Gerald Carbone: Let’s Tear Down Waterplace’s ‘Wall of Hope’

Saturday, September 07, 2013


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Waterplace Park's Wall of Hope is a nuisance and constant reminder of corporate presence, believes Gerald Carbone.

A guest arrives to offer comfort in a crisis. At first this provides reassurance, but as you resume on such legs as are left you and begin again to make your way, you wonder when this houseguest will yield the prime real estate in your living room; you begin to fear that it may never leave.

Such is the case with the “Wall of Hope” squatting in Providence’s Waterplace Park. The Wall went up on September 11, 2002. The National Conference for Community and Justice raised it as part of a fundraiser, and pledged that The Wall would move on to the proposed Heritage Harbor Museum in 2005. That museum never materialized; the “Wall of Hope” had no place to crash so it just kind of stayed, clogging up a prime piece of Waterplace Park.

Its presence would be okay if it weren’t so cloyingly annoying. “The Wall of Hope” is comprised of about 10,000 ceramic tiles, each one glazed by a different person with an image of his or her response to the attacks of September 11.

Pay to paint

Like Tom Sawyer convincing kids to pay him for the privilege of painting his fence, the National Conference charged people $10 each to glaze a tile. About 11,000 people participated, and though no one was turned away for a lack of money it’s reasonable to assume that most of the 11,000 paid the $10, resulting in a six-figure haul.

This fundraiser had little overhead – Home Depot donated the tiles, and 20 other corporations including CVS, the Dallas-based Providence Journal, and the Washington Trust Co., donated enough money to merit a tile glazed with its corporate logo enshrined in the wall. More than a decade later, these tiles suggest an unintended irony: September 11, brought to you by Corporate America.

10,000 clichés

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The craftsmanship of ordinary people dribbling glaze is, of course, childishly poor. Almost all of these 10,000 or so six-inch tiles bear the earmarks of kitsch; with a handful of exceptions, they are formulaic, predictable, and sentimental. Displayed in the context of a memorial to an act of horrific violence, the sentimentality of kitsch is more than an offense against art – it is a pernicious glaze that glosses over root causes and smothers questions beneath the treacle of a smiling clown, a rainbow, or the ubiquitous teddy bear.

Through its kitschy imagery of September 11, the “Wall of Hope” transforms Waterplace Park into the context of a politically charged site of violence; then by gluing together thousands of six-by-six inch images of kitsch it stifles debate on the causes and consequences of the September 11 attacks beneath a stone-cold quilt.

A hidden agenda?

The mission statement of the National Conference for Community and Justice is “to transform communities to be more inclusive just by empowering leaders to make institutional change.” In fact, by positioning viewers as innocent passersby gazing upon a treacle glaze of kitschy sentiment, the “Wall of Hope” makes institutional change more difficult by casting it as unnecessary. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria: ask no questions. The Wall is enough.

I would like to ascribe good intentions to the National Conference of Community and Justice’s kitschification of Waterplace Park, but the six-figure payoff it reaped makes that hard to do. While painting a tile, one 16-year-old girl told the Providence Journal, “It’s a weird thing. But I feel less critical of the president and the government.”

The Wall demands exactly this kind of uncritical response, which runs counter to the Conference’s mission to affect institutional change. Which is why I say to the National Conference: “Tear down this wall!”


Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He holds a Master's in Public Humanities from Brown University and has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.


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