A glimpse of the long-sought downtown Providence of the future will be on
display this weekend: bright lights will illuminate the dark corners of the
city's old retail core; eclectic crowds of young artists, preservationists, and
curious passersby will mix for art exhibits and film screenings, including a
program of independent shorts to be projected on a screen strung across an
alleyway near City Hall; and the scores of visitors in town for the annual
meeting of the National Trust for Historic Preservation will likely marvel as
this burst of creative energy is unleashed against the dramatic backdrop of
Downcity's impressive collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century
There's no denying that Downcity is home to an appealing array of arts and
entertainment attractions -- a shortlist would have to include Lupo's, Trinity
Repertory Company, AS220, and the Providence Performing Arts Center. It's the
rare night when something isn't going on at Trinity, AS220, the Met
Café, or a number of other organizations and nightspots, including
Perishable Theatre, the Safari Lounge, and the Providence Black Repertory
Company. Lots of similarly sized cities, like Worcester, wish they had it half
At the same time, even after the booming economy of the '90s coincided with
Providence's reinvention as a hip place to live, there's still a palpable sense
of unrealized potential about Downcity, particularly the way in which many of
the beautiful old structures that line Westminster Street between Dorrance and
Empire streets remain vacant. And although downtown often pulses with nocturnal
activity -- even more so since the shuttered Strand was reincarnated as a dance
club -- there are a lot of in-between times when the core streets are bereft of
pedestrians and uninviting to visitors.
It's precisely because of the level of dormancy -- and the arrival of a
sharp-eyed crowd of 2000-plus preservationists for the gathering of the
National Trust -- that two of the major downtown developers, Cornish Associates
and Keen Development Corporation, are spending $8000 to sponsor the wave of
downtown art and photography shows and movie screenings this weekend (see
On one hand, this represents an outpouring of civic pride, a generous desire
to be entertaining hosts and ensure a time that the guests will talk up after
going home. But as much as this showcase promises a cool time for locals and
out-of-towners alike, a number of the participants still wonder whether it
represents a harbinger of the vibrant urban neighborhood of the coming years or
just a tantalizing taste of a mythical destination.
Like others, photographer Jenee Mateer waxes poetic about downtown's
prospects, but after curating periodic gallery shows in the Peerless Building
for the last three years, with help from Cornish Associates and Keen
Development, she knows that efforts to enhance the presence of arts in the
neighborhood tend to ebb and flow. "It could work if there were enough people
involved," she says. "The problem is, energy builds up and it goes away."
Still, there's reason to believe that the critical mass of people, activity,
and institutions necessary to transform Downcity into a vibrant 24-hour
neighborhood is steadily gaining momentum. More housing -- a vital need for the
area's evolution -- is due to steadily become available over the next few
years, educational institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design are
expanding their presence, and a private drive to relocate the Travelers Aid
shelter, seen by some as an impediment to the neighborhood's residential
evolution, is approaching its $12 million goal. And despite some friction with
developers, City Hall seems on target in mandating the inclusion of affordable
units, lest Downcity become, in the words of Patricia McLaughlin, Mayor Vincent
A. Cianci Jr.'s direction of administration, "a yuppie playground."
The success of the Smith Building, which was fully occupied relatively quickly
after opening in 1999, demonstrated the willingness of people to live in
downtown Providence. At the same time, the neighborhood's evolution has been
stalled in recent years by a catch-22: An influx of residents is needed to
bring more vitality to Downcity, making possible the proliferation of cafes,
convenience stores and the other service-oriented businesses necessary for
downtown living. But an absence of housing, or even the kind of cheap spaces
that would attract artists and other early adapters, has precluded progress on
this front. As Cliff Wood, Downcity coordinator for Cornish Associates, says,
"People call here all the time -- `do you have any [downtown] apartments.' In
my four years here, we've had many more people looking for space than we've had
space to rent."
This situation appears ready to improve, however, with the anticipated opening
in early 2002 of another Cornish project, the Alice Building on Westminster
Street, and plans by Energy Management Inc. of Massachusetts to develop a
boutique hotel on Mathewson Street. And some observers, such as McLaughlin, and
architect Stephen Durkee, who is working with Cornish Associates to develop
residential properties, are optimistic that recent efforts -- combined with
initiatives like the state's new historic tax credit -- will yield dividends in
the next five years.
McLaughlin goes so far to say that she expects the growth of downtown
residential units in the O'Gorman and other buildings to be "finished" within
two to three years. The anticipated development of a multi-story parking garage
at the current Traveler's Aid site would fill another need for downtown's
evolution as a residential neighborhood.
Still to be resolved, though, is the dispute between Rich Lupo and Arnold
"Buff" Chace of Cornish Associates over the tenancy of Lupo's Heartbreak
Hotel's in the Peerless Building, the largest of the potential residential
buildings on Westminster Street, which is considered by some a linchpin for
further residential development. Chace maintains that Lupo is in default of his
lease, but Lupo disputes this and the club owner won an initial round in
district court, and the case is scheduled to move to Superior Court in about
three weeks. For his part, Lupo says he's open to the possibility of relocating
his club, but hasn't yet been presented with a feasible offer and location.
THIS WEEK'S GATHERING of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which
has the theme of "preserving the spirit of place," takes place at an important
time for issues of preservation, reuse, and urban planning in Providence. A
somewhat ironic subtext remains in the air because of the ongoing battle over
Eagle Square, home to a cluster of 19th-century mill buildings, where Feldco
Development of New York hopes to develop a shopping center while preserving
part of four of the structures. Although Feldco has won initial city approval,
opponents are mounting a challenge, and noting that 70 percent of the existing
square footage of buildings at the site would be demolished, they describe it
as hardly a preservation project. City officials call it a compromise between
preservation and economic development.
In any case, the fight over Eagle Square served as an abrupt wake-up call for
city officials about the growing threat to these kinds of mill buildings -- an
important source of affordable housing and work space for artists (see "Dig the
new breed," News, December 14, 2000) -- and Cianci's administration has
responded by compiling a list of some 200 mill properties, a number of which
may be granted landmark status. Although this effort, combined with the state's
historic tax credit, could have an important impact, it remains at an early
stage. But even though artists are still being squeezed by development
pressure, most in the creative community still feel a tremendous fondness for
their adopted home.
Again and again, people talk about vacant, distressed, or underused spaces in
Providence in terms of their prospects, and it's this sense of possibility --
increasingly threatened as development pressure has increased in recent years
-- that vanishes when a rich expanse of 19th-century industrial architecture,
like the former Silver Spring mill complex on Charles Street, for example, is
razed to make way for a Home Depot.
The goodwill that attaches to Providence as a place of promise can play an
important role in Downcity's evolution. As expressed by Sita Raiter, a recent
graduate of Brown University who decided to remain here rather than moving
elsewhere, "I think that what was most moving to me was the potential," she
says. "It seems like a beautiful ancient stage -- it's all very conveniently
laid out. I think it has a lot of potential."
Raiter, a native of Santa Barbara, California, and a group of friends are
planning to open in November a for-profit design company and public art center
in a former art supply store at 50 Weybosset St. Plans for the enterprise,
dubbed Bricolage Lab, include gallery space, a reading room, dance lessons, a
public computer lab, and a performance space. Some other entrepreneurs hope to
open an Internet café in the same building.
In a similar way, 32-year-old Dan Kamil, who moved here from Los Angeles
earlier this year with the intention of opening a digital film café, is
enthusiastic about Providence, praising the city's architecture, pleasant
scale, and active creative community. In terms of downtown, though, he quickly
realized that the out-of-town accolades about a robust arts district didn't
live up to the reality, and the extent of under-use strikes him as baffling.
But Kamil, who will screen Kafkaesque art movies this weekend in the
thematically appropriate raw environs of the vacant Burgess Building at 232
Westminster St., jumped at the chance to be a participant in the special
programming. "I'm hoping that as a result of these events, it inspires both
artists and property owners to somehow come together and really make the
downtown an arts district," he says.
Attractions like Trinity Rep and WaterFire have demonstrated that
flocks of suburbanites, people from the East Side, and other visitors are more
than willing to come downtown. At the same time, it's clear that additional
attractions -- things like Bricolage Lab and quirky film screenings -- are part
of what's needed to transform Downcity into a more widely utilized area.
"What we've got here is the chance to explore the potential," says art dealer
Sara Agniel, who curated this weekend's programming for Cornish Associates and
Keen Development. "What's exciting to me -- because we're under a microscope
right now -- we've had the opportunity to transform a number of inactive space
even before the [residential] development is finished. We've got some really
cool things that could be sustained. What I'm hoping is that the owners of
these buildings will be so pleased and so excited by the impact of this project
that they may be able to imagine first-floor retail uses in the arts and
entertainment district prior to the completion of these very large and
long-term development projects."
PART OF THE BEAUTY of the special programming is that some of the content
speaks directly to the issues of preservation and reuse that are facing
Providence. In contrast to the slow evolution of Downcity as a residential
neighborhood -- a testament to the higher cost of rehabbing old buildings --
the city's enhanced profile has sparked more development outside of the old
retail core, diminishing availability of the illegal low-rent loft spaces long
favored by artists.
Photographer Scott Lapham's exhibit, Bearing Witness: Portraits of
Providence's disappearing mill buildings, on display in the Lerner
Building, 210 Westminster St., speaks powerfully to this situation. Some of the
mills depicted in Lapham's 14 black and white photos appear rugged and
imposing, while others look almost delicate, as if they're about to blow away,
after the start of demolition has exposed their vulnerability.
Like a number of other local artists, Lapham remained in Providence after
graduating from RISD. In the same way, after losing a studio near Eagle Square
to development pressure, he has since relocated to a workspace in Pawtucket.
After 10 years in Providence, Lapham doesn't appear about to leave, but he's
clearly troubled by what he sees as a significant change in the creative fabric
of the city.
The underground culture made possible by the mills of Eagle Square and
elsewhere is "why I stayed in this city, as opposed to going to New York or San
Francisco, or wherever," Lapham says. "I knew I had something special here. It
was cheap enough and available that artists and small businesses could
participate . . . By obliterating the space, we obliterate that culture. The
things that have happened here will not happen in the same ways." The city's
mill initiative seems like a step in the right direction, he adds, but it
remains to be seen how available those spaces will be, and, at least for now,
affordable mill space remains hard to find in Providence.
McLaughlin, Cianci's director of administration, says the city remains
committed to creating economic development opportunities for artists, and she
predicts the city's mill initiative will have a positive effect over time.
"Will we ever be able to compete with the cost of illegal living?" she asks.
"No, but I think we'll be able to come close in cost and provide space that is
safe for artists and fitting for their work."
Some artists, though, look with skepticism upon the city's involvement.
"Because no one really looked at what we were doing, we got away with so much,"
said Jim Drain, who was part of Fort Thunder, the underground arts community
that thrived in Eagle Square. The loosely knit collective left its home over
the summer, and is continuing to look for a new space, because of the heat that
came with growing publicity, Drain says.
At the same time, Forcefield, a music-and-art group formed by Drain and three
other people at Fort Thunder, has been selected for inclusion in the upcoming
biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York -- a prestigious
endorsement for Providence's underground. Drain says the selection came about
after a Whitney curator read a story about Fort Thunder in Nest, an
esoteric interior design magazine, and visited the space. The fort played an
integral role in Forcefield, Drain says. "I don't think it would exist without
it," he says.
Meanwhile, Downcity, like Providence, remains a work in progress. There are a
number of things in the pipeline that will support the neighborhood's
evolution, such as Trinity Rep's plans to develop a second stage on Empire
Street. The forthcoming relocation of Interstate 195 will more closely knit
together Downcity with the Jewelry District, which is also being targeted for
more residential activity.
If there remains much to be done, it's indisputable that Downcity has also
come a long way in recent years. Efforts like this weekend's special
programming offer a valuable opportunity to look back and ahead.
The best of the fest
The Burgess Building, 232-234 Westminster St.
A daytime slide installation of Providence architecture from the archives of
the Providence Preservation Society.
Film Farm offers three nights of films by award-winning animators the Brothers
Quay and Jan Svankmajer. All shows free and at 7 p.m.
Thursday, October 18: Institute Benjamenta by the Brothers Quay. The
brothers' first live action feature is about a dilapidated, moribund boarding
school for the training of servants.
Friday, October 19: The Brothers Quay Collection. Ten short films, including
cult favorites such as their masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles, in which
a nightmarish netherworld comes alive inside a deserted museum.
Saturday, October 20: Faust by Jan Svankmajer. This work by Svankmajer,
one of the great Czech filmmakers, concerns an ordinary, inquisitive Everyman
who encounters trouble after finding a copy of Goethe's Faust.
The Smith Building, 57 Eddy St., corner of Fulton Street
Erik Carlson & Erica Carpenter
BASE: Advancing a post-military landscape
A day and evening photographic and text documentation of the former Quonset
Point Naval Air Station in North Kingstown.
The Lerner Building, 210 Westminster St.
Bearing Witness: Portraits of Providence's disappearing Mill Buildings
A photography exhibit of Providence's endangered and demolished 19th-century
industrial buildings. Gallery hours: Thursday, October 18 to Saturday, October
20, 12-6 p.m. There will be a reception on Friday, October 19, 7-9 p.m.
Fulton Street Screening, in the alley between the Peerless & Smith
buildings, curated by Xander Marrow, Friday, October 19, 9 p.m.-midnight. An
outdoor projection of artist and activist films addressing Providence's
architecture, creative reuse of outdated structures, threatened buildings and
The Peerless Building, 239-249 Westminster St.
Jill Colinan, Girls! Girls! Girls!
Kristin Sollenberger, Boots
Two sculpture installations in the windows of the former Woolworth's department
store. There will also be a gallery show, curated by Jenee Mateer, inside the
building. Hours: Thursday, October 18, to Saturday, October 20, 12-6 p.m.
Ian Donnis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Issue Date: October 19 - 25, 2001