The Greater Kennedy Plaza has been at the center of Providence, Rhode Island and a transportation hub since before the Civil War. Previously, it had been known as Exchange Place and City Hall Park. Horse-driven hacks, narrow-gauge rail lines, and trolley cars converged on this central plaza throughout the 19th and early 20th century. Today, it is the hub for many of the city's local and commuter bus routes. The city recently rebuilt the plaza, returning it to its previous mixed-use function as both a transportation hub and city commons by moving the bus stations from the center of the plaza to the periphery. The project included the creation of more common spaces and crossings for pedestrians, as well a corridor between the Plaza and Burnside Park.
The Greater Kennedy Plaza is a beautiful
park space located in downtown Providence, not far from City Hall. The Downtown
Parks Conservancy has transformed the transportation hub in a plaza where
people can congregate, enjoy art, listen to music and play with their children.
The plaza was first established in the early 1800s and was known as
“Exchange Place.” It was a central transportation center for horse-drawn
carriages riding from Rhode Island to Connecticut. Since then, it has gone
through several renovations. In 1847, the first Union Station was built in the
plaza. It wasn’t long before that station proved to be too small, unable to
keep up with the burgeoning rail industry. A new Union Station was constructed
by the end of the century, together with Burnside Park on the plaza’s north
In September of 1871, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated.
It stands at the front facing Kennedy Plaza. The monument is a memorial to 1,727
Rhode Islanders that were killed during the Civil War. The statues in each
corner of the monument represent the four branches of the military service and
the tallest statue in the center stands for America. There are twelve bronze plaques surrounding
the memorial which list the names of those men that gave their lives in the
service of our nation. The granite structure was designed by American
artist Randolph Rogers.
The “City Beautiful” movement began just prior to the turn of the
twentieth century. The movement pushed the idea that design could not be
separated from social issues and should encourage civic pride and engagement. A
statue of Civil War General Ambrose E. Burnside was moved from the plaza to the
adjacent Burnside park, for whom it was named. A gorgeous fountain, the Carrie
Brown Bajnotti Memorial Fountain, was installed in the park at this time.
Trolleys became a popular mode of transportation around 1914. By 1920,
the plaza was surrounded by trolley tracks to accommodate residents who
preferred to ride the trolley. However,
the trolleys gave way to buses in the 1940s and were shut down in 1948. The automobile soon changed the face of
transportation in Providence. People could now drive miles in their own
vehicle. The bus system crumbled and the plaza turned into a large parking
area. Eventually, the streets became so congested that the city’s mayor,
Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, unveiled a plan in 1983 to centralize the bus stations
at Kennedy Plaza to try to relieve the traffic problem and reduce air pollution
caused by vehicle emissions. Since then, there have been various plans to
return at least part of the plaza to its original recreational intention,
including the addition of a skating rink (1998), a farmers’ market, family
programming, and space for public gatherings. Bus stops were moved to the outer
edges of the plaza. Today, there are a variety of food trucks lining the plaza
so that friends can grab a coffee or a quick bit to eat and enjoy on the plaza’s
lawn. There are various family events, including the Imagination Center,
Storytime and Art in the Park, or the Open Air Reading Room, or special events
such as the Burnside Music Series and Beer Garden happening on Thursday
evenings. Renovations and additional
programming are still being planned at Kennedy Plaza.