WaterFire back in Providence

At WaterFire, view of crowd on pedestrian bridge, with skyline in background.

Providence has gone two years, since the fall of 2019, without WaterFire, the capital city’s signature work of art, a blessing to citizens of Rhode Island and visitors from much farther afield since 1994. It is the event’s usual crowds of people, maybe 40,000 or more, a dozen or so times a year, that doomed it to covid lockdown last year and into this spring and summer. But Saturday night WaterFire returned, full of vigor, and the livin’ was easy.

I would not have missed it for the world. For a long time during the event’s early years, I called myself the “Bard of WaterFire.” One of my old Journal columns was headlined “I cover the waterfront.” My wife googled me before our first date (in a gondola) back in ’04 and found “Sex and WaterFire.” The idea of WaterFire as a sort of mass orgy waiting to happen still pulls me downtown, though only four or five times a year nowadays, not as often as in times past.

For those unfamiliar with WaterFire, it features approximately 85 fires of about 33 pine logs piled pyramid style in metal braziers and anchored every 20 feet or so along the channels of the Providence and Woonasquatucket between downtown and College Hill. Black boats full of black-clad volunteers stoking the braziers chug quietly up and down the rivers. Symphonic, operatic, jazz and other music from distant cultures wafts gently from speakers strategically hidden along the embankments. Sometimes I chide WaterFire’s creator, Barnaby Evans, if the music creeps up too loud. He was there last night to put up with my tut-tutting, but to soften it I noted that a couple years’ worth of graffiti had been entirely scrubbed from the waterfront. Evans pointed out one tag that I had missed, under the lip of Memorial Boulevard’s embankment, testifying to the tagger’s daring in applying his pathetic signature (my words, not Barnaby’s).

The key to WaterFire’s success, aside from the energy and commitment of its maximum leader and his crew and volunteers, is the intimate quality of the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers. Few cities can boast such rivers, let alone flowing as they do between the city’s downtown and its most historic neighborhood. The continued dominance of classical architecture in the vicinity, while at risk thanks to the lack of imagination shown by decades of city fathers and the city’s art and design elites, is responsible for much of Waterfire’s success. Topping it off is the masterfully traditional design of the city’s new (1990-1996) waterfront by the late architect and planner Bill Warner.

It seems that city and state leaders had to have their arms twisted to dedicate a total of $600,000 to put on this year’s truncated WaterFire schedule. Three more full lightings and five partial ones are planned, including a partial lighting (in the Waterplace basin only) this coming Thursday evening.

Before adding photographs taken during last night’s event, I can think of no better way to conclude this rambling celebration of WaterFire Regained than the concluding paragraph of my long-ago “Sex and WaterFire” essay:

While most cities have a secluded place to go for necking, few cities celebrate romance in the heart of their downtown. In WaterFire, Providence has such a place. How much love has bloomed along these embankments? Strip WaterFire of its final profundity and the intensity remains. Providence is blessed, indeed caressed, by WaterFire.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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