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It's All Happening in Warren

The artsy little Rhode Island town has always been cool – but now it’s impossible to ignore

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Last year a hair salon on Main Street in Warren went vacant. The staff members, all older women, had retired en masse. Adam Tracy, a born and bred Warrenite in his 30s, didn’t like seeing an empty space on Main. He bought the space and spent the summer, on break from his high school art teaching gig, selling a clothing line there that he’d started in high school called Dubs Deep – “Dub” for “W” for “Warren,” and “Deep” for deep-rooted. By summer’s end, he’d assembled a group of artists whose work would be exhibited in the space.

This is just one of several stories about artists, entrepreneurs, go-getters and change makers who have put Warren on the fast track to being Rhode Island’s coolest place to live. The Collaborative, as Adam’s group and space are now called, exhibits art of all kinds by Rhode Islanders, including photography, leatherwork, jewelry, 3D art, paintings and poetry. It helps sell and promote artists through a monthly showcase and throws outdoor events, live music (including a folk festival) and movies in the park. Collaborative members paint murals around town. Adam has even started a Warren zine; the first issue, with submissions from people in the community, is currently in the works.

Adam’s great-great-grandfather trained racing horses for a farm in Bristol, while his grandfather ran the boilers at the mill that now houses 426 Fitness. His father owned Manny’s Hockey Shop on Child and Main, and his mother worked at the DMV. Adam and his wife bought a house in Warren a year ago, and are committed to the town for the long haul.

“I had an incredible childhood growing up here,” he recalls, “because the older generations were always doing something… like running a clambake, starting soccer leagues,” and throwing a community bike ride called “Warren on Wheels.” This upbringing instilled in him the desire for community involvement and an enthusiasm for volunteering.

Adam’s artistic ethos and entrepreneurial spirit aren’t unique to just him. They’re in residents all over Warren, and are on full view these days; as arts spaces and events, boutiques and restaurants have recently been filling the tiny town to the gills. Made in Warren on Main Street, for instance, promotes and sells art and crafts by Warren residents. Galactic Theatre is a 20-seat movie theatre that started in the back of vintage store Podsnappery. The vintage goods moved down the street, and the theatre now shows movies and live music full-time, with musicians playing for tips. The Dapper Flapper, a hat and handbag studio, and United Republic Affair, a boutique and the showroom of swimwear and sunglass designer Artiss Akarra, both recently opened on Water Street. Much has been said of Hope and Main (in this magazine and elsewhere). The food business incubator, housed in a converted elementary school, provides kitchen space to local vendors and helps them accelerate into commercial production, assisting with licensing, packaging, product testing and more. It hosts a weekly farmer’s market, one of the area’s only wintertime markets, and has boosted Rhode Island’s food economy immensely by giving a leg up to smaller producers; newly opened businesses can now source locally more easily. As it grows, more and more is happening there, including a series of cooking classes with chefs from some of the state’s best restaurants, like Perry Raso from Matunuck Oyster Bar, Matthew Peterson from Castle Hill, Nick Rabar from Avenue N and Robert Sisca from the Rooftop at Providence G.

This inclination to invent, convert and create has beckoned the artistically minded to the town, and the strong sense of community has convinced them to stay. “I personally always identified with the community of Warren,” even before moving here, says Keri Cronin, owner of Dish Boutique on Water Street and recently elected member of the Town Council. “There was a quality to it, a character to it, a way about it that seemed more like a place I belonged.” Warrenites, she says, are “committed to the community for a longer period of time because they really like it here.”

Katie O’Donnell began her Warren tenure as the owner of the gift shop the Wooden Midshipman, named after a defiantly old-fashioned shop in Dickens’s Dombey and Son. Concerned at the lack of foot traffic outside her store, she organized the merchants’ group Discover Warren and, with no real budget, took to social media to publicize her fellow merchants’ goods and the attractiveness of Warren. The organization now throws events around town, including trolley rides to visit artist open studios throughout Warren. She and her husband, Brian, had both kept one foot in the food industry even while running the gift shop, he as the chef at Café Nuovo in Providence and she as a bartender at Persimmon Restaurant in Bristol. Struck by the Warren spirit, they decided to open their own restaurant. By that point they were “so in love with the community,” Katie says, “that we couldn’t fathom doing something somewhere else.”

Their restaurant, Bywater, serves “a coastal New England interpretation of Old World flavors and techniques – or, you know, whatever we feel like cooking today,” according to its website, and has drawn customers from all over the state to its fresh, local fare. Other restaurants focusing on local produce, like The Revival Craft Kitchen and Bar and Pink Pig BBQ, have recently opened as well, taking advantage of Warren’s location and lack of red tape for small businesses, as Katie reports. Permits are easy to come by, and municipal departments are small and accessible. “The person in charge of the department answers the phone,” she says.

When Warrenites talk about the joys of living here, the details they share are concrete: the 25-minute bus ride to Providence, their own bike path that leads to the Barrington Library or the playground in Bristol, old factory buildings repurposed as artist spaces, a working waterfront. But the more abstract benefits, touched on by each of the Warren residents interviewed for this story, have to do with a commitment, a sense of purpose, a feeling of belonging. “I think that to a large degree most people that are moving here are moving here with honest intentions of being part of a community that offers something special and sweet,” says Asher Schofield, owner of Frog and Toad gift shop in Providence, and a Warren resident since 2005. This may be Warren’s particular strain of Rhode Island syndrome – those who reach the East Bay haven’t just packed a lunch, but all their earthly belongings as well. Once they’re here, they’re prepared for a “quiet, modest way of life.” “It’s a town of misfits,” Asher continues, “that are bound together by a connection to a place.”

Erin Schofield, co-owner of Frog and Toad and Asher’s wife, reiterates that the Warren community is “warm and welcoming and creative.” Erin just became vice chairperson of the nine-person Bristol/Warren regional school committee, in charge of 50 percent of Bristol and Warren’s collective budget. Her current focus is on school policy for transgender and gender nonconforming students. “Because it’s a small community, we have a real opportunity to be leaders,” she says.

Warren has a population of 11,000 and is composed of six villages. It is 96% white (compared to Rhode Island’s average 81%). The recent retail boom coming to the center of town contrasts with still significant socioeconomic disadvantage: although median income has risen by almost $20,000 since 2000, to $60,226 (according to City-Data), 17% of residents in downtown Warren and 7.2% in the rest of town still live below the poverty level. Warren has an 8.5% unemployment rate, and in downtown Warren, it’s 15%. The town also grapples with the highest number of deaths from drug overdoses in the state (according to the Rhode Island Medical Examiner’s Office), at a rate almost 50% higher than the national average. As more new creative businesses arrive to fill the empty storefronts on Main Street or rent office space at the soon-to-be converted American Tourister mill building, it remains to be seen whether all of the citizens of Warren will benefit from the largesse – or will be able to afford to patronize those establishments.

Those interviewed choose their words carefully in discussing conflicts between newcomers and old-timers in town. “Warren’s not immune from conflict or internal disagreement,” says Asher. “But that’s what living in a democratically run community and country involves.” Keri Cronin acknowledges that generational conflict “absolutely exists” but adds that “it exists everywhere.” Efforts are being made to preserve the memories of those who have lived in Warren their entire lives, including an oral history project by the Warren Preservation Society. Numerous businesses in Warren have been around for years and have shaped the town’s character profoundly. Blount Market and Kitchen, on the waterfront since 1943, ships seafood and soups all across the country. Delekta Pharmacy has been owned by the Delektas since the 1940s, still fills prescriptions, and has a working soda fountain, dispensing the one-of-a-kind coffee cabinet and other treats. Simone’s started as a breakfast and lunch place on the water called The Sunnyside; it’s now bigger and on Child Street, and it offers cooking classes in the evenings from internationally trained Chef Joe Simone. 2nd Story Theatre is in its eighth season of being one of the state’s best destinations for live dramatic performances.

Looking to the future, Warrenites hope for the community to stay distinct and cohesive, even as buildings fill and prices climb. Musician MorganEve Swain, who moved to Warren in 2008, hopes that as “new people are coming in, new businesses can incorporate the people who are already here” and “not be alienating the people who grew up here, and have been here for a long time.” Rusty Finizia, a 17-year resident who spends her days as a lab tech and her nights making drinks at Jack’s Bar for both life-long residents and new arrivals, observes that “a lot more young people are getting involved in the town council, in business, in trying to protect open space,” but that “there always seems to be a battle between keeping things the same and making room for new business.” As things change and the community ebbs and flows, hopefully the character of Warren will remain consistent. “Warren people move here,” Asher says. Once you’ve made it to the water, you stay.