Photo by Eric Gould


Fred Hapgood

Several evenings over this last summer a small boat with a large Chinese gong balanced in its middle has glided along the rivers etched into downtown Providence. It carries a crew of two, both dressed entirely in black. One hammers slowly on the gong. The sound is somber, even mournful, as if summoning the community to some grave duty or marking the memory of a historic disaster. Minutes later larger boats, also crewed by persons in black, coast by. Torches wave through the air and discs of fire, each about a yard across, blossom out over the water like the footsteps of some mythical firebeast. The flames, reaching up from braziers filled with wood and anchored on the river surface, breathe streamers of sparks up out of the river valleys towards the streets. Music just past the edge of memory (African drumming, arias from half- forgotten operas, Indian ragas) breathes out of the night and mixes with the sputter of burning firewood.

Unprepared visitors might be pardoned for not immediately figuring out what they are seeing, which is a cutting-edge venture in the difficult art of landscape restoration. Restoration is part of conservation, but philosophically tougher and more interesting, in that it forces you to make choices, to show through design what feels more "natural" right here, in this time and place. Conservation evades these hard questions by relying on what is. Restoration requires you to dig into yourself, to follow your premises where they take you, even if you end up, as Providence did, with fireblossoms floating on night waters.

The Capital of Rhode Island lies on and around the point where the Woonasquatucket ("The River Where the Tide Ends") and the Moshassuck ("Where the Moose Waters") join to form the Providence River. For most of the city's long history all three were used freely as sewers for both industrial and residential waste. By the middle of the 20th century they had become so noxious that Providence just decked them over with highways and parking lots, a design choice sometimes referred to as having constructed "the world's widest bridge".

In 1982 local architect William Warner secured funding to take a serious look at the "fantasy" (his term) of restoring and uncovering all three rivers. For Warner, daylighting was part of a larger effort to address the vacuity of downtown Providence, which "renewal" had turned into a typical dead-after-dark business district wasteland. He saw the uncovered rivers as the center of a restoration that would organize Providence's stock of historic buildings into a walkable, attractive, revitalized urban landscape.

Though the term had not yet been invented, today Warner's vision would be seen recognized as an example of "daylighting", the practice of uncovering or disinterring water flowing under built, usually urban or semi-urban, surfaces. It is not a simple art. A recent account of the phenomenon by Richard Pinkham of the Rocky Mountain Institute testifies that a typical daylighting involves a rat's nest of half- mapped utility installations, watershed and ground water table issues, environmental assessments, channel redesign, polluted sediments, safety anxieties, fights over competing land uses, and access problems. Average costs can crowd $1000 a foot. Despite these burdens daylighting is a trend, both here and in Europe: according to Pinkham at least fifty US municipalities have projects finished or underway.

Costs were even higher in Providence. The automobile traffic that had been moving over the decks had to be rerouted, and rerouted into a working city. Twelve bridges needed to be designed and constructed. Disappointed developers with other plans had to be beaten off. There was a post office just downstream of the junction that could not be moved, which meant that the rivers had to be. "We basically just picked up the confluence and moved it 150 yards east," Warner says. The entire project took ten years, cost $66 million, and was dedicated in 1996.

One point that jumps out of Pinkham's report is the range of goals daylighting is used to address. Arcata, California daylighted a local creek to build an ecology education laboratory for a high school, later converting it into the backbone of a pedestrian walkway; Barrington, Illinois, to create a wetlands for waste water treatment; Kalamazoo, for flood control. Other cities have daylighted to nuture local fish populations, attract people to parks or playing fields, and raise property values, among other ends. Providence, as we have seen, daylighted to integrate the modern city with its history and restore the neighborliness of its downtown. The common thread is an effort to find a way to reverse "progress," to return us to an earlier, richer, relation with some aspect of nature, and, in Pinckham's words, to give people a sense of "setting right something we messed up".

In June 1996 a local two large arts festivals, the International Sculpture Conference and the Convergence International Arts Festival held a joint meeting/expo in Providence. One of the pieces, by a local installation artist named Barnaby Evans, featured a series of fires floating on the river waters. According to Evans, after the event he began getting phone calls from residents interested in seeing the piece staged again. He thinks part of the reaction was that his piece had left people with the sense that they were seeing the rivers for the first time. Pinkham says this is a common problem in daylighting. Often local residents will have become so inured to the covered area that they will barely notice when the cover comes off, a syndrome that may have been more acute in Providence because the water surface lies 10-12 feet below street level. Evans' piece lit up the rivers.

Evans organized a meeting, the meeting organized a non-profit, and the non-profit started to raise money. While the atmospherics may suggest that Waterfire is centuries old, the whole deal - - A hundred braziers, a half-mile of flames, hundreds of volunteers, a full-time staff of twelve, seven boats, tons of firewood (the fires are kept burning until after midnight), fifty loudspeakers, 30 tons of equipment, a dozen portable rest rooms -- developed over the next eight years. In 1992 the budget will run to between one and two million, not counting the efforts of an army of volunteers. Financing comes from everywhere: citizens, corporations, foundations, and city and state government. If a company wants an event timed for a Board Meeting, so they can show it off to their Directors, Evans will do his best to accommodate. In 2002 the schedule included fifteen Waterfires, from May 4 to November 7.

Perhaps the best way of approaching Waterfire is not to catch the gong boat but wait till the music starts, park a mile or so out in the surrounding hills and walk towards downtown. The long string of loudspeakers running along the rivers animates the city musically; the ragas and chants seem to come not from a single point but Providence in general, as if the city were all a single instrument. As you reach the plain the riverfires pop in and out of sight from behind the houses, as if they were warming you up for the main show. Then you hit the crowds.

"The intention was to make an experience that was simple and flexible enough so that everyone could find their own meaning," Evans says, and he certainly has succeeded in that. Depending on whom you ask, Waterfire is a platform for a spirited night on the town (typically other festivals and parties are held on Waterfire nights), "the epitome of romance" (Joan Quinn Earthman, Wellesley Hills, MA), "a ritual of the City's renewal" (David Kertzer, Professor of Anthropology, Brown University), and "an incantation (of) ... the spirit of elemental beauty" (Cheryl Foster, Professor of Philosophy, URI). I like the comment of Kat A., of Berea, NY: "a campfire for the city".

Visitors hold such a range of reactions in part because Waterfire changes over the evening. Especially later on, as the crowds drift away, the heat from the fires, the enveloping music, the sweet scent of the cedar smoke, the sheltering shadows, all transport the visitor into some place less civic and more private, more intimate, and much, much, older. Nearer midnight you will see people sprawled along the banks, staring into the flames, breathing shallowly, their faces immobile, barely thinking, almost in a trance. Not until the fires end do they rediscover themselves, get up, shake themselves out, and go home.