Asher Schofield, the president of the Hope Street Merchant’s Association and owner of Frog & Toad, does not fit the mold, at least in my mind, of your highly energetic, active civic leader. He’s bearded. He has the propensity to punctuate sentences with the word “man.” But from all accounts, this unassuming man is really the heart and soul of the association, a group of 27 small business concerns located along Hope Street roughly north of Rochambeau with a unique vision: neighborhood improvement. To hear the accomplishments and goals of the association from Schofield, one would think he were the president of a neighborhood association, not a merchant’s association.
Schofield oversees the third iteration of the group. In the past, it has waxed and waned. In 2001, when Schofield first opened Frog & Toad, a delightfully Rhode Island-specific retail store that one Yelp reviewer describes as “my go to place in Providence for quirky and adorable gifts,” there was no association and nearly half the store fronts were empty. He was approached by Nanda Head, a former owner of an interior design store, about starting up an association. He was elected vice president; Nanda took the role of president. They began with six members. Now there are 27, and nearly every storefront is full. It’s a remarkable thing, really: not only do these store owners face a historically atrocious economy, but they exist within a state that has a notoriously poor business environment.
Take a stroll along Hope Street on any given day or night and chances are it will be bustling. During the day, young parents pushing strollers shop, and, at night, the several restaurants and bars will be packed. It’s a peculiar area. It’s an intense retail location surrounded by a decidedly suburban environment characterized mainly by single family homes with small yards. But it works. The young residents – young meaning 30s – flock to Hope Street to eat, shop and drink. It’s busy nearly round the clock: the line at Seven Stars Bakery will be long, the tables packed; folks eat lunch at Hope Street Pizza, Blaze, Pizzico and KitchenBar; people drink at the Ivy Tavern and Hope Street Pizza at night.
It seems that, to some degree, the state of the street, as it were, is attributable to Schofield. Under his leadership, Hope has seen new furniture, benches, bike racks, public art and those cool RIPTA bus shelters. The association won a decisive battle against the monolith that is National Grid. As Schofield tells it, he found out that the utility wanted to do some work along the street. They didn’t bother to tell the businesses. He found out from a friend. The utility wanted to dig up the street during the holiday season, which would have adversely impacted the businesses along the main drag. Schofield developed a petition to have the utility put off digging until spring. Fifty people signed on. He presented the petition and won: the utility agreed to do the work in spring.
Now they face another challenge: Narragansett Bay Commission, after replacing water pipes along the street, will begin repaving in April; the work will reduce Hope Street to one lane, for southbound traffic only. The traffic plan isn’t finalized yet, but the general plan is to detour northbound traffic via Blackstone Boulevard. Anyone who has driven along Hope Street lately knows that this work is necessary: it is riddled with potholes and an uneven patchwork of pavement asphalt. It is the last step in what has been a painful process. Business suffered during construction of new water pipes along the street, according to Schofield and Dixie Carroll, the owner of J. Marcel and the current vice president of the association. Carroll notes that customers would complain to her about the dust storm outside, as if she had control over it.
But the Association and Narragansett Bay Commission have worked closely to limit impacts. The NBC sponsored the Holiday Stroll, an immensely popular holiday block party of sorts, and, according to Jamie Samons, NBC’s public affairs manager, the commission plans to run print adverts with the message that Hope Street is open for business. Despite this, there are concerns. Schofield notes that much of their business comes from car traffic. “People will be driving by and see the shop and park and stop in.” Schofield is playing with idea of bringing pedi-cab service to the area during the work, which is expected to last eight to 12 weeks. He’s thinking about temporary off-street parking schemes – anything really to minimize impacts. But, like his work with National Grid, Schofield has managed to convince NBC to consider street improvements, including bumpouts and raised crosswalks, in addition to the new paving. So, there is a silver lining. Samons notes: “The association has been great to work with.”
Hope Street, specifically the stretch from what is now Olney Street to the Pawtucket line, had an inauspicious beginning. The three-mile segment began, in 1807, as the East Turnpike, a gravel road linking Providence and Pawtucket. A toll gate was built at what is the now the corner of Olney and Hope. The road operated for 30 years, but it continually lost money. There was also a bit of intrigue: one of the corporation’s owners and a Republican candidate for governor, one Lemuel H. Arnold, came under investigation in 1831 for some sort of tomfoolery with regard to the corporation’s financial affairs. Anyway, the road fell into the hands of the State, which decided to open the road to the public in the mid-19th century.
It’s hard to believe that the area between Olney Street and what is now Lippitt Park was a few scattered farms with a dirt road running through them. An 1882 atlas indicates that water service, as it were, ended at Olney and that, between Olney and what is now Lippitt Park, there were three farms on the east side of Hope Street and one on the west side. A 1898 atlas indicates four farms on the east side of Hope Street and nothing on the west side. For all intents and purposes, what is now a bustling urban neighborhood was the boondocks, a stretch of woods and farms lying between Providence and Pawtucket. It seems nearly miraculous that today one can, in the course of an afternoon, attend a ballet or an author’s reading, perhaps get a coffee or drinks, or buy paper, shoes, clothes and cameras. I challenge you to identify a similar environment elsewhere in Providence.
Schofield and I sat down recently for a chat at Seven Stars. It was a Thursday afternoon, and, as usual, the place was packed. We squeezed into a small space at the long table at the rear. We talked about arguably one of the most important activities of the association: festivals. “It’s really about community, not necessarily just sales,” Schofield says. There’s the Spring Block Party, held in May, the Fall Festival, held in September in collaboration with Miriam Hospital, and there’s the Holiday Stroll, held in December.
Like last year, this year’s Spring Block Party will consist of Beers for Ballet, a beer garden provided by local breweries, proceeds going to Festival Ballet. It will also feature food trucks (an omnipresent trend these days) wagon rides for the kids and music.
The Fall Festival is a big one. A number of years ago, the festival was held in the Miriam Hospital parking lot. In an effort to further engage the community, according to Monica Anderson, the hospital’s community liaison, Miriam, in collaboration with the Merchant’s Association, began holding the festival on Hope Street. These days the street is closed between Burlington and Fifth. The collaboration between the hospital runs beyond the festival: the association attends the hospital’s neighborhood committee meetings, and, through the Miriam Foundation, the hospital has provided grant funding to the association for beautification projects. The Fall Festival, as Anderson notes, has become a “great tradition.” Last year, there were Zumba classes, salsa and cha-cha lessons, something called Apple-pa-looza, a pet parade and free health screenings.
Schofield, amidst the chaos that is Seven Stars on a weekday afternoon, tells me about an upcoming Earth Day event. The association plans to plant 15 trees along the street, open up existing tree pits along the street to allow for better growth, and install metal tree guards built by the Steel Yard, the non-profit industrial arts organization founded by Clay Rockefeller. Also, the association is taking part in a retail business recycling pilot program. This is a big deal. As it is, businesses do not have the option of curbside recycling pickup. They must contract with firms to pick up their recyclables, adding yet more to the cost of doing business. This scheme, if successful, will not only improve recycling rates but also save small businesses a not inconsiderable chunk of money.
Sheila Dormody, the City’s Director of Sustainability, notes that this area was chosen for the pilot primarily for two reasons: first, the area is home to the type of retail business that will be suitable for the program, and, second, the association, under Schofield’s direction is organized and will provide the City the necessary feedback to evaluate and scale the program. Dormody adds that it all stemmed from a conversation she and Schofield had about Warren’s Main Street recycling program.
As if festivals, street art, trees and recycling weren’t enough, the association became involved when Tom O’Donnell, the long time librarian at the Rochambeau branch of the Providence Public Library, was unceremoniously fired. Schofield spoke at a hearing on O’Donnell’s dismissal, and a post on the association’s Facebook page clearly states its position on the matter: “Beloved community leader, champion of our youth, artist and teacher: we have lost so much.” According to Schofield, he was “distraught” over the termination and he sees the library as “part and parcel of the neighborhood.” Unfortunately, this is one of those battles that Schofield lost, a rarity. O’Donnell remains out of a job.
It’s clear that Schofield plays a major role behind many of the association’s recent activities. Dixie Carroll, the owner of J. Marcel, who notes that her landlord pitched Hope as the hottest retail area in Providence, tells me that she simply “assists Asher.” Lynn Williams, the owner of Seven Stars, says, “It’s all him.” And Anderson, from Miriam, says that Schofield offers “vibrant leadership.”
Under his guidance, it seems that the future of Hope Street is bright. Plus, after the 38 Studios debacle, the State is refocusing its economic development efforts on supporting the matter. Governor Chafee ordered a review of all regulations related to small businesses, and he’s restructuring the EDC board to support a renewed focus on small business. In a March 7 press release regarding new EDC board appointees, the governor notes, “These nominees reflect my commitment to changing the focus and priorities of the EDC.” He goes on: “We are going to do all we can to help existing Rhode Island businesses.”
But there are still challenges. “The association, which is primarily funded by member fees, is always in need of money,” Schofield says. He notes that there is currently no state level program designed specifically for supporting merchant’s associations. Melissa Chambers, the EDC’s communications manager, said that the EDC’s small business program, albeit extensive, is geared primarily towards individual businesses. Schofield mentions that the collaboration with the City has been a good one. He put me in touch with Ann Gooding, the City’s communication director. In an email, before listing the numerous ways in which the City supports the association, she writes, “Mayor Taveras wholeheartedly supports the work of the merchants’ associations – including that of the Hope Street Merchants Association, which is leading the way in organizational activity.”
The fruits of this “organizational activity” are clear to see: the storefronts are occupied, the stores are busy and there’s a level of variety and vibrancy that is arguably unmatched in this city. For Line Daems, a co-owner of fiber arts store Kreatalier, variety is the trait that sets this area apart: “You find almost everything on Hope Street,” she says.
I experience this vibrancy first hand nearly every day; I live in the neighborhood. But what really opened my eyes was the Holiday Stroll in December. Despite the freezing temperatures, the street, which was closed to traffic, was a veritable sea of humanity: there was Santa, music, food, packed shops and restaurants, and guys juggling torches. It was then I realized how special this street is.