Providence Place

By Ilene Hoffman Gannaway '90 / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
My eyes dance at the images before me: The familiar skyline dotted with a few tall buildings, the river calmly snaking its way under stone bridges, rows of colonial and Victorian houses nestled among brightly colored fall foliage, the statuesque dome of the Capitol building, the stately Biltmore hotel, and the always impressive Van Wickle gates.

I drink in these icons from 3,000 miles away, sitting on my sofa in Los Angeles. It’s eight o’clock on a Friday night, and I’m watching Providence on NBC. The first time I saw the show’s title sequence, with its exquisite city snapshots unfolding to the background music of the Beatles’s “In My Life,” I was stunned. Was this the same city I had explored from College Hill? Impossible, I thought.

There are places I’ll remember
All my life
Though some have changed

My heart was suddenly drenched with sentimentality, and it’s remained so with every episode I’ve seen. I may be thirty-one; I may have a husband, a house, and even a dog, but on Friday nights I’m back thinking about Spring Weekend, midnight Christmas carols in Alumnae Hall, Del’s Lemonade, Newport mansions, The Little Rhody Diving Team, and even the Ratty’s linguine in clam sauce. Am I the only one? Or do the opening sequence and music of Providence speak to every Brown grad who developed a crush on Providence, who decided to leave it, and who now thinks for a moment, however fleeting: What if I had stayed? What would life have been like?

I identify with Sydney Hansen, the show’s main character, or at least with her sense of being torn between two places separated by more than just a vast continent. Syd grew up in Providence, studied medicine at Brown, and settled in Los Angeles to begin a practice in reconstructive surgery for the rich and famous. Though she had a spectacular beach house and a boyfriend with Ken’s good looks, she wasn’t fulfilled. Like the medicine she practiced, her world was essentially plastic. Her patients were phony and superficial, her house sterile and museum-like. Her charismatic boyfriend lacked compassion as well as fidelity. In short, her specious life was enough to make anyone move across the country to a small town and brave frigid temperatures.

I grew up in L.A. It’s home to me, and it’s easy to tolerate the shortcomings and to appreciate the strengths of the place in which you’re born. Like Syd, after Brown I felt the strong need to return home to friends and family and, in my case, to the warm sunshine and the prospect of a thrilling career, not in medicine but in film and television. But what really differentiates me from Syd is that I still long for that other place, that second home. I still long for Providence.

I’ve been gone now for a decade, and Providence is a way back into those four years of exploring College Hill, of meandering through downtown and Fox Point, of tutoring in East Providence, and of day-tripping along Narragansett Bay. The show’s good ratings are a response to its dramatic plot lines, but on the sofa I wait for the transitions in between them: city glimpses that fade gently into one another, suggesting a place that’s not only provident but benevolent as well. I frantically poke at my husband’s knee. “Oh my God, honey, look, there’s a Warwick Cab! There’s University Hall and RISD!” My husband indulges my excitement and tolerates my nit-picky criticisms: “There’s no Providence airport; it’s T.F. Green!”

A glimpse of Rhode Island Hospital triggers the unforgettable memory of my friend Claire being rushed there for emergency gallbladder surgery. When Syd bid farewell to her ex-boyfriend in Prospect Park, I was remembering the times my friends and I would stand in that very spot, overlooking downtown and marveling at the sunset and the city lights. When, on the TV, a college girl took her sick ferret to see Syd’s veterinarian father, I’m transported back to those moments of flipping through the yellow pages in search of a local doctor or hair stylist. Like Syd’s father, these were the people who weren’t necessarily drawn to Providence for its prestigious Ivy League school. Though the Hansens are a fictitious family, they still remind me that life existed below and around College Hill; that as my friends and I breezed past houses and apartments on our way to playwriting class, there were dramas already playing inside those walls.

In the pilot is a lovely scene in which Syd takes a cab from the airport to her childhood home. While she gazes out the window, inwardly reflecting on her return to Providence and all the promises it holds, the cab driver asks her in a rough, Rhode Island voice: “So! When was the last time you were home?” She replies, wistfully, “Yesterday.” Today I’m right there with her ­ every Friday night at eight.

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March / April 2000