Newport has learned to live with its past. Not only does it thrive off the mansions, but it also still profits from the Navy. It was only the fleet—and the poorly paid sailors—that left. The War College, with its genteel officer corps, stayed behind and grew larger. Even today the Navy is by far the largest single employer on Aquidneck, with a payroll of 8,750, half of that civilian.
So Newport got the best of both worlds. There has even been a reordering of history; many locals claim that the building of the Newport Bridge (finished in 1969) was what really got the town going. Of course, no one was saying that in '73 when the fleet left, but the fact is that the bridge did join Aquidneck Island with South County, and with Connecticut and New York beyond. Always before, visitors from those states had to get to Newport via the Jamestown ferry, an anachronistic nuisance.
The fact that Newport was an island originally was its strength. Aquidneck Island is the Rhode Island in the state's title, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations—and Aquidneck has always been a very separate place unto itself. Not until the 1930s did a bridge connect it to the rest of Rhode Island, and although Providence is only 30 miles away, it was "upstate."
Given its size, the whole state—Little Rhody—is inclined to be insular and insecure. Says Joel Cohen, a native and a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, "If you were just dumped here and could ignore the accent, your impression would be that Rhode Island is like some backwater Southern state. We're one party and predominantly one church, too—really much more homogeneous than you would expect. Everybody in Rhode Island always talks about what a corrupt government we have. It's just accepted. But I honestly don't believe we're as bad as everyone assumes. It's just that we're so small, everybody knows each other, and so there's no secrets. Our corruption is merely better known."
An erstwhile boxing promoter from Massachusetts has placed a casino gambling referendum on the Newport ballot this November. Arguments that this would open doors in Newport to the Mafia have little effect because it is instinctively assumed that the mob controls most of everything anyway.
But the historic, hangdog lack of confidence in Newport was offset by a trust and intimacy that came with isolation. Even in its worst days, almost nobody ever thought of leaving Aquidneck, and ultimately, the citizens had to stop groaning about the fleet and the torpedo station and get cracking. Curiously, while so many of the natives have had a sort of inferiority complex—the result of generations of cleaning up after summer colonists and sailors—pride in their hometown was never missing. Newporters might have leased out their city, but they never gave up the title.
The Irish, who were shipped over in the early 1800s to build Fort Adams, bulwarked the town with the Fifth Ward—the Old Fifth, Faithful Fifth. There are only four wards now, but the Fifth remains a living entity to many Newporters. It was in the Fifth that the rich were taught to know their place.
It may seem odd that the grass courts at the Casino are the only lawn courts in America open to the public (in Newport of all places!) but that is consistent with local history. The red-pants swim club, Bailey's Beach, has always allotted at least a portion of its beach for non-members. And no matter how grand your mansion, it was bounded on the ocean side by the Cliff Walk, a well-defined pedestrian thoroughfare, open to all.
Don Booth, the director of the various service clubs at the Naval Education and Training Center, grew up in the Fifth Ward during the Depression, a rare Scotch Protestant there. He says, "You accepted your role very easily. The Irish tended to be laborers, the Italians were gardeners and fishermen, the Englishmen were the house help, the fancy servants. I caddied at the country club as a boy, and the quarter tip I got was needed. I'd rush it right home, so we could eat hamburger that night. Yet, however odd this sounds, Newport was a helluva good place to be poor.
"Somehow, there wasn't that much difference between caddying or playing golf, and on some glorious autumn afternoon, it didn't seem to matter whether you were raking leaves at a mansion or sitting there having a cocktail. Either way, you smelled that ocean. I can remember eating food smothered in mushrooms that we picked wild off the golf course, and coming down for breakfast to a fresh blackfish my father just caught.