The Cleansing Fire

Writing on Providence’s WaterFire, set to begin its summer season this June, Jeff Tiell muses on past as present, experience as economic development and cities as the places where we reinvent ourselves.

A WaterFire lighting in downtown Providence. Muffet

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The past is never dead; it’s not even past. — William Faulkner

In Providence, Rhode Island, one can see the footprints of a past age, in the converted downtown factory lofts, the vinyl-sided houses on Benefit Street and the beacon of the First Baptist Church built in 1775 on North Main Street. Providence is both burdened and liberated by its past. Its contradictions run deep, between the patrician city on seven hills and the blue-collar textile mills; between Ivy League and Olneyville; between the Beehive of Industry and the Creative Capital. Providence, like every city, is shaped by history and geography, but in many ways, it’s a direct opposite to a city like Dallas, which is self-described as a “city with no past.” Providence has a past and has employed it to color the future. Perhaps on a grander scale than any city in the country in the last two decades, Providence has worked to reinvent itself.

At the end of 2009, Karen Lee Ziner wrote in The Providence Journal that, “If Rip Van Winkle had slumbered for 10 years in the Ocean State instead of 20 in the Catskill Mountains, he would have rubbed his eyes at an equally altered landscape.” Providence now has new skyscrapers, residential lofts and more commercial activity downtown, and is in the midst of a $610 million project to relocate I-195/I-95 highway interchange, which currently cuts through the heart of the city. This interstate relocation project is a symbol of the new Providence: Whereas the superseded route was purposely driven through impoverished neighborhoods bordering downtown, the relocation has enabled a smoother interchange motivated by more by progress, and less by politics.

And yet, transitions are never seamless. Providence has embraced its historical and cultural ambiguity as a place where the three Brown brothers, leading merchants and founders of Brown University, were at odds because John and Nicolas were known slave traders, while Moses was an ardent abolitionist. In some places, to some people, these tensions would serve to separate and weaken citizenry and institutions. However, Providence has prospered in recent memory because it has embraced this very ambiguity, and embodies what we most treasure about our urban places – they give us license to reinvent ourselves.

Perhaps most illustrative of this Providence phenomenon is Waterfire, the sculptural art installation by Barnaby Evans established on the three rivers of downtown Providence. WaterFire, initially conceived to celebrate the anniversary of First Night Providence in 1994, will host its first lighting of the summer season on June 4. Comprised of large fire pits suspended upon the Providence River, WaterFire is known to create something of a Venetian carnival atmosphere, complete with gondolas, street performers and crowds of passersby. In 1997, WaterFire expanded to forty-two braziers and attracted an estimated 350,000 people during thirteen lightings. It has expanded precipitously over the last decade, even to other cities, including Kansas City, Houston and Columbus, Ohio. Despite expansion, the WaterFire experience will always feel most closely aligned to the city of Providence; captured poignantly by the musky evening breezes swirling amongst the reverie of Italian and Portuguese food vendors, artists, mimes, students, tourists, friends, acquaintances and lovers.

Walking amidst the canals, listening to the live music sweeping forth and seeing people smiling in the smoky breeze, one realizes that the most successful modern cities offer experience as economic development. They offer good times and good memories. This is not a new idea in the least, simply one that cities around the world increasingly recognize as more important in maintaining a competitive place in the urban landscape. In Providence, though, WaterFire is more than mere momentous experience. It’s my observation that WaterFire serves to contextually illuminate, in all its glorious complexity and contradiction, our romance with the past. It serves to re-educate us on the persistence of memory towards a revealing of our collective urbanity. And where better to do that than Providence — a city being reborn from its own fires.

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Tags: infrastructurehoustonanchor institutionskansas citycolumbusprovidence

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