Burning with Love: Barnaby Evans discusses PVD as a beacon

It all goes back to Roger Williams’ original idea of creating Providence as the first sanctuary city.

Barnaby Evans is the creator of WaterFire, one of PVD’s signature events and a public art installation that has global appeal and reach. Evans is a graduate of Brown University, and during a multi-decade run of creating, innovating and implementing the WaterFire concept in PVD’s Waterplace Park (not to mention other pop-up sites worldwide), he has established himself as a one of the leading voices of the RI arts community.

During a recent appearance on The Bartholomewtown Podcast, Evans described WaterFire’s beginnings, and what he believes PVD — and RI as a whole — offer creative-minded people and those who seek sanctuary from judgment.

Barnaby Evans: When they first redid the river, people talked about how dangerous it was. No one was there. So, the main danger was if you forgot to tie your shoelaces! There was a long history of sort of a mob presence going back decades before, but it had that reputation as a dangerous place, and it was, I think, undeserved, but you still had to address it. You had to turn it around.

Bill Bartholomew (Motif):  It’s still there today. I mean, you hear on talk radio, whatever, “Oh, you can’t go to the Providence Place Mall because some gang is going to kidnap you in the parking garage.” That’s kind of always there. It’s xenophobic and racial insecurity, I guess, more than anything.

BE:  Well, it’s people looking for ratings. Downtown PVD is one of the safest cities in the US right now. So it’s unfortunate that people hype bad news and don’t spend enough time celebrating what’s working. And that’s, in essence, what I was trying to do was to talk about all these things that the wider community agreed on and how much potential there was for making this truly an extraordinary city.

BB:  Right. And it’s come a long way. There’s fiscal challenges and all that business, but at the end of the day, PVD is positioned to be a place that is highly desirable. It is already highly desirable, but we have the potential to be the optimal type of living scenario of the future, in my mind, especially as an artist, as a creative person. Keeping living costs affordable is one challenge, of course. Not pushing people out of the city.

Do you feel like things are on track to make PVD basically what PVDFest is, for instance? That that sort of interaction and activity could be every day?

BE:  Yeah. And I think PVDFest was followed on, on a whole series of festivals that have been going for 20 years. The first one was a one that Bob Rizzo put together in Roger Williams Park, and then in downtown. That was really talking about how art could bring the entire community together. WaterFire was actually presented as part of the Convergence Festival. Then there was the festival downtown on Westminster Street for many years, the music festival, which was seen as a genre- free msic festival, which was this whole idea of mixing everything together. So, it’s been a tradition of 30 years of artists engaging with place and downtown and being very well responded to by the entire community.

But to go back to what you were saying earlier, PVD has a wonderful size. It’s walkable. We can get away with not having cars and we’re converting what was the industrial space into live workspace, studio space, living space. We’re converting the commercial buildings downtown into a mix between a commercial and residential that works very well. And we’ve got a century’s long investment in extraordinary architecture, which we’ve largely, through neglect, managed to leave up and now they’re considered really optimal buildings that are the right size. They’re built solidly, they’ve got visual interest, whether it be an industrial space or whether it be some of these elegant banks. So, it’s the third life for some of those buildings.

BB: And now we’re moving into how to best fill those and decide who should be living in certain areas. I mean, that’s going to be controlled at a certain level.

BE: Right. But yeah, the market is hard to control. But you know, I was thinking [about you saying that as a kid] your parents were nervous or whatnot when you were going to Lupo’s. You know, credit should really go all the way back to that generation of Rich Lupo and people like that who really kept PVD as a musical center. PVD was a huge jazz city with a lot of very famous people in the jazz circuit living here, touring up and down the eastern seaboard and often playing here at places like the Celebrity Club and the Dorrance Hotel or the Narragansett Hotel, none of which are around any longer. But there was a long tradition of a black-white integration around music, which you still see in some of the clubs in south Providence now where you can go to jazz.  That music, but also the ethnicity of the many, many immigrants to PVD have kept communities alive and engaged in music and music and food traditions and restaurants, and it all that goes back to Roger Williams’ original idea of creating PVD as the first sanctuary city.

And he used that language. He deliberately said he was founding PVD as a sanctuary for all those people who are distressed for reasons of conscience. So, that makes us the first city ever founded specifically to be a sanctuary for people who have different feelings about religion, different feelings about a global perspective. I mean, Williams, his issues were as much about the mistreatment of the Native American community by The Puritans and this, puritanical belief in religion, if you remember that. There’s a series of horrific drawings done by Goya and done by a French etching artists named Callo, which were about just the terror of war. And that was referring to the 30 Years’ war, which was a religious conflict. And that’s what the Puritans were leaving Europe for. And they came to the new world in order to change that. So, that passion of wanting to be tolerant of all people was right at the surface.

To hear the complete episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast with WaterFire creator Barnaby Evans, listen on your favorite app or visit bartholomewtown.com

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