Providence's ethereal allure

SUN JOURNAL

WaterFire: An unusual art experiment mixing flames, water and music has become a phenomenal tourist attraction for the small city.

August 04, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

There are certain nights in Providence, R.I., when flames, smoke and yelps are not a signal to immediately call the fire department.

These are warm evenings when tens of thousands of people gather along the river arcing around downtown, the one with the dozens of fires burning sweetly to the hum of mysterious choruses.

It is called WaterFire, and it is this small city's signature event, a celebration of its revival and a major cause of the rebirth.

That is because 750,000 visitors flock to the lightings each year, about three-quarters of whom are tourists who plan their vacations around a weirdly spiritual visit with an unusual piece of art.

If you picture a narrow, curving strip of river shimmering with 100 fires, then you can begin to imagine the experience. The warm nighttime air smacks of burning pine and cedar. Obscure opera singers, Cuban bands and rising choruses sound from hidden speakers.

On the river, black-clad volunteers ply the glistening waters in dark-hulled boats, their silent task to restock the metal baskets that hold the fires with the fragrant logs. A gondola ferrying love-struck couples slowly glides by. The clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages echoes in the distance.

"I mean, the music, the dark, the smell - the whole thing is amazing to me," says Allan Redfern, a Rhode Island tree and shrub grower who found his first visit 4 1/2 years ago so enchanting that he volunteered to help stoke the flames and hasn't missed any of the "100 and some odd fires" since.

"I fell off a ladder recently, but I still made it," Redfern, 53, says. "I was in a little pain." But he donned the all-black outfit and piloted the dark boat whose crew fanned the fires. "It's the kind of thing where you wake up the next morning and you're, like, `Was that real?'"

Academics have been stirred into dissecting WaterFire's many symbols. Christian fundamentalists have attacked the event as a dastardly case of devil worship. Visitors from Jerusalem expressed thanks for the peacefulness. And after Sept. 11, many New Yorkers flocked north to take solitary stock of their earth-shaking experiences.

"Cities have to have signatures, like gondolas, horses, WaterFire, whatever," says Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., who can be seen WaterFire nights at an outdoor table along the river, dining at one of Providence's swankiest restaurants. "We're in the marketplace now. We have to market ourselves."

And there is no question that WaterFire - trademarked and copyrighted - is one of southeastern New England's hottest selling points.

In 2001, visitors from 38 countries and 43 states visited, organizers say. The observers are estimated to spend $25 million during a season. Vacationers plan their trips to the area around seeing it.

"It's huge, one of our biggest attractions," says Lauren Kedski Nicholson, spokeswoman for the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, which uses WaterFire's 20 lightings as a centerpiece of its marketing efforts and regularly fields calls asking for the coming dates - the next ones are Aug. 10 and Aug. 24. "It's kind of a symbol of the city's renaissance."

Its harbor once an international trading outpost, Rhode Island's capital fell into hard times after its second coming as a textile, machine-tool and jewelry center disintegrated with mills and factories shuttering for cheaper sites. All that was left was a reputation for Mafiosi and corrupt politics. The downtown was a wasteland of empty storefronts.

In the 1990s, when Providence's asphalt-covered rivers were exposed and rerouted, and its venerable architecture rehabilitated, the city of 170,000 began a comeback. With a new mall, ice skating rink and riverside esplanade, Providence became regularly featured as one of the country's most livable places.

A local artist wanted to celebrate.

Barnaby Evans, a Brown University graduate who stayed in Providence, had been experimenting with turning sand, ice, even plastic milk crates into works of art and then displaying them outside the traditional museum space to appeal to those who might not visit a gallery.

His last work before WaterFire was the spectacle of stainless-steel tanker trucks transporting water between two Boston rivers.

For his adopted hometown, Evans wanted to capture the feeling of comeback - of death and rebirth, loss and progress, despair and hope. He chose traditional symbols - water and fire - and to heighten the effect looked to "get them as close as I could get."

Originally, it was not called WaterFire. The year was 1994, and the city wanted a way to commemorate the 10th anniversary of its alcohol-free, family-friendly New Year's Eve festival.

"They were going to be doing the usual big fireworks, and I said, `You know, I've been toying with this idea," Evans, now 49, recalls.

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