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Frank LaTorre, champion of Providence’s night life and downtown culture, dies at 71

The former executive director of the Providence Downtown Improvement District found new ways to make the city vibrant.

Frank LaTorre, who was the executive director of the Providence Downtown Improvement District, died this past week at 71.Providence Downtown Improvement District

PROVIDENCE — Even during the city’s hardest times in the last two decades, Frank LaTorre was an incessant champion of Providence’s downtown culture. He would often say that the creative capital was in need of a night mayor to cover the city’s “other 9 to 5,” standing in stark contrast to the more-typical reaction of adding police patrols to address late-night activity.

Mr. LaTorre, who was called “an institution in Providence” by former mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., died this week. A resident of Riverside, R.I., he was 71.

Mr. LaTorre’s long career in public service began at Boston College, where he signed a letter to the college’s student newspaper, The Heights, urging students to be more involved in student government. He graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science.

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As a student in 1968, he and a group of friends bought an old school bus for $400, intending to drive it from the Berkshires to California, leading simple vegetarian lifestyles, and working “only when they wanted to or needed the money,” according to a story The Berkshire Eagle wrote at the time. A year later, in August 1969, he attended the Woodstock Music and Art Festival, which he later recalled to a Providence Journal reporter, parking seven miles away from the action and being “encased in mud from Friday night on.”

His love for music was a constant throughout his life, and he was known for his large CD collection, turning the stereo up for Bob Marley and the Wailers, and buying a Rhode Island license plate that read “WE JAMN.”

“As the song says, ‘For life is worth much more than gold,’ ” the Journal quoted Mr. LaTorre saying in 2018. “Keep jammin’ everyone. I hope you like jammin’ too.”

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Mr. LaTorre later moved north, and in 1974 helped open The Hollow Reed in Portland, Maine, the city’s first vegetarian restaurant, situated in historic Old Port, in a brick 1790 mariner’s building with dark wooden beams. The restaurant, which closed in 1981, was cited in a 2018 Portland Press Herald article for being one of a handful of eateries that “deserve some of the credit for the city’s current reputation as a culinary destination.”

While in Portland, Mr. LaTorre served as the director of the city’s public assembly facilities division for two decades, overseeing management of the 1,900-seat performing arts center Merrill Auditorium, an exposition center (The Expo), and a baseball and football stadium.

In 2005, he was named member of then-Providence Mayor David Cicilline’s Substance Abuse Prevention Task force, where he helped raise awareness about the dangers of underage drinking. On Tuesday, Cicilline, who now represents Rhode Island in Congress, remembered Mr. LaTorre as a pillar of the community and a man of incredible character.

“I was proud to work with him throughout my time as mayor to strengthen Downtown Providence and improve the quality of life for the residents of our Capital City,” said Cicilline in a statement sent to the Globe.

Frank LaTorre was the former executive director of the Providence Downtown Improvement District.PROVIDENCE DOWNTOWN IMPROVEMENT DISTRICT

It was also during this time that Mr. LaTorre started working with the Providence Downtown Improvement District, in addition to joining other local boards and committees to address parks conservancy, hospitality, safe communities, and other issues.

“[Mr. LaTorre] had a very paternal attitude toward his work,” recalled Paolino, who now serves as Chairman of DID, on Monday. “Downtown Providence was his extended family.”

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During a one-day Christmas festival in the early 2000s, Dan Baudouin, former executive director of the Providence Foundation, said the person dressing up as Santa never showed up. Mr. LaTorre volunteered to step in.

“He got all dressed up and walked up and down Westminster Street, greeting everyone in his Santa suit,” said Baudouin.

Stephanie Fortunato, director of the city’s Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism, recalled Mr. LaTorre at the very events he helped shape over the years: PVDFest, tree lightings, the music series at Burnside Park, WaterFire, and countless concerts of any genre at Waterplace Park. She said he was also one of the core people to spearhead the Providence Responsible Organization about a decade ago.

“Frank’s presence will be missed, and the loss is especially bittersweet as our downtown sorely needs civic boosters to come together with optimism and openness about the challenges and triumphs ahead,” said Fortunato.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza took to Twitter Monday, calling Mr. LaTorre a “long-time downtown champion” and “tireless advocate” for the nighttime economy.

According to Emily Crowell, spokesperson for the state’s education department who used to work in Elorza’s office, Mr. LaTorre was constantly making sure downtown was productive, frequently talking about the teams of community workers known as “yellow jackets” who help keep the streets clean and safe.

“He was a great thought partner in the way he activated the downtown,” she recalled. “His ability to balance all those stakeholders… He did it in a beautiful way.”

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“He was larger than life. You’d think he was the mayor,” said Alison Izzi, DID’s financial manager, noting that Mr. LaTorre was walking the streets of downtown, “all day, every day.” “He’d walk down the street and everyone knew him.”

She added, “He made an impact on whoever he met.”

Alex Ellis, principal planner for the city of Providence, recalled Mr. LaTorre’s distinct, somewhat raspy voice and his warm personality.

“He was kind and respectful, even when we had different goals. He had this infectious ability to talk to just about anyone,” said Ellis.

Liza Burkin, lead organizer of the Providence Streets Coalition, said she remembers having lunch with Mr. LaTorre at Yoleni’s, a Greek restaurant-market on Westminster Street, where he would talk about his love for the environment, and how Providence needed a nighttime mayor “like they do in Amsterdam.” She said, “basically, he wanted WaterFire all the time.”

“Whenever I walked away after a conversation with him, I always just believed in myself. It was better than any therapy session,” she said.

Kristen Adamo, chief executive of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, said Mr. LaTorre seemed to be everywhere all at once, and she often bumped into him on the street two to three times a day.

“I would stop every time because I knew the conversation would be great, whether it was about a project we were working on, a new restaurant he’d tried, or his beloved Red Sox,” said Adamo. “In a city full of characters, he was one of the best.”

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Funeral Services will be held at 11 a.m. on March 11 at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Barrington, Rhode Island. A live stream of the mass will be available on St. Luke’s website. Online condolences can be found here.


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz. Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.