Will The Real PVD Please Stand Up?: PVDFest changes prompt conversations about city identity

Past PVDfest photo by Erin X. Smithers

The people of the internet are generally displeased with Mayor Smiley’s PVDFest changes. Well, the people of the internet are generally displeased, period. But let’s take a look at some of the feedback happening right now.

“The irony of the guy named Smiley killing fun.” -Good-Expression-4433

“Can’t wait til Smiley moves New Year’s Eve to 10pm or some shit.” -Proof-Variation7005


“So the first thing u do is ruin PVD fest thanks mayor frownee.” -Anonymous

In case you hadn’t heard, local businesses recently got an information packet that detailed a new approach to PVDFest, most notably:

  1. No open containers
  2. A move to Innovation Park from Kennedy Plaza/Downcity
  3. No block parties 
  4. No PVDFest bars

These changes, in addition to the previously announced date change from June to September, are explained by the Smiley Administration as both maximizing economic impact and a refocus on art. However, despite comments to the contrary from Joe Wilson Jr., Director of Art Culture and Tourism, it does really seem as though Mayor Smiley is trying to be the fun police. 

“The festival itself is going to be much more centered on the art, the performances, and the productions this year, and less on a street fair vibe,” Smiley said, in an interview with WPRI12. 

But is that what Providence residents want? 

The removal of the open container rule and block parties seems to show that Providence’s mayor has a narrow perspective on what “enjoying art” means – and that is, silently strolling along the river’s edge like a colonial Puritan, nose skyward, to the ambient sounds of WaterFire, as opposed to doing so with a drink in hand. 

To be clear, WaterFire is a wonderful, family-friendly arts celebration that brings international acclaim and renown to Providence. However, turning PVDFest into WaterFire on steroids (as some are suggesting this amounts to) is like asking Monet to paint like Picasso: He might be able to pull it off, but not without blowing an incredible opportunity to paint in his own style, for his own audience. 

This begs the question: Who is PVDFest for? Is it for older adults and families who want a tame celebration of local art, or is it the Providence party of the year, where attendees can feel free to dance, imbibe, and cut loose? Is it for residents to feel some city pride, or is it an opportunity for businesses to make some extra money on the slow weekend after Labor Day by bringing folks to town? 

This line of thinking took me even a step further: Who is Providence for? Should our signature arts festival, and even programming more generally, center residents, or out-of-state students, tourists, and plethora of corporate hotels? 

Some Redditors had more poignant messages to share than the ones that opened this piece. Here’s Dry_Faithlessness135: 

“PVDfest was made for the people of Providence, not for tourism. And not to say that it doesn’t bring tourists in … but that is what WaterFire exists for. The feeling I get is that [Smiley] wants Providence to be some sort of east side fever dream. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t issues and there is nothing wrong with wanting better for Providence … but his better is the version that pushes the people who make this city out of the city.

“He should just be a mayor somewhere in CT.”

Since industrialization and urbanization, Providence — and cities by and large — have been used by the rich and powerful to channel the resources of the masses toward unilateral, undemocratic ends (Think the lawmakers of Albany tasked with parceling the resources of New York City, and the same of Sacramento for Los Angeles and San Francisco). Despite a tax base that can support the likes of PVDFest, over a quarter of Providence’s population lives in poverty; if city dollars are to be spent for a signature cultural celebration, it should unquestionably emphasize residents over delicate suburbanite sensibilities and corporate tourism interests. 

This argument also gets close to the biggest problem of this entire debacle: That Mayor Smiley seems to have made these changes for “his better:” unilaterally from his East Side mansion without first consulting the community about what we wanted to see in our city’s cultural magnum opus, whether we wanted less or more of PVDFest’s signature revelrous style or a more sober approach. More plainly, he didn’t ask if we wanted to drink downtown or not. 

For the record, the answer is that we want to walk down the middle of Westminster with our significant other’s hand in our right hand and a Narragansett Fresh Catch in our left. At least I do. 


We asked around in our office, and here’s what Motif’s party experts think of the PVDFest changes. We also, by consensus, feel happy and grateful that the show is still going to happen!

June to SeptemberGets out of the way of Pride, better positioned for the collegiate populationOne original goal was to offset the mostly-dead-downtown of the summer. Sept isn’t as reliably warm. Tourists are no longer looking for summer activitiesTeam Motif thinks this one’s worth a try – no one will know for sure until after the experiment, But early Sept is a time rife with local celebratory energy.
No open containersPresumably safety, with less opportunity for public drunkenessThe drinking in the street has a popular mildly rule-breaking appeal. Policing/enforcing this will be a hoot.The ability to drink in the street for one or two nights only is part of the defining fun. Getting rid of it won’t reduce drunkenness, just increase covert flasks and chugging.
Move to Innovation Park from Kennedy Plaza/DowncityWe have a beautiful new space here that is still trying to find its identity. It’s very walkable.People really respond to the sometimes counter-intuitive transformation of the downtown into an urban fairground. Putting it in Innovation park makes this feel much more like an expanded Waterfire.We’re on the fence; walking around a city when you’re not normally allowed to is fun. But ultimately, Innovation Park is a great space – this experiment seems worth a try.
No block partiesCutting down on competing events will focus more attendance on the main event, and cut down on driving.It was supposed to be a city-wide participatory event for as many PVD organizations as possible. This gives it an entirely different, more centralized nature. Generally, party people like to explore and splinter off to do their own thing – they don’t so much like being told what to do.Maybe there are other good reasons we didn’t think of, but this seems unnecessarily stifling.
No PVDFest barsIt makes logistics a bit easier for the city, which managed the permissions for these bars to be set up.Well, it’s slightly harder to get a drink.If privately owned bars and vendors like Trinity and the Guild are encouraged / allowed to serve, that should make up for no city-organized pop-ups. Of course, that goes back to the no-open-containers part – these two are really tied together.