The Elements of Providence

By Carlo Rotella
Sunday, September 17, 2006

SUNSET ON AN OVERCAST LATE OCTOBER EVENING, shortly before the year's final lighting of WaterFire. The tide is up, surging in from Narragansett Bay, temporarily reversing the direction in which the city's rivers flow. Fallen leaves drift upstream on the Providence River, which passes between manmade walls through the heart of the city. Where the waters divide, some of the leaves wander to the right into the canal-straight Moshassuck River, but most of them pass to the left into the larger Woonasquatucket River and on into the great circle of the river basin by Waterplace Park, in front of the Providence Place mall.

Boat-borne volunteers, dressed all in black like Kabuki stagehands, have loaded logs and kindling into 100 braziers -- steel-lattice containers shaped like three-foot-high martini glasses -- that float, moored, in the three rivers. The reflected lights of the city, brightening in the deepening gloom, seem to rise up out of the depths to move just under the water's surface. On a riverside walkway, a young man in a ball cap carries a stepladder from bridge to bridge, mounting it to light the candles in ornate chandeliers that hang from the spans' undersides.

The recorded music begins with the chimes of a summoning bell, then droning strings and flute. More than half a mile of riverfront has been wired for sound, 60-plus speakers connected by UHF transmitters and receivers, time-delay circuits and a couple of miles of heavy audio cable. The music, a contemplative mix that will range throughout the night across classical, avant-garde, new age, the margins of pop, and ethnic and traditional styles from around the world, is loud enough to pervade the scene but does not force you to raise your voice to compete with it.

Water, fire and music: public art at its most elemental. On about 20 evenings from late spring to late fall (the exact number of lightings depends on the eternal essentials: tides, weather and corporate sponsors), WaterFire's orchestrated merger of simple, recombinant components draws large crowds of locals and visitors to Providence's revived downtown. Attendance has approached 100,000, equal to more than half the city's population, at some midsummer lightings. From modest beginnings as a small, one-time First Night event in 1994, WaterFire has grown into an important civic institution with a dozen year-round employees and a $1 million annual budget. An individual lighting involves 100 volunteers, additional subcontractors and a 24-hour cycle of prep work and cleanup.

It seems as if everything in the city wants to fit itself into the order and rhythm of the event. A bus grinding uphill provides counterpoint to boats sliding silently through the water. A train whistle sounds in the pause between tunes. Buildings seem to attend, crowding down to the water's edge. People, too, of course. They arrive in couples, threes, larger collections of family or friends. They stroll along the banks or find a place to sit and look at the water, waiting for the fires.

A flotilla of six wood-tending boats enters the circular basin, the upstream end and ceremonial center of WaterFire. Black-clad volunteers lean out with torches from the boats to light the braziers. The fires brew up smartly, crackling and settling, throwing out sparks that sail on the breeze before extinguishing themselves in the water with a tiny hiss. The bittersweet, autumnal, deeply New England smell of burning wood spreads through the city.

I've been attending WaterFire lightings off and on for the past decade. Every time I come, I am taken by a rush of feeling that has two distinct parts. One is a sense of intimacy with Providence, an old city by American standards (it was founded in 1636) and an insular one, where I'm always acutely aware that veiled, closely held local meanings shadow the official history retailed at monuments and landmarks. The other part of my response is that at every lighting I find myself resolving to be a better person -- to contribute more to the public good, to be more neighborly, more patient with my kids, more appreciative of my wife, to notice beauty. I suspect that the two reactions form the halves of a single whole, that to touch the city's soul means to be touched by it in turn. This time I'm going to try to figure out why WaterFire gets to me the way it does.

WATERFIRE HAS TURNED PROVIDENCE INTO AN "EVENT PLACE," a city that employs a signature cultural asset to draw visitors. The usual roster of event places includes major American cities such as New Orleans (Mardi Gras), Chicago (Blues Festival), San Francisco (Chinese New Year), Philadelphia (the Mummers Parade) and Washington (the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, among others). Looking farther afield, to Europe, there's the Palio in Siena, Carnevale in Venice, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Oktoberfest in Munich and all manner of religious and folk observances with centuries-deep cultural roots.

Providence, which would seem to have more in common with, say, Youngstown, Ohio, than with those other cities, makes an unlikely addition to the list. Although Providence is architecturally distinguished and historically significant -- as an ancestral home of religious freedom in America, among other things -- it has been better known for generations as a depressed, corrupt, cartoonishly parochial Rust Belt city on the skids. It has also been overshadowed by Boston and New York, the cultural capitals to the north and south. Now, though, WaterFire draws culture-seeking travelers in surprisingly large numbers.

"The piece is designed to have very soft edges," says Barnaby Evans, the Providence-based artist who created WaterFire, meaning that it welcomes all types of wanderers-in, fitting itself to all kinds of agendas and schedules. I have arranged to run into him at the lighting. Salt-and-pepper-bearded, wearing a leather jacket, he greets passersby and stoops to pick up a plastic cup somebody dropped on the river walk. "It's the opposite of the theater model, where the shows all go off at eight, all the restaurants have to feed everybody before that, everything has to happen on schedule."

His model is the passeggiata , the Southern European habit of the evening stroll during which you take the air while participating in an informal street pageant that sustains community and connection to place. Because American life is so dominated by the car, the television, air conditioning and other technologies that discourage casual but meaningful encounters in public space, Evans intended WaterFire to satisfy the resulting hunger to commune with fellow citizens and the city itself. The mall can't meet that need; neither can Google.

This passeggiata's neighborliness might not necessarily seem welcoming to outsiders, but, Evans argues, WaterFire appeals to visitors because it requires no special knowledge of the city. "As a completely new event, it doesn't have localized identity in the way that some older ones do," he says. "It's deliberately universal.

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