Even though there may be two, three or more street lamps for every building on a city street, street lamps are far less expensive than buildings. Lining a city block with elegant lampposts is a cheap, fast, easy road to beauty.
A decade or so ago, Barrington – long known locally as Borington for its bland presentation of civic self – lined County Road (Route 114) with elegant period lampposts. Along with red brick turn lanes, the posts turned Barrington overnight from an ugly duckling into a swan. Its transformation spurred its town planners to encourage owners of the tedious strip malls that line the road to refaçade those that were not already “colonial” in style to embrace that look. New buildings were given a traditional turn.
Who calls Barrington Borington anymore? Nobody! At least not for appearance’s sake. Liquor sales are illegal within the town, which has almost no restaurants. Maybe that, too, will change. [Indeed. A reader informs me that Barrington voters passed a referendum allowing liquor sales in 2010.]
But the point of this post is not Barrington but Providence’s Hope Street. I “live off Hope” (as they say around here) and got my Summit Neighborhood Association newsletter today. “New lights planned for Hope Street” caught my eye and sent a shiver up my spine.
The Hope Street Merchants Association plans to install “off-the-grid, solar-powered streetlights that will give a distinctive illumination and character to the shopping area.” The lights are being designed by students in Johnson & Wales Prof. Jonathan Harris’s information technologies class. I’m sure their work will be distinctive, but distinctiveness can cut both ways.
If the lampposts are designed in light of the experience of Barrington, not to mention of Benefit Street on College Hill, Westminster Street downtown and Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill, each of which have great period lampposts, Hope Street’s retail district will be improved. It gets scant help from its commercial architecture. Note the near absence of a sense of place on the Hope merchants’ website. If the street is lined with new lampposts designed to impart elegance and beauty, Hope Street merchants may reasonably hope to benefit, as Barrington’s aesthetic renewal was sparked by its new lampposts.
If they are designed to demonstrate the designers’ sense of novelty, or worse, kookiness, then Hope Street will prove itself to be hopeless, or at least clueless. The merchants association’s lighting project is getting assistance from the city – the so-called Creative Capital. That offers greater reason for anxiety among those merchants (and local residents) who hope the new lights will generate pride as well as solar lumens.
The city and state have already erected cobrahead lampposts along all the new streets of the Route 195 redevelopment district. Talk about throwing a wet blanket over the prospect of creating an attractive district. What a boneheaded move! This may not be the kiss of death to its prospects, but it certainly does suggest that a tin ear – or tin eye – is part of the development apparatus of the city and state.
Design of such street furniture as lampposts is a delicate process, easily botched. Let’s hope the designers of Hope Street’s new street lights will burnish rather than tarnish the neighborhood’s rep. Providence should have lined all the other streets downtown and on College Hill years ago, and for that matter every street that has any ambition to shine. Its failure to do so is a missed opportunity going back decades. Maybe Hope Street will turn things around.