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Dan Lawlor: FirstWorks Festival Made Providence a Classy City

Tuesday, October 02, 2012


I'll never look at the old Hospital Trust tower the same way.

Our financial district skyline is stout and refined. We have three major skyscrapers (four if you count the 99 year old Turk's Head building). The Industrial Trust Tower, aka the Superman Building, is a monument to Providence's Roaring Twenties and the uneven wealth of the Gilded Age. Hospital Trust, or One Financial Plaza, is a bit more stark, and is an amalgam of glass and white stone, showing off design sentiments of the 1970s. The building in between, 50 Kennedy Plaza (once the Fleet Center), is a hybrid from the 1980s, a bit post-modern, a glass castle.

This past weekend, thanks to FirstWorks Providence, the City, countless volunteers, numerous local art organizations, and the National Endowment for the Arts, people danced on the windows of One Financial Plaza. I'll repeat that. People danced on the windows One Financial Plaza.

In reds and whites, the dance group Bandaloop bounced, sprinted, and swayed in the air, as music echoed with the financial buildings, and purple lights shown up to the sky.

The crowd - Black, White, Latino, Asian, young, old, in couples, married, and single - stared toward the night, necks curved back, and that stone skyscraper turned into a dance floor. Some might gripe about the money, about the "real" problems, about how all of this was bread and circus - well, I can tell you, it was a damn good circus.

From Waterfire along the river to the RI Philharmonic performing inside city hall, from a street painting in the skating rink to Cambodian dance groups in Burnside Park, from ceramic murals in the tunnel underneath the RI Foundation to a newly constructed pirate ship playground, from HP Lovecraft quotes to the What Cheer! band, so much wonderful dynamism was present.

This weekend festival was part of the kick-off celebration for Providence receiving the $200,000 "Our Town" grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, designed to promote coordination, community building and creativity .

We have such a rich legacy of creative placemaking. From AS220 to Lupo's, from Trinity Rep to La Salle's Theater program, from City Arts for Youth to New Urban Arts, from Urban Pond Procession to the Steel Yard, from Big Nazo to Southside Community Land Trust, the number of dynamic and engaging places for young people and families to gain skills and cultivate art in this city are wide and real.

Yet, it's not yet enough. Storefronts in downtown are empty, and at least one building on Washington St. sits boarded up. Various public high rises in the city are poorly maintained, full of recurring cases of bed bugs, broken windows, and elevators with expired safety certificates (case in point: check out Parenti Villa). Abandoned houses in Olneyville, Manton, Southside and Valley have become drug havens. Theaters across the city, from Broad St. to Chalkstone Ave. sit idle and empty. The sales tax and property tax stay high or go up, as schools close, bus routes, police, and income tax are cut, and parking lots flourish.

The city, state, local business, foundations, and non-profits worked as a team to receive the "Our Town" grant. Let's do the same coordination and team work to get the city moving again!

The dynamism, coordination, good will and energy that resulted in the beautiful FirstWorks shows across downtown this past weekend must be found every day, every week, across this city to help improve the quality of life for all of us. We moved rivers and just this past weekend had some folks dance on skyscrapers - together, we can make Providence more vibrant than its ever been.


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