In the 1980s, Providence was a textbook case of urban decay. What a century earlier had been a thriving seafaring and manufacturing town, was rotting at its core. Things began to change with an urban renewal project that restored a paved-over river system and buried railroad tracks. Public funds built a Westin Hotel and a convention center. But what really made the area a destination was Providence Place, a three-level, 1.4 million-square-foot mall that opened four years ago.

True, the renaissance isn't complete. Fancy apartments are rising down the street from buildings where faded signs advertise “exotic dancers.” Grand old cast iron buildings beg for renovation. “But it's changing every day,” says my niece, Jenna, a Providence resident.

Jenna is 22 and a member of Gen-Y. Providence is teeming with her cohorts, thanks to an abundance of universities, including Brown, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales and a campus of the University of Rhode Island. In fact, some 245,000 of metropolitan Providence's 973,700 residents are under 20.

A few years ago, most of the Gen-Y gang would never have ventured downtown on a spring afternoon. Now they're here in abundance, thanks to Providence Place, which attracts shoppers from as far away as Boston, 45 miles to the north. Nordstrom, Filene's and Lord & Taylor anchor the light and airy center.

It took more than 15 years and a series of developers to get the mall built. The idea for an in-town mall for Providence was first conceived in 1985 by Conroy Development Co. and Melvin Simon & Associates. Simon dropped out and Pyramid Management bought in. Finally, in 1996, Commonwealth Development, finished the project. Today, the center is bustling with 170 shops.

So, I asked Jenna to give me a tour. En route to the new H&M, she felt that the swankest stores — Coach and JasmineSola — are on the first floor, with the prices generally decreasing as you go up the escalator. Victoria's Secret, Forever 21 and Restoration Hardware are on two; Hot Topic, Steve Madden and Foxy Nails are on the top floor.

First we hit JasmineSola, where Jenna eyed a $120 pair of jeans. That's a lot of money for a recent grad, but she told me she has been considering buying them. “Sometimes, it seems more expensive clothes really are different,” she said. “The material, style and fit can be much better than cheaper clothes.”

Still unready to plunk down $120, Jenna took me upstairs to Forever 21, where she had recently purchased a cotton-spandex “clubbing shirt,” a new term for me. It has “style and personality,” she told me — great for a night out. H&M, which seems to be sprouting up everywhere, was also a fave, though my well-traveled niece told me she prefers the bigger outlet in New York's Soho.

Jenna moved to Providence to take a job with a labor union after spending a year studying in China. She thinks developers could learn some lessons from the Chinese. She liked that similar wares were in the same places. “There would be, say, flower row and it would go on forever,” she says. “Or home furnishings. Or fish.” Some of those ideas, I told her, are already coming to the U.S. (see cover story, p. 64).

Vitals

Location: Providence, R.I.

Size: 1.4 million sq. ft.

Year opened: 1999

Anchors: Nordstrom, Filene's and Lord & Taylor

No. of stores: 170

Parking spaces: 5,000

Draws from: 973,700

Median household income: $45,412