Federal Hill is a destination, but longtime residents say that trouble follows
PROVIDENCE — From “La Pigna” hanging from the Gateway Arch, down the main route striped with the colors of the Italian flag, the lively Federal Hill neighborhood is dense with restaurants, bakeries, bars and shops.
Long known as Rhode Island’s premiere Italian-American neighborhood and a destination for foodies and tourists, business owners and residents are now fighting to protect Federal Hill’s image in the wake of violence.
They are backing a proposed ordinance that would put a one-year moratorium on any new 2 a.m. licenses for liquor or entertainment along the main route of Atwells Avenue and side streets of Federal Hill.
They’re urging the closure of a nightclub that police say has a history of trouble, including a fatal stabbing last month. The city license board is continuing a show-cause hearing on the club Wednesday.
And, they’re seeking a meeting with the state Department of Business Regulation, which has reversed previous decisions by the license board and allowed some troublesome spots to reopen.
“We think of Federal Hill as a treasure, and we want to keep it that way,” said Michael Costantino, whose family has been in business on the Hill for 80 years.
Rick Simone, the executive director of the Federal Hill Commerce Association, said the violent death of 28-year-old Stephen Cabral on June 30 has served to unite the neighborhood. Last week, they rallied to stop one new restaurant from getting a 2 a.m. license and attended a license hearing on the nightclub that police say Cabral and his alleged killers had visited.
“While tragic and sad, this brought us together to decide what we want for Federal Hill,” he said.
Federal Hill has a certain mystique and a place in history.
The neighborhood has been home to generations of Italian immigrants, a place where thousands settled when they first entered this country.
The late Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. championed Federal Hill in his first years as mayor in the mid-1970s, getting federal money to revitalize the area and placing good-natured bets against Boston’s North End for cuisine. Framed photos of Cianci still hang in restaurants and shops up and down Atwells Avenue.
This was also the headquarters of the New England mafia, which mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca ran from the old Coin-O-Matic Distributors at 168 Atwells Ave. He was sometimes seen sitting outside in a beach chair, observing those who passed by.
As the neighborhood has become more diverse, so have the attractions. Yet, Federal Hill maintained its allure for tourists, who visit from all over the world.
“People have to understand: Federal Hill is a cash cow,” said businessman Bob Terino, a third-generation Federal Hill resident. “In Rhode Island, it’s one of the great places. Newport and Federal Hill are where you want to visit, and if anybody doesn’t see that, they’re ignorant.”
Public gatherings coalesce in DePasquale Plaza, the scene of outdoor dining, the grand fountain, and musical entertainment.
“It’s what Federal Hill should be. It’s what Buddy Cianci wanted. It’s what the people of Federal Hill want,” said Terino, whose parents once lived in the same building as Patriarca.
“It’s a nice neighborhood. And, it’s a neighborhood first,” he added. “My mother and father loved Federal Hill so much. It would be sacrilegious for them to see what happened.”
The trouble, says Terino and others, is the nightclubs.
There are more than 50 establishments in the heart of Federal Hill — Atwells Avenue and side streets — with licenses for liquor or entertainment, including bars, restaurants and a few nightclubs.
The clubs started popping up years ago, after what state Rep. John J. Lombardi blamed as “bad political and legal determinations” made under the administration of then-Mayor David N. Cicilline, now congressman.
After a change in zoning allowed entertainment in places with liquor licenses that weren’t previously zoned for it, a few nightclubs began opening.
They brought more crowds, but trouble, too.
Five years ago, a man was beaten to death at one of the clubs; the neighborhood rallied and the club was shut down.
After another troublesome spot closed at 114 Spruce St., the landlord Gianfranco Marrocco, rented the location to a new owner, who opened Seven nightclub last summer.
Brandt Heckert, who has owned the elegant Pastiche pastry shop on Spruce Street for 36 years, noticed the problems when his flowers were ripped out of their boxes. Then there was graffiti. His staff worried about the drunken crowds heading in and out of Seven.
In May, there was gunfire just outside his doors. His bakery was closed when two men were shot and wounded. Though the license board heard complaints, it ultimately decided that the shooting wasn’t connected to Seven.
Still, residents and business owners flooded the license board with e-mails and letters, begging the commissioners to shut down Seven, which had already faced complaints and fines.
Three weeks later, Cabral was beaten and stabbed to death in the Walgreens parking lot at 333 Atwells Ave. Police said Cabral and the alleged assailants had been coming from Seven.
Residents and business owners were outraged and dismayed. They’d been complaining about the drunken crowds, revving motorcycles, loud music and general vandalism and trash from the after-hours patrons.
“They hang out in the parking lots. They hang out in the streets. They hang out in the fountain, hooting and hollering,” said Mike White, who runs 24 AirBnbs in the heart of Federal Hill.
Just in May, Dylan Conley, the license board chairman, had called all the license holders on Federal Hill to a meeting to talk about respecting the neighborhood and cooperating with city ordinances. About 40 of the licensees showed up.
Now, Simone said, the licensees are taking action by opposing any new businesses that want a 2 a.m. license.
The difference between an establishment closing at midnight versus 2 a.m. comes down to “two very creepy hours,” Simone said. The 2 a.m. closing means more time for patrons to drink, he said, and it’s a lure for people leaving other places at midnight, in other cities, still looking to extend the party.
City councilwoman Rachel Miller, who represents Federal Hill, is sponsoring an ordinance for a moratorium, along with council president Sabina Matos and council members Nicholas Narducci, Mary Kay Harris and Michael J. Correia.
“I think we’re moving in a better direction now, because there’s more attention to the issue,” Heckert said. “Federal Hill is still a great place to do business, we still have a great reputation as a destination, but we would just like to see the nightclubs [curtailed].”
Meanwhile, the Federal Hill Commerce Association is launching its own marketing campaign to lure the tourists back and combat the bad publicity from the nightclubs.
As White said, “We want people to Google ‘Federal Hill’ and see the feasts.”