an amoeba to the likes and dislikes of each generation. The Gap, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, IHOP and even McDonald’s have come and gone, victims of the changing cultures and the lack of parking. For every generation, this relatively small commercial district inspires intense, yet often short-lived, loyalty and patronage.

The first bar, Spats, opened in 1978; now the street is virtually overwhelmed with liquor licenses. Brown, RISD and even Moses Brown and Wheeler alumni often cannot get over how much change occurs when they come back for reunion visits, even after a few short years. But the uniqueness of Thayer Street always seems to remain. Each generation has their stories about favorite haunts that no longer exist – like the original Lloyd’s, which is still fondly remembered by some of us as Providence’s best deli ever.

New buildings have dramatically changed the original look and feel of Thayer Street and, for the most part, have been larger in scale than the buildings they replaced. The Brown Sciences Library, some 16 stories high, was the first. Then came Brown’s bookstore and the Pembroke Dorms. Store 24 was a new, unimpressive structure across from the bookstore, suggesting that design was no longer an important criteria for the street.

The corner of Meeting and Thayer Streets has seen the most change. A two-story brick multi-store retail strip paved the way, followed by the Gap (now City Sports), which replaced a former gas station, which became IHOP and then a funky bar. More recently, Johnny Rockets replaced a smaller building that was falling down. Urban Outfitters is a dramatic building that, while somewhat in scale, also contributes to the changing landscape and continues a trend of national chains elbowing their way onto the street. The OOP! Building, known for its former lead tenant, blended into the neighborhood at the expense of a couple of trees.

Music stores are part of the street’s past, as are wonderful late-night browsing stores like College Hill Bookstore that catered to everyone and stayed open often til midnight to accommodate moviegoers. It was not uncommon to see a child sitting on the floor reading a book in the corner next to a college student also sitting on the floor reading as well. Perhaps the most beloved constant has been the Avon Cinema, which opened in 1938 and remains the only theater on the East Side since the closing of the Cinerama on Hope Street in 1983. The Avon (as well as Cable Car on South Main) have survived by showing first-run foreign and domestic films that are not as mainstream as the multi-plexes prefer.

Thayer Street’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It has gritty, historic structures mixed in with new buildings, some lacking great design but with high rents that attract chain stores often populated by Moses Brown and Wheeler kids trying to look and act older. Brown students spend their non-studying time here, as do hipsters, families and visitors on motorcycles. The result is a unique coexistence that is visible on a daily basis. It’s not unusual to spot two well-dressed East Side women having lunch at Andreas seated next to a couple of students with pierced eyebrows and multiple tattoos. Merchants concede Hope Street and Wayland Square, with more parking, have drawn away a portion of Thayer Street’s old carriage trade traffic.

Probably the most dramatic change that returning visitors from the past would note is how food

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