Flattened facades for the Barstow Block building, part of the process of model-making in this project.

Seeing Providence Chinatown: early February update

Jeffrey Yoo Warren


So I’m about 4 weeks into the Seeing Providence Chinatown project now (original announce here) and want to recap. It’s been an incredible experience so far.

Most of my time has been spent deep in archival research at PPL, PVD city archives, Providence Journal, and in consultation with the researchers behind the 2018 Providence Chinatown project which inspired me.

a grid of newspaper scans with photos

To reiterate, my goal is to craft an immersive virtual 3D model of Chinatown as it was c1910, just before it was destroyed when Empire Street was widened. My archival search has focused on 1904–1916 and on photos more than text. This diagram shows where each facade was on the surrounding streets.

A map of Providence with many old photos connected to the Chinatown neighborhood with red lines

It’s been emotional going through a ton of racist news coverage from that time. I’m not going to post this stuff but it should be known. Sometimes I feel there’s no way to see this community as it was, as it would have liked to be remembered, while digging through such partial & traumatic archives.

I truly appreciated the recent column We Still Can’t See American Slavery for What It Was by Jamelle Bouie on the challenges of seeing humanity when the systems of record keeping you use to access these histories is an integral part of such an inhuman system.

But my goal in what I’m calling #RelationalReconstruction is to work through my own relationship to this time and place at a human level. I’m Korean-American and I have no familial connections to this place but as someone who, on the very streets I’m studying has been told to get out of the country, I want to know what it was like to stand there, in a place of belonging, and have a community and an enclave, in such a hostile time and environment as 1910. And to honor and know just a little bit about what people’s lives were like, what this place was like.

So, to the material I’ve unearthed. To start with, a ton of photos of surrounding buildings, with small clues which help me piece together the streetscape. The Celestial Tea Company — a Chinese-American business, or trading on proximity to Chinatown?

left: zoom-in of an old photo of ground-floor tea shop on Westminster St around the corner from Chinatown, labeled with arrows; boxes on the sidewalk; right, a view down the cobbled street in the opposite direction, showing a missing building, a YMCA, another view of the tea shop

(For that matter, what about Celestial Seasonings — the use of that word as a racist slur is common in newspapers from this time. Are we gonna talk about that?)

As I’ve dug through the Providence Journal, in particular, I’ve found a ton of old photos which offer glimpses of the street, the shops, even some of the interior spaces of Providence’s Chinatown.

grainy photo of the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, lots of dishes, stovepipes, a big sink, windows | A photo of the interior of a Chinese restaurant, figures standing at the back, round tables, a tea station in the back and stools to sit on. Below, Charles C. Hing, a business owner

I’m not a historian by training but I’ve tried to step up my metadata game and compiled lists of every photo, every article, and every person’s name with dates and links. These will be useful later, when I hope to cross-reference these with the Providence Police Department’s crime scene photo archive. A sad but likely resource, as police raids were mentioned constantly; I have compiled 127 names over a 10 year period.

long google spreadsheet list of names, dates, links

These, with many other clues, have helped me to figure out which addresses had a grocery, regular games of dominoes, a pharmacy, or a lodging house. Along with maps from PPL from 1875, 1895, and 1908, I’ve been able to piece together the street well enough that it’s time to start making models.

clips of old maps with date labels and red lines and labels marking raids and details from photos

First, I isolate and straighten the facade of a building from as good a photo as I can find. I get the sides too if possible.

Then, using SketchUp, I pull a box up from the map I’m using, and project the facade onto the building. As these come together, we start to be able to imagine this as a place we can walk around.

That’s where I am so far! I’m starting with surrounding streets to refine my technique, and I am also hoping to find a collection of higher resolution images of Empire Street itself to work from in the coming week or two, when I’ll get right into the heart of Chinatown.

These days, every time I’m walking around downtown Providence, I can see these buildings in my head, and imagine what it might have been like to be there. Hopefully, if my project goes well, you’ll be able to see this soon too.

pink “ghost buildings” overlaid onto present-day Empire street

Thanks to Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, AS220, and Movement Education Outdoors for supporting this work, as well as John Eng-Wong and the team behind https://richinesehistory.com who I’m grateful to be in dialogue with.

This project is supported by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Council seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders.