a city within a bubble

popping providence’s make-believe fortress

There is a glass dome secured tightly to the contours of College Hill. Kept from cracking by tuition money and endowments, it is a well-financed endeavor meant to keep students safe and insulated within Providence. Once inside the bubble, we are encouraged to freely release our creativity, our art, and our money until the air becomes pregnant with polish. The glass fogs up and the outside world grows hazy.

While you can’t see the bubble, the sudden spiking and dropping of rates provide hard geographic boundaries. As soon as you step onto College Hill, house prices are jacked up and crime rates sink. Olneyville, a 10-minute drive from the Blue Room, is safer than 4 percent of Rhode Island neighborhoods, while Lower South Providence, a seven-minute drive, is safer than 0 percent. College Hill is safer than 96 percent.

Brown University has successfully created a micro-environment of wealth, disparate from the rest of Providence. In crime rate, education, amenities, and housing, College Hill ties only with Blackstone as the most livable out of all Rhode Island’s neighborhoods, suffering solely in the category of cost of living—a brick house lived in by colonial New England’s finest isn’t cheap.

Against this backdrop of cutesy eateries and ivy buildings, students grow comfortable. At least that was my dominating sentiment last Saturday, when, in the midst of drinking a chai, the scent of cinnamon was overtaken by a strong smell of urine. Looking up, I saw the source enter Blue State and plant himself firmly in the middle of the floor. Donning sad eyes, a cropped jean jacket, and a few plastic bags, he never sat, never ordered, but just stood and let the radiator-generated warmth run over him. Then, having sufficiently thawed his exterior, he walked out the door.

At home in New York, such an event would barely have registered, but here in Blue State, where I was unused to seeing anything but students striving for caffeination, this small, digestible dose of poverty stuck.

The next day, I saw the man again in Starbucks. He still had on the Champion hat with the tasseled pom-pom, the dirty tennis shoes and the two plastic bags—one from the Brown Bookstore and one from Second Time Around. On the table outstretched in front of him was the day’s edition of the Brown Daily Herald, which he had turned to the crossword section. If he flipped the page again, he would have found an article I had written the previous day on trendy bridal boutiques.

I other’ed this man the second I saw him planted in the middle of Blue State. He didn’t blend into the backdrop of overpriced caffeine and carrot-ginger soups, so I assumed he was a stranger. I wanted to know how he had fallen into College Hill.

This is what’s wrong with the bubble paradigm. It’s not a tangible glass encasing I knock my head against trying to escape; I embrace the bubble. The man didn’t fit my image of College Hill, so I re-carved the boundaries to cut him out. Now, he was a visitor.

But, as I learned over the next few days, this man very obviously belonged on College Hill. He was reading a Brown paper, one read by few actual students, a flick of the wrist away from my article. He seemed to populate exclusively Thayer eateries, and both of his shopping bags came from College Hill staples. My friend told me later he used to sit in on her “Writers on Writing” seminar each time they had an author speak. He always clapped.

The man gazed out the Starbucks window at the torrent of students crowding around the bus stop on Thayer.

These were Hope High School students, another reminder of the ranging ecosystem of College Hill. Hope, only a two-minute drive from my freshman year dorm, contains a student body for which the average SAT score is a little over 1000 points and three-quarters of students are counted as “economically disadvantaged.”

But, until a month ago, I didn’t even know the school existed.

If the bubble is a geographic measurement, with a circumference and an area, Hope falls well within it. So does the man from the coffee shops. And so do the shootings that occur a half mile from Brown dorms and the muggings that occur in the center of campus.

By only associating the “Brown bubble” with academia and affluence, like I did, it’s easy to go blind to the inequality ingrained inside, to be shocked each time something negative seems to have penetrated.

But guns, crime, and poverty have existed for a long time inside and outside Brown’s reach. It’s time to pop the bubble.