Postcards from the Providence Project
In 2005 the Rhode Island Photographic Survey set out on a one year project to make photographs in each of Providence's 25 neighborhoods.
With funding from a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation and a partnership with New Urban Arts we set forth with 3 paid artist-assistants (high school students from the NUA program), an 8x10 camera, a gps device, a digital audio recorder, even more cameras a dream and a map to see what we could see of our home city. This project was the result. It was first exhibited at New Urban Arts in the spring of 2006.
Greetings from Providence!
Or should I say “What Cheer? Netop!”
It has always seemed quite right to me that this quirky little city should have as its motto this rather non-sensical question, preparing those who move here for other odd things that will surely follow. With this project we didn’t seek out oddities (they find you anyway) we simply wanted to get out and see what we could see. Being photographers we would in the process “misuse Heaven’s blessed sunshine” by making pictures. That is Hawthorne’s great phrase. More from Nathaniel Hawthorne later.
Over the course of one year we traveled throughout Providence’s neighborhoods--there are 25-- made some 422 8x10 negatives and many more small ones. We took notes, made friends, and geo-tagged each picture with a GPS unit. Adrienne recorded digital audio. What is presented here is a selection of these efforts.
Our City, in pictures, word and sound.
Greetings from Olneyville.
“Hey I know you” this rather scruffy looking guy says from across the street. “I seen you over on the other side.” “Oh...?” I say tentatively. The other side. The other side of what? The street? The other side of town? There was that guy we met on Wickenden street a couple of months ago, but no, he was much older. The other side of our mortal existence? Maybe I’m about to get hit by a bus and this guy has been sent to guide me into the next life. That would be something. I try to get a closer look as he crosses the street towards us, keeping an eye out for a bus. “Yeah, you get around, I see you all over” he continues as he comes up to me. He asks some questions about what we’re doing and he tells me he lives “down that way” pointing vaguely in the direction of a clump of trees beyond the parking lot across the street. “Somebody robbed my stuff a few nights ago”. I tell him I’m sorry to hear that. “My street name is Cowboy,” he says shaking my hand. His glance moves past me to a garbage strewn patch of grass. “Hey, that’s my sweater, I’d better gets my sweater back”.
Greetings from Downtown, where the population has grown by 218 since 1990 and the median family income is $42,558.
We love cars. There is no question. Everywhere you look you see how we shape our lives around them. Yet there seems to be some uneasyness about that, at least on the part of the manufacturers. Consider car commercials:
Auto makers must really want us to forget what the actual driving experience is like today. In my experience it is at best boring, generally aggravating and pretty much no fun at all. But not in these commercials, not in these special cars. We see cars speeding with abandon along empty roads, we see cars tearing across pristine wilderness, polar ice caps, dense jungles and burning deserts. In the city we see cars that have their own special lanes, cars that can change traffic lights, cars that turn other cars on the road to dust, and cars that can scale the walls of buildings to get to the penthouse garden. More later...
The population of the Valley neighborhood grew by 28% between 1990 and 2000. That is the largest growth. The smallest? Hope. -13%.
More on cars:
We also see special cars that when caught in traffic can turn bits of the city into a flat panel, easily knocked down and leading magically to a country road. We see cars that can travel underwater and cars that construct whole cities in their wake. A commercial currently running claims that their car actually “creates energy”. I guess you would never have to fill the tank on that one. My favorite remains the car that is depicted speeding along alkali flats, with the black figure of Death on horseback riding alongside, scythe in hand. The driver shifts and soon the black rider is left in the dust. Yes, with this car you can outrun death itself. Compared to immortality, how can the routine drive to work compete?
Greetings again from Downtown.
There are 4 churches downtown. There are at least 25 in South Providence. An urban legend says that there is one church in the city that cannot be photographed for some supernatural reason. We haven’t found it yet.
Cathedral Square is one of the City’s great disasters of urban renewal. Once Weybosset St. and Westminster St. came together here. In the 1970s, with the best of intentions (the PPS Library has the original report, an interesting read) the thought was to save pedestrians from the chaos of automobile traffic. Our survey doesn’t often do re-photography but the historic image from the Preservation Society collection is such a great picture we gave it a go, and we include the shabby IM Pei fountain [Fountain of Life--A Memorial to the Unknown Child] for good measure. [Here's another] .
Mark Klett has raised re-photography to an art form, but applying his methods to urban areas is difficult as major features are often drastically altered. In this case the spot I needed to stand is now occupied by the auditorium. The whole sad place seems more like a memorial to the unknown parking lot. The statue of Mayor Doyle can now be found standing forlornly on a concrete plinth on Weybosset St.
Greetings from Olneyville
.55 square miles in size, population 6,495. 69.7 % live in multi-family housing.
More What Cheer --
On the evening of April 17, 1941, with the world going to war, The Providence City Council held this debate:
Councilman Frederick S. Barnes, Democratic floor leader, had proposed changing the city’s seal to show the correct number of white men in Williams’ canoe -- he said it was four. As early as 1845, the seal had shown two white men in the canoe being greeted by Native Americans on shore. Other seals showed the same scene, but with three, or four, or even six white men in the canoe. The number of men in the boat depicted in the painting hanging in City Hall? Four.
After caustic debate between Democrats and Republicans, the decision was unanimous: It was a canoe with four white men, Williams in the bow, being greeted by the Native Americans. A triumph of bi-partisanship. How many Native Americans? Not debated.
Greetings from the Deep Dark Past
Some of our urban spaces are planned, others just happen, and most all are shaped by what came before. Many street corners are now in fact the corner of Walgreens and CVS, and our houses have all sprouted ears, tilted attentively to the southwest sky. Hawthorne (as promised) in the voice of the daguerreotypist Holgrave from The House of the Seven Gables put it like this: “Shall we never, never get rid of this Past! It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body...A Dead Man sits on all our judgement-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in Dead Men’s books. We laugh at Dead Men’s jokes and cry at Dead Men’s pathos!...Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, a Dead Man’s icy hand obstructs us!” We can see this in our time. He goes on: “Each generation should be allowed and expected to build it's own houses....I doubt whether our public edifices ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin once in twenty years...” Sounds like the suburbs. Indeed, the average age for a building in America is 25 years.
Yes indeed, and thank you as well to these great folks who made this project possible:
The Rhode Island Foundation
Rhode Island State Council on the Arts
New Urban Arts
Sprint Systems of Photography for their continued support of both my work and the program at NUA
Paul Artz for his friendship and the use of his Deardorff V8
and Rebecca for her love and support.
City data cited from the Providence Plan website.
Special Thanks to:
Jesse Banks III and Tyler Denmead at NUA
and especially the Artist-Assistants for their energy and creativity: