Tough town, Newport

The Breakers, in Newport.

The Breakers, in Newport.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

I’ve been chatting with Newporters a bit more than usual lately. It’s an exciting and complicated, sometimes bizarre place, with great natural and manmade beauty. But the routes to get there are problematical. The Route 114 commercial strip in Middletown to the Newport city line is one of the ugliest I’ve seen – where were the town planners and zoners? -- and there often seems to be an accident or other problem on the Pell Bridge, a toll span. If only there was much more ferry service between Providence and Newport to reduce some of the congestion.

And society, especially “high society,’’ while often entertaining, can be quite vehement. Consider the Preservation Society of Newport’s successful multi-year campaign to build a “welcome center,’’ with restaurant, on the grounds of The Breakers, the Vanderbilts’ former over-the-top seaside mansion on Ochre Point Avenue, close to famed Bellevue Avenue. Some powerful Newporters argued that if such an “amenity’’ were to be built at all it should have been across the street. What ensued was a upscale civil war with neighbors; some of the protagonists still don’t speak to each other.

Some Newporters fear that the Preservation Society might try to put restaurants in some of its other properties, too, in effect turning into a restaurant chain, which would displease some neighbors (street-parking paranoia) as well as for-profit eateries in town that might be hard-pressed to compete with the powerful nonprofit.

Anyway, the city could use a Truman Capote, Edith Wharton, Gore Vidal or Tom Wolfe to do an updated zoological study of the Bellevue Drive/Ocean Drive swells, which include such nouveau riches as Larry Ellison, Jay Leno and Judge Judy as well as “old money,’’ some of which can be traced back to crooks in the 19th Century Gilded Age.

(The old response, attributed to various recipients of charitable donations over the years, about “tainted money’’ was that the only problem was that ‘’taint enough of it’’.)

There’s something about the mix of deep history, commercial and recreational port, aesthetics, social drama and intrigue, a rich stew of ethnicities, Navy, ex-spies and other government types and location at the southern end of an island that keeps new people coming to rejuvenate the place.