For three years running we had just missed the dragon-boat races at the annual Pawtucket Arts Festival. This year we made it, and boy did we have fun! We saw contestants slam their cheeks pink in a watermelon-face-splat contest. We saw both dainty and sexy Chinese and Taiwanese dancers glide and strut their stuff. We saw the 16th annual Dragon Boat Race, and watched the winning crew walk away with $10,000 top prize. (Witness these events yourself, dear reader, in videos I shot and have posted below!)
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebian was a rower for the Pawtucket Couch Dragons, which like all 20 entrants had a crew of 23, but his boat finished last. It ran the 1,000-foot course on the Seekonk/Pawtucket/Blackstone River in the longest time: 1 minute 40 seconds. “You have to be first in something,” said Bob Billington, director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, who emceed the awards ceremony.
Perhaps the Couch Dragons represent the spirit of Pawtucket. It is a fine city that tries harder but often flames out and plays second fiddle in many things to its neighbor Providence (the state capital), including the preservation of its historic character, and the slack effort to build upon it in recent decades. It has many great buildings but few great places, the area around Slater Mill, instigator of America’s Industrial Revolution, being an exception. Too few are beautiful. Too much modern architecture. Too much urban renewal. Poor city planning has damped the allure of “the Bucket,” but it is recovering as an artists’ mecca – witness the annual arts festival – and has many excellent live/work loft complexes in the city’s many brick mills, abandoned by industry long ago.
My analysis of Pawtucket’s merits and demerits will be challenged by some who do not see its various shifts in architecture as playing much of a role. Surely tax rates, educational quality, poverty rates, crime rates and business friendliness and other factors play a more significant role. I am not so sure. Providence is just as bad as Pawtucket in those realms but has managed to do so much better in attempting civic revitalization. Maybe that’s partly because it is, after all, the state capital. But maybe not. The availability of beautiful places is a key ingredient in economic development, but it is fashionable to look down one’s nose at beauty – at least among those in charge of programs to improve it locally. And we see the result of that strategy all around us, especially in places like Pawtucket, whose vitality must constantly struggle against the powrful undertow of ugliness.
But leave all that aside for now and enjoy the dragon-boat races that celebrate Chinese and Taiwanese culture and their strong foothold in the Blackstone Valley. First some shots of Pawtucket, past and present, and then videos of the race and festival themselves:
Sure hope all those readers who did not make the race and festival enjoyed their video echoes, and that the lessons of Pawtucket will not go unheeded – least of all in Rhode Island.