Better Days Are Coming

When COVID cases decreased enough to allow for some shopping, Westminster Street got creative with Open Air Saturdays.

The usually heavily trafficked thoroughfare was closed to vehicles, allowing shoppers to wander the street while giving each other plenty of space. The event had to be postponed due to an uptick in cases, but business owners bouncing back from a long COVID winter’s nap are excited to continue this awesome initiative starting May 8.

Adam Buck, owner of Small Point Cafe, says, “Open Air Saturdays were awesome and got people to wander around the neighborhood and check out a lot of the shops and restaurants on Westminster Street. It was a bummer when we had to shut it down during the surge, but we’re excited to debut a brand new Coffee Cart with a house made Blood Orange Nitro and authentic Thai Iced Tea that we were able to acquire through RI’s Take It Outside program.” Some delish caffeine and sidewalk shopping? Sign me up!

Ongoing Saturdays beginning May 8, visit @indowncitypvd for more info




A Suite of Artists

AS220 recently released the “Murmurations Community Tarot Project,” a collaborative tarot deck created by Providence artists as a fundraiser for the non-profit community arts center. “I wanted to pull the community together,” said LUMUKU, an AS220 resident who organized the effort. “I hope it’s a fun way for people to reconnect or even become aware of contributors to the deck that they didn’t know before.” 

José Menéndez and Tati Gómez both contributed to the deck and collaborated on its branding, card backs, layout and packaging. “We hope people can see the diversity of visual artists connected with AS220,” they said. “It is an amazing collaborative effort to support our local arts organization. All this beautiful work is combined in a functional tarot card set that we hope a lot of people order.”

Amanda Soule, a local artist and contributor, said that she “hope(s) that this tarot deck helps people have introspective conversations with themselves while also hearing the voices of their community. I have found the tarot to be an immensely powerful tool for gaining awareness of my own hopes and fears, desires and aversions…I’m really excited to have the input of so many other artists involved in that dialogue, through their interpretations of the cards.” 

More than 80 artists participated. The deck can be purchased at as220.org/tarot, and artwork from the deck is available for viewing by appointment at the project space gallery. 




What’s in the Fridge?

Last December, Motif wrote an article about the community fridges popping up around the state, including the Refri, the community refrigerator outside New Urban Arts (motifri.com/communityfridge).

Since the article, the Refri has remained open and available. I recently talked to a young woman carrying a giant box of food who said, “I read about the Refri on Instagram and I had some food, so I brought it,” as she stocked the fridge with half of a pantry full of soup, macaroni, and bread. A man asked me for a dollar, and when I asked him if he knew about the Refri, he replied, “You mean the best thing to ever happen to Providence?” 

The contents of the refrigerator vary. Often, there is produce delivered by locals or people from Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Sometimes there are socks and scarves, bagels and breads, and maxi pads. Many evenings, there are complete meals prepared by Urban Greens, Refri’s neighbor.

Urban Greens is another group that has been doing a lot to help the community stay fed. Every Friday, some of the 2,834 members volunteer to prepare ingredients for the Culinary Academy, the YMCA’s youth cooking program. They prepare meals for up to 900 recipients of the Calvary Baptist Church. They assemble ingredients for “the little guys” whose parents pick up the ingredients for the YMCA Fun & Food club virtual cooking class. Says John Santos, general manager of Urban Greens, “There are so many volunteers to thank. It has been incredible.”   




Knocking it Off and Shutting it Down

A few local businesses took the safety of their employees, customers and community so seriously that they kept things locked down even when state officials began to lift restrictions.

Frog and Toad, located at 795 Hope Street (they do have a second location on Westminster but it’s currently closed) has yet to reopen for in-person shopping, so adapted to being not only an online shop, but also allowing for pick-ups. If you don’t know the shop by name, you’ve definitely seen their products around. They kicked off the pandemic by printing Gina Raimondo’s favorite press conference slogan “Knock it off” on a t-shirt. The design, made by Maret Bondorew, paired with another local business, Parched, and 20% of its proceeds went to Rhode Island COVID relief. They’re since expanded into offering merch to show off that you’re vaccinated, including sweatpants that have “VACCINATED” written across the ass, and they do a lot of work to partner with local organizations to give back. frogandtoadstore.com; @frogandtoadstore 

Many Rhode Islanders held their breath until Wildflour, a vegan bakery in Pawtucket, reopened last summer after shutting down at the beginning of the pandemic. Once it did, many ran to it, gleeful to find their treats back and ready for them. Wildflour has handled the pandemic like a boss. Indoor dining has been closed since the initial shut down (on nice days you can sit outside) and they have set up a clearly-marked pathway through the store. You enter, look in the food cases, make your order, pay and walk out a different door. Drinks are made to order, and you wait outside for them. The whole process is quick, painless, and feels incredibly safe. You can also do online ordering so that you can pick-up without waiting. wildflourbakerycafe.com; @wildflourveganbakery 

Riffraff, the bookstore and bar that’s every book lover’s dream, has been incredibly in their handling of the pandemic. They still don’t allow people into their shop, but do allow book pick-up as well as outdoor browsing and cocktails. They also have surprise book care packages, curated by Riffraff staff based on your favorite books, and their recommendations are always on point. riffraffpvd.com; @riffraffpvd 

Tallulah’s Taqueria, located at 146 Ives Street and a contender for the best taco in Providence, took their takeout-friendly restaurant and adapted it for pandemic safety. They closed their patios and kept them closed for the past year, and turned their operation into a to-go window. Ordering ahead is effortless with their website, which is recommended because they have been busy at peak times. Safe takeout, delicious tacos, and a semblance of normalcy. tallulahstaqueria.com; @tallulahstacos 




Gallery Night Goes Virtual

Gallery Night Providence found a creative solution to COVID restrictions by performing a quick pivot from in-person to virtual. They have now hit their stride on Facebook Live with an engaging format that takes viewers on a virtual trolley ride through Providence. “We didn’t miss a single Gallery Night,” said Shari Weinberger, Gallery Night president.  

Alyssa Ann Heller, Gallery Night executive director, explained how it works: “I arrive at a gallery to interview the director or the artist on Facebook Live for 10 minutes. Once time is up, I flip it over to Kelly Brown (Gallery Night’s social media manager) who is waiting at the next gallery. While she is broadcasting, I drive to the following gallery. We continue to tag-team across the city.” After a few months, the event became so successful that Gallery Night’s social media roots increased a thousand fold. 

How did Gallery Night manage to expand attendance, while so many in-person events went under? “Before COVID, we could fit 25 people per trolley,” Weinberger told us. “But for Virtual Gallery Night, anyone can access our Facebook Live videos from their devices, in the comfort and safety of their own homes.” Gallery Night now reaches across the country, from NY to LA, even to Canada, countries in Europe, India and Taiwan. Virtual Galery Night has become such a hit that it will likely become a permanent fixture, allowing those who have a difficult time getting out to stay connected with the Providence art scene. The South Side Cultural Center on Broad Street, a new member to Gallery Night, has also opened the door to a new culturally diverse audience. “At least 38% of our population in Providence is Hispanic, and we want to reach them,” said Heller. She has grants in the works to fund bilingual tours.

2021 is Gallery Night’s 25th Anniversary Year, and Weinberger is optimistic about the future. “Our motto is Art For Everyone. This COVID experience has actually helped us to reach out. It’s not limited by ability or mobility – virtually anyone can participate.” 

gallerynightprovidence.org; facebook.com/gallerynightprovidence; @gallerynightprovidence




Beating the Pandemic with Providence Bagels

Chris Wietecha, owner of Providence Bagel, did not let the pandemic get him down. From the onset of the coronavirus, Wietecha was prepared to help. “My wife works in health care and was on the front lines when the pandemic first happened. She came home and was totally stressed out—they’re at work, they’re not eating, they’re struggling just to stay afloat. Meanwhile, I also saw local businesses struggling, so I thought: If I can get people to donate money, we’ll buy gift cards and we’ll give them directly to healthcare workers so they can have lunch.”

On April 2, 2020, Wietecha partnered with Jim Nellis and Robin Dionne to launch the first of several RI Feeds Our Heroes campaigns, raising more than $30k that went directly to restaurants for gift cards. In addition, Providence Bagel donated another $1,500 in gift cards without accepting any of the money themselves. 

“I knew there were plenty of other people who needed it more than us,” Wietecha explained. “I guess that’s just who I am. And it worked out fine! Maybe it was some sort of karma,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to gift cards and bagels, Wietecha also opened his restaurant for a “Doomsday Drive-Thru” initiative, allowing businesses with no retail space to pop up at Providence Bagels in the evenings. “We gave up our restaurant/facility so that businesses who’d been popping up elsewhere pre-pandemic — at farmers’ markets, breweries, etc. — could continue operating their business at no cost. As long as they cleaned up and respected the space, I didn’t set too many parameters.” Some of the local businesses that used the space include Dips Dips, Basil and Bunny, Wally’s Hot Dog Cart, Dump Truck, Bobby’s Bar Pizza and Lost Boys Taco Shop

“From day one, our biggest priority has been helping the community. We work with the Elisha Project, giving away our extras to them at the end of every day. We never throw stuff away,” Wietecha said. Currently, they are offering Girl Scout Cookie Inspired Coffees, and will donate money from those drinks back to the Girl Scouts.

“At the end of the day it just goes to show that this is a strong community. Through all the things this country has had this year, people can still come together like this, when we need it most.”

@providencebagel; providencebagel.com




It Came from the Pond: Invasive plants, drugs and poop — protecting the water is no easy task

Invasion of the Sacred Lotus

When a Cranston resident planted a sacred lotus in the pond at Meshanticut State Park in memory of a family member in 2014, she didn’t realize the plant was an aggressive invasive species. The lotus, which features enormous floating leaves that shade out native plants, quickly took over a large area of the Rhode Island pond.

Five years later, 75 volunteers spent 12 hours cutting it back, but they eradicated just 10% of the ever-expanding plant, which today covers 1.83 acres of the 12-acre pond.

More than 100 lakes and 27 river segments in Rhode Island are plagued with at least one species of invasive plant. These plants pose threats to healthy ecosystems, reduce recreational opportunities and negatively impact the economy.

In response, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has renewed its effort to combat aquatic invasive species by proposing regulations to ban their sale, purchase, importation and distribution in the state. Rhode Island is the only state in the Northeast that has yet to regulate the sale of these plants.

Making the Great Salt Pond Great Again

Block Island’s only estuary, the Great Salt Pond, is among the most popular harbors on the East Coast. But as recently as three-plus decades ago, the 673-acre tidal pond was more open toilet than prized natural resource.

Sven Risom, 62, recalled swimming in the pond as a kid and his hand brushing against something he knew wasn’t a Baby Ruth.

Up until the late 1980s, boaters routinely pumped out their wastewater directly into the pond. Besides making swimming a health risk, life in and around the popular pond suffered.

The Committee for the Great Salt Pond, founded in 1986, has been instrumental in improving the water quality of the pond. The group began by offering a pump-out service to boaters. The town continues this free program today with five pumpout boats. The sewage is offloaded to the municipal sewer system.

Keeping the pond protected means balancing its multiple uses, not an easy task, as the pond is a magnet for tourists, boaters, anglers, paddlers, business opportunities and development pressures.

Proposed Medical Waste-to-Energy Facility’s (Chemo) Drug Problem

Jim Mullowney, a University of Massachusetts-educated environmental chemist with three decades of experience, has spent the past 13 years addressing the dangers posed by trace amounts of chemotherapy drugs. His concern at the moment is focused on stopping a waste-to-energy facility proposed for Rhode Island that would process medical waste.

The Newport resident said the facility, planned for an office park on the border of West Warwick and East Greenwich, won’t be able to safely treat chemotherapy drugs present in the medical waste it plans to distill.

While the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act prohibits chemotherapy drugs from being disposed of in high-heat facilities like the one proposed for West Warwick, Mullowney noted that trace chemo, containing less than 3%, isn’t addressed in the federal law.

He noted that because of increased regulations protecting people from the dangers of these drugs, the fastest-growing segment of the medical waste disposal industry is “trace chemotherapy waste.” He believes it will be a major feedstock for this proposed facility.

MedRecycler-RI intends to dispose of up to 70 tons of medical waste daily through an energy-intensive heating process known as pyrolysis. Mullowney, who founded a company to address the issue of secondhand chemo, said he looked into pyrolysis 10 years ago as a possible disposal option for waste, medical and human, that contains chemotherapy drugs.

He said the pyrolysis process doesn’t eliminate any of the hazards associated with chemotherapy drugs, which can cause birth defects, miscarriages, and, ironically, cancer.

For detail on these stories, and to get more of the latest environmental news, visit ecoRI.org. Subscribe to ecoRI News’ free weekly e-newsletter at ecoRI.org/subscribe.




Open and Closed

Open

White Electric: 711 Westminster St, PVD. Just in time for May Day, this Providence favorite has been taken over by the workers and reopened its doors. You love to see it. See story page XX.

Kow Kow: 120 Ives St, PVD. kowkowfood.com. Originally a food truck owned and operated by a former medical student, this bubble waffle and ice cream parlor opened in Fox Point last month. 

Needle and Thread: 45 Peck St, PVD. needlenthreadpvd.com. Occupying what used to be a former tailor shop and haberdashery (and not too far from where the Red Fez used to be) this modern speakeasy provides small/large plates and intimate conversation.

Helado Taiyaki: 102 Dean St, PVD. Another desert place just in time for the sultry New England summer months, it adds a Latin twist to a Japanese desert: soft serve ice cream flavors in fish shaped cones full of custard. 

PiANTA: 65 Bath St, PVD. piantaveganrestaurant.com. The latest in the burgeoning local galaxy of vegan restaurants, this plant food eatery is dedicated to recreating familiar flavors with exquisite twists sourced from local suppliers. It’s actually part of a new “cloud kitchen,” which means only takeout and delivery is available.

Yeye: 64 Barh St, PVD. eatyeye.com. Latin fusion and vegan friendly takeout. Like PiANTA above, it’s a cloud kitchen open for delivery or takeout only. 

Feed the Cheeks: 182 Wayland Ave, PVD. feedthecheeks.com. This dessert bakery specializes in thick chocolate chip cookies, in flavors both traditional and innovative.




Lunar Notes

May is a month of happenings! Jupiter pops into Pisces signaling a major shift. It will retrograde back into Aquarius in July. This time frame will give you a clue about what to expect when Jupiter enters Pisces for good at year end. A Lunar Eclipse on the 26th and Mercury going retrograde on the 29th end the month with a lot of focused energy.  

Aries: A bit of introspection on your part reveals to you the value of listening to the opinions of others. Jupiter puts you in touch with your spiritual side. Your usual action-oriented self slows down a bit as you learn to smell the roses along the way. You use your energy on self-improvement and understanding. Don’t forget to listen!

Taurus: You recognize your own importance while maintaining an awareness of the value of those around you. Jupiter’s shift brings new acquaintances and ideas for the future into your world. You seek those with shared values. Those new folks in your life open your eyes to the wide world around you. Explore!

Gemini: Some quiet time and inner exploration realigns your thinking.  Jupiter prods and pushes you into the public eye, but you’re not quite ready for that yet. The Eclipse across the Gemini/Sagittarius axis emphasizes relationships and shines the light on what needs to be done to maintain those relationships. To keep or dump?

Cancer: Mars in your sign revs you up for action. Jupiter brings spiritual awakening and a desire to add to your knowledge. This could signal a back-to-school regimen or simply a dive into some weighty tomes. The Eclipse points to ways you can keep yourself healthy. That Mars is going to get you off the couch and into the gym. 

Leo: May’s energies bring forth the “you love me and I will love you” dichotomy. What we give and what we receive in relationships. Jupiter mixes sex and spirituality, while the Eclipse calls for you to express yourself through those things you truly enjoy. After all is said and done, you may find yourself heading in a new direction.  

Virgo: Jupiter’s move into your relationship sector brings improvement and expansion in that area. Personal relationships assist you in widening your perspective. The Eclipse at month end heightens your sense of personal power while rocking your feelings and needs related to basic security.  

Libra: Jupiter in Pisces reminds you that your physical health is closely tied to your mental and spiritual wellbeing. On a more practical level, this placement brings the wide world into your daily routine. The Eclipse focuses energies on siblings, neighbors and information that has the potential to transform your daily life. 

Scorpio: Wisdom and spiritual awakening flow into your being as benevolent Jupiter sends that energy from one water sign to another. Your sense of “knowing” is enhanced. Listen to your intuition for often it “tells you true.” Eclipse energy highlights your personal set of values. You recognize your worthiness.  

Sagittarius: The Lunar Eclipse in Sagittarius is up close and personal for you. Your own identity and recognition of that identity becomes very important. You’re motivated and initiate some personal changes. Jupiter at your foundation supports your self-esteem and aids in maintaining a firm base as you make changes. 

Capricorn: Jupiter says think outside the box and beyond the immediate.  Your mind expands and begins to take in far-reaching possibilities. You get creative. The Eclipse opens you to your inner world. You use all of your new-found ideas and feelings to move you along your way. A new path opens up.  

Aquarius: Jupiter puts cash in your pocket. The trick is making sure it stays there. There is a strong temptation to spend freely without a care for tomorrow. The Eclipse pinpoints your friendships. There is a lot of energy around acquaintances and your entire network. It may be time to prune some dead wood to make way for the new.

Pisces: Your ruler, Jupiter, is at home in Pisces and brings the promise of good luck and opportunity coming your way. You are in the right place at the right time. Be on the lookout for those moments. The Eclipse points to a career or change in life’s direction. Could be a juggling act between your public and private life. 




Do You Take Democracy with Your Coffee? White Electric takes on a radical new experiment

A Providence favorite reopened its doors on May 1 under new ownership. White Electric has been a Westminster Street mainstay for years. Like many other local businesses, in the last year it’s been the victim of intermittent hours, COVID regulations and state-mandated lockdowns and pauses. Now it’s back for good, and the workers have transformed it into the state’s first workers’ cooperative coffee shop and a radical experiment in workplace democracy.

“It’s about having a meaningful impact in your workplace, having an actual voice and an actual say in how your workplace should be run,” said Danny Cordova, a member of CUPS Cooperative Inc, the workers cooperative that now owns the shop. The cooperative was born out of the original service workers union White Electric workers created last year. White Electric is now the first workers cooperative coffee shop in the city and the state. “We live in a democracy. We vote for our representatives, we vote for senators, we vote for a president and why can’t we do the same thing [at work]? We can’t vote for CEOs, we can’t vote for managers, and you can get fired for any reason,” continued Cordova.

Under the new cooperative structure, there’s no single owner of the business. Each worker is also an owner with equal say in how it is run. There are no managers, and no one is above anyone else in the workplace. Day-to-day operations behind the counter were largely self-directed before it became a cooperative, as all the worker-owners draw from a rich past experience in food service. Much of the division of labor for them now comes from tasks that management or owners typically would do.

“Working in a cafe is not inherently a menial job, there’s no reason for it not to be a respectful  job,” said Amanda Soule, another worker-owner of the cooperative. “People don’t respect coffee shop workers generally, and I think that that is often inherent in the structure of the cafe itself.” 

White Electric’s workers didn’t originally intend to form a cooperative. Last year the shop closed due to COVID restrictions, and reopened in June. In the interim, George Floyd was murdered and protests for racial justice were kicking off everywhere. Inspired by the movement, White Electric’s workers started reaching out to managers about workplace issues. Then-employees also wrote an internal letter asking for diverse hiring practices, anti-racism, sick pay and wheelchair access to the shop, among other requests. 

Management soon after laid off a lot of the workers. In response, workers started to organize and form a union. “[We wanted] to make sure people’s jobs would be protected beyond any of us as individuals and to make sure the things we had been asking for would actually be implemented,” said Chloe Chassaing, a worker-owner.

Workers received a lot of community support at this time as they formed the union, and much of the customer base of White Electric are fellow service workers. White Electric’s then-owners voluntarily recognized the union. In August, the union performed a card check so that it would be officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That same night, the owners sent out an email listing White Electric for sale.

But the owners were willing to sell to a worker’s cooperative, which was one of the suggestions workers made in they letter they wrote earlier in the year. Efforts to form a union changed gears entirely to start a cooperative. CUPS started raising money that autumn. A GoFundMe with the explicit mission of turning White Electric into a workers’ cooperative raised $25,000, and other funding came from bank loans. For months, it was not clear the shop would become a cooperative, with CUPS only reaching a sale agreement this past January. Closing date was mid-April, and the cooperative has been rushing to get the necessary permits to reopen.

The cooperative started with eight worker-owners. When White Electric announced they were hiring, they got more than 60 applicants in the first three days, seemingly defying the current popular media narrative of people preferring to stay on unemployment. The worker owners have pledged to pay above minimum wage, but see workplace democracy and culture as integral to its attractiveness for prospective employees.

“It’s not that people don’t want to go back to a food service job, it’s that people don’t want to go back to being disrespected by their employers and their customers every day,” said Soule. “There’s a bunch of people we interviewed on unemployment because they know this is a different kind of work environment.”

Any new employees will be tried out for six months before receiving the full share of ownership in the cooperative. The system for pay increases in the past left a lot of inequities, and the cooperative intends to make the process transparent and fair. In addition to base pay and tips, each worker-owner of the cooperative is entitled to a share of the money left over every year. But as with any new business, it might take a year or two before that happens. Worker-owners can also expect a set schedule, as opposed to some of the flexible schedules found in most mainstream coffee shops.

“We just work as a team, and that’s been a very winning strategy for a very long time,” said Cordova.