Those overrated old mills; defending fraternities

 There’s lots of romance around Rhode Island’s old mills. Many are castle-like structures, seemingly built to last for hundreds of years. Especially at dawn and dusk, when the low sun washes their brick or granite walls, they can be beautiful. Of course, some of them are gloomy/ugly.

Some can be renovated for artists’ lofts and small businesses and their owners can make a profit — often with special tax breaks. The mass of taxpayers must make up the lost tax revenue. And some owners are big tax deadbeats. Consider the owners of Hope Artiste Village, in Pawtucket, who owe the city $124,690 for the current tax year, or those of The Thread Factory, on the Pawtucket-Central Falls line, who owe Pawtucket $366,306 and Central Falls $410,000. There may be similar examples around the state.


It is hard to quantify how much Rhode Island has gained or lost from trying to preserve old mills because people think that they’re quaint. Many can never be retrofitted to make a fair (without tax breaks) profit. Preservationists (not a few of whom are financially secure and don’t have to worry too much about finding a job in the sluggish Rhode Island economy) fiercely fight to save as many of these mills as possible, once built for economically logical reasons that disappeared decades ago. Indeed, the Ocean State has not exactly become a boom town during all these years of trying to keep old factory buildings that don’t make anything anymore except the occasional arsonist.


Then there’s that Art Deco tower the Industrial Bank Building, which, because of its stepped-back structure and location in not exactly thriving Providence, has little chance of being a full-scale office building again. Maybe it would work for residential — but again with tax breaks to be paid for by people not benefiting from its redevelopment.


A rather similar stepped-back famous Art Deco skyscraper is the gold-roofed United Shoe Machinery Corporation Building, at 140 Federal St. in downtown Boston, which for many years was New England’s tallest building. It had been slated for demolition in 1981, after “Shoe,” as the once huge company was long called, disappeared. But Boston was/is a major financial center. The quantity of local money and tax breaks made retrofitting it attractive, and the building is now filled with Class A offices.


Providence doesn’t have that critical mass. Other than nostalgia, there’s little to justify taxing the public to maintain the now remarkably inefficient “Superman Building.” Anyway, Providence had its heyday before it was built and could have another after it’s gone. And even Chartres Cathedral will one day disappear. As Ira Gershwin wrote, “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble ... ”


The South Bronx, the famously poor and crime-ridden section of New York given up for lost 30-40 years ago, has enjoyed a revival in part because so many of the old buildings were torn down (often after arson) and new buildings put up in the newly available acreage. Perhaps Rhode Island should move away from its love affair with old factories that do nothing (or worse) for the macro-economy. New buildings can be beautiful too. Are old mills over-rated?




The cover story in this month’s Atlantic is titled “The Fraternity Problem: It’s Worse Than You Think.” The article, surprisingly, spends a lot of ink on a nasty fraternity at very liberal/PC/“Little Ivy” Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., where various outrages involving booze, sexual assault and so on have taken place. (Harvard also has fraternities, called “Final Clubs,” where, as a guest, I have witnessed grotesque behavior fueled by alcohol and other drugs.)


Busybodies and other social engineers cry out for closing all fraternities, though legally that would be impossible.


Speaking as a past member of a fraternity, I object. At most of these clubs, while drinking goes on sometimes, as it does at many social organizations, activities are much tamer than the “Animal House” cliché. And they play the healthy role of providing a closer sense of community than can the wider and anomie-ridden college or university community. Indeed, fraternities are frequently the venue for the start of lifelong friendships. Many college administrations should monitor these organizations with more rigor and call in the police (the town cops, not the campus cops) when necessary, of course, but, still, fraternities all in all do more good than harm. And without a modicum of freedom of association, society would be very dreary indeed.


I recently got a note from a group that was in the fraternity house I was in in the late 1960s. They’re planning a reunion for next October. As I saw the names, the years peeled back. Dozens are coming, out of (mostly lapsed) friendship and even morbid curiosity.


Robert Whitcomb (, a former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and a former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a Providence-based writer and editor and a director of Cambridge Management Group (, a health-care-industry consultancy.