Trusting In Providence

The Rhode Island city offers not only history and culture, but magic in the form of WaterFire, which lends its canal-like rivers the essence of Venice

June 10, 2007|By Marshall S. Berdan | Marshall S. Berdan,Special to the Sun

UNDER NORMAL circumstances, it's not too difficult to differentiate Venice, Italy, from Providence, R.I. But on certain summer nights, the magic of Venice is clearly reflected in Providence's three canal-like rivers, especially when two authentic black-lacquered Venetian gondolas manned by equally authentic blue-and-white-stripe-shirted Venetian gondoliers pole their way past dozens of burning braziers, their flames dancing across the gently rippling waters and accompanied by recorded symphonic strains.

It is indeed a sight to be both seen and heard, and every year, visitors come to downtown Providence to take in the son et lumiere show known as WaterFire.

The brainchild of Rhode Island School of Design's Barnaby Evans, WaterFire began humbly enough in 1994 with just 11 metal-grated braziers, each rising a foot above the water in symbolic representation of the fragility of life. These days, 100 braziers illuminate nearly a mile of the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers, burning some 500 cords of salvaged wood, and igniting a very impressive $40 million in economic activity.

Not surprisingly, most Providence residents see WaterFire as even more symbolic of the city's late-20th-century Renaissance. Infamously dismissed by The Wall Street Journal in 1983 as "a smudge on the road from New York to Cape Cod," Rhode Island's capital has come a long way in the past two decades -- so far, in fact, as to have been proclaimed by Money Magazine in 2000 as the best city in which to live in the eastern United States, the corruption conviction of its flamboyant mayor, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, notwithstanding.

Thirty-five years ago, I myself had concluded that Providence would be a great place to spend the next four years of my late adolescent life. Unfortunately, the admissions committee at Brown University decided otherwise, and it wasn't until I moved to Connecticut in 2003 that I finally became a regular visitor to New England's second city. Now I can't recommend it enough -- even as an alternative to the behemoth of Boston -- and definitely as a practical counterweight to chi-chi Newport. Providence offers not just a bit, but a lot, of everything -- history, culture, ethnic diversity and now urban aesthetics -- and all in a relatively compressed, eminently walkable area.

The best place to begin -- and one of the few places where you are pretty much guaranteed of finding a parking place -- is where it all began, the Roger Williams National Memorial on the east bank of the Moshassuck River.

Here, in the spring of 1636, Williams, an ordained Anglican minister whose free-thinking ways about the limits of ecclesiastical authority had resulted in convictions of heresy and sedition in Puritan-ruled Salem and compelled a midwinter flight into "the howling wilderness," greeted the native Narragansett Indians in their own language with the salutation "What cheer, netop [friend]."

In short order, Williams would purchase from the Narragansetts the land for an English settlement that he would christen in honor of "God's merciful Providence unto me in my distress." Unlike other colonial communities, Providence would make no religious demands upon its citizens, regulating them "only in civil things," and thus formalizing for the first time the now bedrock American principle of separation of church and state.

Appropriately enough, the tranquil 4.5-acre wooded site is now the backdrop for the enormous white marble dome (the world's fourth-largest unsupported) of the Rhode Island State House, itself topped by the larger-than-life gilded bronze statute of the symbolic "Independent Man."

'Mile of History'

From the Roger Williams National Memorial it's all uphill -- literally, since it lies at the foot of Benefit Street, Providence's "Mile of History," which is billed by state tourism officials as "the most impressive concentration of original colonial homes in America."

Benefit Street is unquestionably the showcase of Providence's East Side (not to be confused with East Providence, a separate municipal entity across the Seekonk River). And its finest jewel is the First Baptist Church in America, a magnificent white wood house of worship adorned by an even more magnificent 185-foot steeple. Founded in 1638 by Williams during his brief stint as a Baptist, the current structure dates from 1774-1775 and was built largely by master craftsman from Boston forced to find work elsewhere after the British closed their port in response to the tea party.

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