When I told the folks I met in Providence, last weekend, that it was my first real touristy visit to their city, even though I lived right next door in Connecticut, they were not surprised. Seems news about the spectacular renewal in Rhode Island’s capital city skipped right over us here in the Nutmeg state. I was told all the first time visitors from Connecticut are equally surprised.
Judging from the number of people who crowded onto the walkways lining the rivers in Providence on Saturday night, everybody who is not from Connecticut already knows that tiny Providence is not-to-be-missed.
Let’s start with the reason for those Saturday night crowds. Since 1994, a non profit arts group called WaterFire has been literally setting the rivers ablaze by lighting fires on the three rivers in town. As you can imagine, this brings people down for a look-see. Over the years, the number of braziers placed in the water has grown to over one hundred and the every-now-and-then bonfires have become a regular spring-to-autumn event, drawing folks into downtown where they meet and mingle and enjoy the show.
By now, WaterFire’s goals; revitalizing the city and encouraging community have been met and exceeded as artists, musicians, merchants and food vendors show up in great number, to provide even more activities. On WaterFire Saturday nights the joint is jumpin’ from before sunset until the early morning hours.
I watched, (with my heart in my mouth frankly) as one performer spun flaming ropes, one in each hand, while keeping time with the music.
Farther along on my walk, I saw a young and pretty darn courageous fella feeding coins to a living gargoyle. That street performer was stealing the attention from the much tamer, Grecian statue, but she was more my speed.
I’d have eaten, there was plenty of food for sale, but earlier in the evening I’d stopped into J&G Market, a small convenience store across the street from Johnson and Wales University and wound up with a dinner invitation from the shop worker, a Syrian who was willing to allow me to practice my (now-failing) Arabic.
Over pizza, (Thanks Pizza Queen!) we talked about all sorts of things, including the odd coincidence that we’d briefly lived in the same neighborhood in Damascus back in 2006.
But I could not linger; A cocktail at The Dorrance, one of the most beautiful interior spaces I’ve ever seen was waiting for me right around the corner.
Regina Lester and her partners bought the historic bar and restaurant just last year and have been working to turn it into the destination for celebratory dinners, weddings and parties. On Friday and Saturday nights, there’s live music, but not on the Saturday nights when there’s fire on the water. I had a drink, chatted it up with the bartender and convinced Regina to give me a tour of the bank – including the very impressive vault – and was on my way.
Providence has live theater, live music and some quirky attractions in the part of town they call Downcity. But on Sunday morning, a walk up College Hill to Benefit Street, home to the largest concentration of colonial buildings in America seems appropriate.
These 18th and 19th Century homes, many of which were renovated in the 1950s are still residences so while the walk is beautiful, it doesn’t have a “preserved” feel. Bikes are propped against street signs, kiddie pools are in back yards, its lived-in and all the more charming because of it.
It’s a hard place not to photograph, but really, my photos don’t do it justice. Everything I saw through the playback of my camera seemed like less than I was seeing with my own eyes. Perhaps because there’s so much going on visually in this city, between the architecture and the art. Bus stops, bridges and public pavilions are a treat for the eyes. Sculptures are found in the parks.
The Rhode Island School of Design, at one end of Benefit Street has a magnificent art museum that’s open to the public, and while browsing in a little boutique called Craftland on Westminster Street, I spent a delightful hour viewing an exhibit of celebrity portraits rendered in fabric and thread. The subjects were selected by the artist, Ricky Katowicz because they all shared a birth month.
The arbitrary theme behind his selection of subjects appealed to as did the images he constructed of the most modest of materials and I couldn’t help but see the thread of a metaphor for the city itself in these works of art that exceed the sum of their parts.