PVDFest 2023: I almost had a good time

Big Nazo at PVDFest 2023. Image via Mayor Smiley’s Facebook.

When given the opportunity to cover this year’s PVDFest, I jumped on it – what better way to get involved in the action? But first, one major disclaimer: the last time I attended PVDFest was over seven years ago. I had very little frame of reference for this year’s event. Whether this was good or bad, only time would tell.

When I arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday with my friend, the booths looked sparse and half broken down – we weren’t sure whether they were still setting up or already getting ready to leave. Having skipped out on lunch in preparation, we started our lookout for the food truck village but after almost ten minutes, we weren’t really seeing much. We headed to a general information booth and asked if they had a map, to which they responded, “We don’t have maps, what are you looking for?” They then pointed us in the right direction, where there were over 15 food trucks – jackpot!

As we waited in line at the Cultro food truck to try their Latino-fusion burrito bowls, a staffer approached the crowd. “A shelter in place order is in effect. All food trucks will have to close down until the order has been lifted.” I was confused as to what us humans were supposed to do but I wasn’t about to be “that guy” that asks. We walked away and turned to the next best option: Hot Club. Shout out to their part fratty/part cozy tavern ambiance, nice bartender, and surprisingly good egg rolls.


When the rain finally stopped about an hour and a half later, we joined the crowds of people that had begun to crawl out from the nearby stores, bars, and awnings. Returning back to my original mission, I asked my friend how this year’s PVDFest compared to ones in previous years. Without hesitation, they replied, “Oh, this is much worse.” I decided to leave and try again the next day, my inner spark of adventure having been doused by the rain and changes in plans.

I came in on Sunday with high hopes: This would be a do-over, an opportunity to see what the new-and-improved PVDFest was really like. As we approached the first booth, an event staffer announced, “A shelter in place order is in effect. Please head to the shelter area in the South Water Street Parking Garage.”

Well… crap. While we waited for the storm to pass, I had an opportunity to speak to the vendors who were watching the rain wreak havoc on their merchandise from the parking garage windows. One group of vendors I spoke with was grateful that the city had taken the time to ensure that we were all safe, noting that dealing with weather is part of a vendor’s life.

One vendor had been looking forward to the new location and open container restrictions, which they had hoped would increase foot traffic and help prevent negative interactions with drunk festival-goers. Another recalled an instance at a previous market where a drunk customer broke several items from their booth.

One of the vendors I talked to spoke against the contention that the changes would hurt small businesses. “Small businesses aren’t just bars and storefronts – that also includes outside vendors like us, who make a living from selling what we make.” Despite the positive hopes for this year’s changes, though, the shelter in place orders provided little opportunity for them to measure the impact of the changes.

By this time, the rain was coming down even harder, the thunder getting louder and more frequent. So this time the shout out goes to Hemenway’s for their AC unit and the best Rhode Island chowder I’ve ever had. They were among what some would call the true heroes of all of this: the local businesses that continued to save the day. With the chances of the weather clearing up looking slim, I headed back home, soaked and defeated.

Looking for another perspective, maybe one that was a little more positive, I spoke with Gibran Borbon, a local artist and DJ as well as a stage manager with PVDFest. He stated that as a worker, he had a great time working the event among the high-end lighting and sound systems, as well as with other artists. “I really loved the dedication to local musicians and artists this year, including many black and brown folks. These are people already active in their communities, and I am glad that we were included as part of the larger conversation.”

He also identified many missed opportunities: a lack of professional photographers to document the performers, few family-friendly activities, not enough options for interactive entertainment outside of performances, and a lacking emphasis on local vendors. Lastly, he noted limited attempts from Mayor Smiley’s team at engaging local communities in regards to this year’s changes. “He has real people in the community that care; there’s real people that want to make this work. It’s up to the Mayor and the city to make that possible.”