Sights and Sounds of Providence, Rhode Island's Creative Capital
By Esha Samajpati
English clergyman Roger Williams openly criticized the colonial authorities and believed in the separation of Church and State. The officials of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay were eager to get rid of him; they secretly planned his deportation.
In the year 1636, Williams escaped from their clutches and found refuge on a nearby shore. Luckily for him, the land belonged to his Native American friend, Narragansett chief Canonicus.
Williams named the land Providence, in gratitude for God’s providence and declared the place to be a safe haven for the oppressed. He and his fellow settlers encouraged liberty and tolerance and since then, the city has stayed true to its founding principles.
Providence is the second-largest city in New England, after Boston, and the capital of Rhode Island. Marketed as “the Creative Capital,” the city backs resident artists by offering them tax incentives.
RISD (pronounced riz-dee by the locals) is the Rhode Island School of Design and arguably one of the best art schools in US.
Located in the historic East Side of Providence, the RISD museum has been renovated to accommodate twice as much art as before. For the artist and the art enthusiast alike, there is also the AS220, which provides a forum for creativity and offers facilities to artists, especially those with financial constraints.
The city has undergone a sort of revival in recent years. Hotels, condos, apartments, restaurants and urban campuses have sprung up in place of abandoned department stores and warehouses.
Old factory spaces have been turned into workshops and studios. We checked in at the Marriott Renaissance, which was built from a derelict 1920s neoclassical Masonic Temple.
One of the events that have played an important role in the city’s revitalization is WaterFire. The brainchild of a Brown graduate, Barnaby Evans, it draws in the crowds by the thousands. A sixteen-year-old tradition, WaterFire is held several times a month between May and October.
WaterFire – A Celebration of Art and Life
Curious to know more, my husband and I made sure that our visit to the city coincided with the schedule of WaterFire. Shortly after sunset, we followed the sound of festivities and found ourselves in Westminster Street.
On WaterFire nights, a sparkling ribbon of bonfires (art installations) wind along the downtown rivers while exotic music plays in the background.
Foot-tapping music seemed to emanate from a series of Fedoras bobbing in the distant spotlight. A lively dance-stage stood between us and the band.
Paying attention to the music, I recognized them as the widely popular Bombay Jim and the Swinging Sapphires, a regular on radio stations and jazz festivals across the country. There they were, belting out one hit number after the other and the crowd loving every moment of it.
We made our way through the teeming mass of people and reached the waterside walkways. A string of braziers containing blazing logs floated along the length of the three tidal rivers in downtown Providence, casting a mystic glow on the surrounding buildings.
Boats and gondolas carrying passengers glided past the bonfires, seemingly guided by the flicker of the flames. The volunteers, many of them dressed for the part, stoked the fires with aromatic wood, making sure they would burn past midnight.
As eclectic music streamed from outdoor speakers and the sweet scent of pine and cedar filled the night air, we realized the full extent of the multi-sensory magical experience that is WaterFire.
Some people leaned over the arched bridges trying to get a better view, while others idled on the sidewalks. Then there were those who got cozy on the steps by the water’s edge. But never did the crowd get too boisterous. The basic concept of free art and shared joy held its own in a way rarely seen in big gatherings.
Walking by the riverside, I made my first acquaintance with live opera, brought to the public free of charge by Opera Providence.
Unaccompanied by an orchestra, a couple of women in silken dresses and dangling earrings, sporting high pointy heels on the cobblestoned streets, lent their deep melodious voices to the evening.
Enthralling as their performance was, I couldn’t resist stealing a quick glance at the crowd to see my fellow listeners. The diversity of the group threw me off. Weren’t teenagers into baby-faced Justin Bieber? Aren’t tough biker dudes supposed to listen to heavy metal and hard rock? Apparently, I was wrong.
In my defense, I walked plenty that day but somehow the entire occasion was such as would make a girl want to slip on something fancy. Maybe it’s the soulful sound of the free opera or the sight of the gondolas cruising along the river which makes you want to take it up just a notch.
Leave your iPod at Home
Keeping in tune with the city’s “artscape,” the music scene is a crash course in noise bands, contemporary folk singers and experimental music. Bands form, change, dissolve and reunite all the time as people move in and out of the city. And like most big cities, there’s plenty of crossover which makes it a fun playground for indie bands.
“The city first made its name with noise music. The sound grew alongside a bubbling visual arts community. Iconic bands like Lightning Bolt staged mill and warehouse parties and concerts, particularly at the now infamous Fort Thunder,” says Brian Hodge, a marketing professional in his early twenties.
His current favorite local acts are The Silks (Americana/Roots/Blues), Brown Bird (cites outlaw country, early American folk, blues, roots rock, Eastern European and Gypsy music as influences) and Tallahassee (mixes Americana with folk, blues and rock).
A hub for noise band performances and collective living, the Fort Thunder artists' cooperative is a fond memory to many of the city’s artistic community. You can read about Fort Thunder in this article in Double Negative magazine.
Lee Buford and Chip King of ‘The Body’ fame moved to Providence from Little Rock, Arkansas. Given their penchant for appearing on stage wearing potato sacks and nooses, and the kind of sounds they produce, their move makes perfect sense.
Their latest album All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood has them dressed like ancient hooded Chinese soldiers on the cover and the numbers are a heady mix of doom metal, harsh noise, industrial rock and gospel singing.
If you were into the 70’s rock bands, you will probably remember the ‘Talking Heads’, whose frontman David Byrne, a former student of RISD was in the city recently to promote his book “Bicycle Diaries” in an effort to make cities more biker-friendly.
There’s Something for Everyone
If you are a student looking for indie bands and affordable eateries to go to after a night of partying, you are in the right place. If you want to drink fine wine, relish locally grown food in fancy restaurants, browse through art and catch an award-winning play, well, you are in luck.
For theatergoers, Providence offers the Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company, which is located amidst a cluster of restaurants. For the kids, there’s Roger Williams Zoo, named after the city’s founder, whose statue is perched on a hill in Prospect Terrace.
For those with an interest in architecture, a walk down Benefit Street is a must-do. Located in old Providence, on the city’s East Side, it is believed to have the richest pool of 18th and 19th century architecture in America.
Never short on youthful initiative (thanks to the kids from the resident colleges) and live entertainment, the city’s nightlife delivers the goods. Also, there are many gay clubs, gay bars and ‘TAG Approved’ hotels in and around Providence.
At the cost of resorting to an over-used word, Providence is and has always been underrated. After spending a weekend in the city, I have come to the conclusion that it has plenty to offer but seems to enjoy the perks that come with being low-key.
Hotels in Providence.
Restaurants in Providence.
Esha Samajpati worked in advertising in India, before moving to Connecticut and becoming a travel writer. “Even now, when I visit a city, the billboards draw my attention,” she says. “How a city advertises tells me a lot about the place and the people.”