My Jane’s Walk this Saturday

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On tour in 2016, near Washington Street Bridge. (photo: Caroline Nye? Victoria Rogers?)

My fourth Jane’s Walk tour of the waterfront along the Providence River takes place at 4 p.m. this Saturday, May 5. We will meet at the Crawford Street Bridge near Hemenways in the Rubik’s Cube and stroll north, heading west around the curve of the Woonasquatucket River to Waterplace Park.

Visit Doors Open RI to learn of other Jane’s Walks this Friday-Sunday.

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Jane Jacobs (David Levine/New Yorker)

Since our tour is about waterfronts, read what Jane Jacobs wrote of waterfronts in Fortune magazine in April 1958, three years before her pathbreaking The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961.

Waterfronts are a great asset, but few cities are doing anything with them. Of the dozens of our cities that have riverfronts downtown, only one, San Antonio, has made of this feature a unique amenity. Go to New Orleans and you can find that the only way to discover the Mississippi is through an uninviting, enclosed runway leading to a ferry. The view is worth the trip, yet there is not a restaurant on the river frontage, nor any rooftop restaurants from which to view the steamers, no place from which to see the bananas unloaded or watch the drilling rigs and dredges operating. New Orleans found a character in the charming past of the Vieux Carré, but the character of the past is not enough for any city, even New Orleans.

Today, many cities have built waterfronts, including New Orleans, and an overwhelming majority of them are junk. The Waterfront Center, a nonprofit advocate of development on civic embankments, has a pair of picture books and a set of booklets recognizing three decades of awards in the Waterfront Center’s annual competition. The center’s illustrations record the generally modernist and experimental design conceits embraced by almost all of the new waterfronts around the world since 1981, when TWC was founded. These waterfronts demonstrate how sadly unusual is the level of design beauty embodied by the Providence waterfront.

Our waterfront’s design uses traditional architecture as a tool to turn infrastructure into beauty. The design work (see below) was performed by the late William Warner and his firm. The new I-195 bridge taking the relocated highway over the Providence River should be named for Bill Warner, who understood that our bridges, parks and river walks should be as traditional in appearance as the city itself. Providence is lucky in its new waterfront because Providence is lucky in its architectural legacy – which was not destroyed by urban renewal as in so many other cities.

Consider Jacobs’ curious last sentence in the passage above, in which she declares that “the character of the past is not enough for any city.” That is no doubt true of cities that have destroyed their own historic characters, as almost happened here in 1959 and again in 1960. By then, the destruction wrought across civic America by urban renewal and modern architecture was well under way. Providence dodged that bullet.

So on Saturday at 4, come see why Providence and its residents are so lucky, and why its visitors so astonished, by the city’s waterfront. Gape in wonder at plans by city officials to try, yet again, to destroy Providence even after all we supposedly have learned over the past half century. What is most surprising? The city’s beauty, or the desire of the city fathers to kill the beauty?

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to My Jane’s Walk this Saturday

  1. Jonathan says:

    I always stare at that drawing of the confluence of the rivers (it is in your book too, if I am not mistaken). Had that site been developed as envisioned, it would easily be one of the most photographed spots in the city… with the river, monument and State House rising above.

    Anyway, beautiful pictures!

    Like

    • Thank you, Jonathan. In my lectures I pair that drawing with the view upriver from the Crawford Street Bridge, where if you stand on the right spot you can see a sliver of the dome and the Independent Man between the old Hospital Trust and the Darth Vader building (Citizens Plaza). So much for the sacredness of view corridors!

      Like

  2. Steve says:

    What is most surprising? The city’s beauty, it endures and always will.

    Great pictures…

    Like

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