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​New Smith Hill Annex is a Meeting Space for College, Neighborhood

Samantha Bergbauer ’12 first saw what would become the Providence College Smith Hill Annex when she walked there with her classmates and Dr. Keith W. Morton, professor of public and community service studies.

The storefront at 231 Douglas Ave. in Providence’s Smith Hill neighborhood was a big empty space with an orange-cement floor and lime-green walls. Listening to Morton describe his hopes for the space, Bergbauer thought, “Good luck, Keith!”

But on November 9, Bergbauer, now an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at PC’s Feinstein Institute for Public Service, spoke before 50 representatives of the College, the community, and the city at the official dedication and opening of the annex — now renovated for College and community use.

“I’ve seen grown men, intimidated by school and education their whole lives, come to the annex to learn with PC students and faculty,” Bergbauer said. “I’ve seen local youth on the verge of giving up on school come to help paint our mural and saying they now want to go to PC when they grow up.”

The 1,000-square-foot annex, which PC leases from the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation, is a neutral meeting ground where people from the College and residents of the neighborhood can interact, Morton said.

“It’s a way to get started,” said Morton. “If people are nervous meeting other people, this is a common ground where they can come and discuss things they are interested in. Good conversation is the start of community building and in time leads to positive change in everything.”

The annex actually has been in use for some time. Morton teaches a course there on Tuesday nights called “The City.” Last year, its focus was “The City and its Youth;” this year, the class is exploring “The City and its Storytellers.” The class is made up of 12 students from PC and 12 from College Unbound, an adult education program affiliated with Roger Williams University.

“It’s a very diverse mix of students in terms of age, ethnicity, and life experience,” Morton said.

Already a busy meeting space

The annex has been the site of community meetings and pot luck dinners, and served as a drop-off center for Hurricane Sandy relief. Among the organizations that have used it are Providence Community Partners, Mary House, Rhode Island Campus Compact, and Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), Morton said.

Althea Graves, a long-time Smith Hill resident who has taught at PC, said the annex is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

“There are lots of things going on in the community, but never a home for them,” said Graves. “We could meet at the library, but it closes at a certain time.”

Morton said he’s asked PC business students to explore economic development and employment opportunities for the neighborhood. Jason Schrank, an M.B.A. candidate from Millstone Township, N.J., said he will participate as part of his non-profit management class.

John Smith ’13 (Providence, R.I.), a social science major, attended the dedication to film a documentary on the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation (CDC), a non-profit that restores homes to improve the neighborhood.

Smith, whose father, Francis H. Smith, is the corporation’s executive director, said he is interested in showing “what CDC does in Smith Hill, and what restoring these houses can do to improve the lives of people.”

The documentary may become part of this year’s PC film festival, Smith said. Rev. Kenneth R. Gumbert, O.P., professor of film studies in theatre arts, assisted him in the filming.

Helen’s Hope Foundation and an anonymous donor supplied financial support to allow PC to open the annex, said College President Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80. 

“Providence has theological significance, but it’s also the name of a city,” said Father Shanley. “This is our neighborhood and this place represents our anchoring in this neighborhood  ... To have a welcoming space where we interface in this local community is the answer to a prayer for us. And it’s long-term. We’re not here for a little while, but hopefully for a long time.”

— Vicki-Ann Downing


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