Author Thornton Wilder likened Newport to the nine cities of ancient Troy in his autobiographical novel, “Theophilus North,” set in 1926.
“Newport, Rhode Island, presented nine cities, some superimposed, some having very little relation with the others – variously beautiful, impressive, absurd, commonplace and one very nearly squalid,” he wrote.
Fast forward 90 years and his pre-Depression description could still be used today to describe parts of the coastal community, which in Wilder’s time had not yet seen the population boom fueled by the U.S. Navy’s presence on Aquidneck Island.
While the defense industry maintains a strong presence on the island, Newport and, to lesser degrees, its neighbors, Middletown and Portsmouth, are still feeling the social and economic effects of the Navy’s slow pullout of ships and personnel that began after World War II and accelerated in the 1970s.
Between 1970 and 2010, nearly one-quarter of Aquidneck Island’s population disappeared. Newport was hit hardest, losing 47.6 percent of its population between 1960 and 2010.
“Aquidneck Island is closely tied to the Navy,” said Arthur C. Mead, a University of Rhode Island economist. “But the Navy pulled out their ships and along with it thousands of military personnel.”
Island business and political leaders have spent the decades since the Navy pullout grappling with ways to diversify local industry beyond defense and seasonal tourism – and reverse a population decline projected to continue for decades more.
“No matter what great industry we have, if people can’t afford to live here it’s …
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