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Whose creative economy is it?
The vitality of Providenceís artistic underground is weakened by the demise of Olneyvilleís fabled music scene
BY IAN DONNIS

THE BUILDING, a partially stucco-laden four-story structure with an improbable pink hue, seems unexceptional from the outside. Yet tucked amid old brick factory complexes in an industrial-age labyrinth of streets behind Olneyville Square, this was the place ó with lofts bearing such names as the Pink Rabbit, the Bakery, Box of Knives, and the Providence Civic Center ó that until recently served as the throbbing heart of Providenceís musical underground.

Serving as a successor to the late, lamented Fort Thunder, which was replaced several years ago by a new shopping development in Eagle Square, the old warehouse at 244 Oak St./71 Troy St. attracted its share of touring bands, and the almost 60 artists and musicians who called it home considered it a fertile artistic ecosystem. Although the residents, including people like Lighting Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale, and Jim Drain, a member of the critically regarded art collective Forcefield, kept a low official profile while operating in a forgotten part of town, their efforts nonetheless raised Providenceís reputation as a cool place. "Itís underground," notes Bert Crenca, AS220ís artistic director, "but a very large part of the positive perception that people have nationally of Providence as an arts-vital city."

Well, it was underground, anyway. The Shangri la that intensified at the Oak Street-Troy Street structure over the last six or so years ó one loft was even dubbed Valhalla ó abruptly came to a halt after inspectors visited the building on January 8, reportedly after a call that people were illegally living there. Arriving the next day, a larger group of officials was alarmed by what they found, telling the buildingís tenants that living there was extremely dangerous. Although lawyer Michael J. Lepizzera Jr., who represents about 32 of the tenants, says they had residential leases from property owner Walter Bronhard of Fall River, Massachusetts, their legal case for remaining was weak since the building was not zoned for residential use. After a tense two-week period ó which, tenants say, was marked by conflicting information and uncertainty about whether theyíd have days or months to move out ó the residents were forced to leave on January 24, during one of the coldest weeks of one of the coldest winters in recent memory.

For the time being, the displaced residents have scattered to different locations, Lepizzera say heís trying to recover security deposits from Bronhard (who didnít return phone messages left at his Fall River chiropractic office), and many are mourning the passing of the vibrant center of the Olneyville scene. And for a fair number of observers, the situation is emblematic of how Providence, which seemed to be much more affordable just a few years back, is becoming a less hospitable place marked by rising rents, scarcer mill space, more luxury housing, and the general specter of gentrification.

Chippendale is a case in point, in several ways. Although itís safe to surmise that relatively few WaterFire or Trinity Rep attendees are familiar with Lightning Bolt, the band, a critically regarded representative of the noise-art "Providence sound," gets respect from indie music icons like Sonic Youth and is about to embark on a tour of Japan. Yet although Chippendale still feels considerable loyalty after 12 years in his adopted home, the RISD dropout canít help feeling frustrated and angry after being displaced from Fort Thunder and now Olneyville Square. "When Iím in Tokyo, Iíll be sure to talk about what a wonderful freakiní town it is," he says. Becoming more philosophical, Chippendale adds, "Itís sort of like bitching about the tide coming in. The cityís on a roll in a certain direction." But when it comes to preserving a vibrant creative subculture and increasing high-end development, "The two things donít go hand in hand."

Art dealer Sara Agniel offers a similar view. Although Providence has long since gained national recognition as an "arts city," and city officials tout the "creative economy" concept, some of the best artists can afford only to live in unsafe, illegally zoned, off the radar spaces that become unaffordable to them once they are fixed up. If this is the underpinning of the Providence Renaissance, Agniel asserts, "Then what weíre selling is a concept that doesnít exist."

Then again, even Rhode Islandís capital isnít entirely a stranger to the so-called SoHo effect, in which artists move into a neighborhood and make it more desirable only to face subsequent displacement. Itís also impossible to know exactly how things might have been different had the disastrous fire at Station nightclub in West Warwick, which claimed the lives of 100 people, not occurred last February 20, leading to an overhaul of the state fire code and a zealous official focus on hazards and liability. Even though the musical and residential activity at the Troy Street-Oak Street building was something of an open secret even outside the underground arts community, it meant the end, because of the Station calamity, when the building came onto the radar of official scrutiny.

Citing the safety issue, Cliff Wood, director of Providenceís Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism, is reluctant to conflate the specifics of the Olneyville eviction with the wider challenges facing artists and musicians in the city. Because the Olneyville Square building was a dangerous and illegal place, "I think itís sort of unfair to make Providence bear the burden of that," Wood says. "The issue is how to have safe places. I think thatís a larger question than Olneyville and Providence. We need to collectively react."

Wood, who was contacted by supporters of the Troy Street-Oak Street tenants as the situation unfolded, expresses confidence that Providence can help to ensure the presence of artists, like those displaced from Olneyville, who are more interested in making art and music than money. The prospects remain vague at this point, although he mentions the possibility of the city leveraging economic development money and working with developers to acquire and rehabilitate buildings. "This is an opportunity for us in government," Wood says, describing the arts ó including the small independent music labels affiliated with the Olneyville scene ó as a valuable form of economic development.

This is an important observation, since the need for more affordable housing is an issue for a broad variety of Rhode Islanders, not just artists and musicians. Supporting the arts, however ó and not just the better known, more mainstream organizations ó represents a smart investment for the city. As Wood notes, itís a good thing that Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline created a specific department to promote the arts. For now, though, the degree to which the city will deliver remains an unanswered question.

Although Bronhard has been ordered not to use the building, Lepizzera estimates the landlord was earning between $20,000 and $30,000 in monthly rent from the tenants. And itís a unfortunate irony that that only ones who have really been adversely affected thus far by the mass evictions in Olneyville are the artists and musicians who helped to make it a better place.

IF WEíRE LUCKY, this occasion will serve as a wake-up call. Then again, just as affordable housing generally gets short shrift because of the profit imperatives of the marketplace, the outlook for preserving the presence of low-rent artists seems less than certain.

When the developer of Eagle Square proposed leveling an array of historic 19th-century mills, it triggered a storm of protest from a coalition that aptly described the old buildings as more desirable than whatever would replace them. The coalition helped to preserve some of the mill buildings, and the situation sparked heightened appreciation for these kind of endangered structures. But although some important incentives have been created to help foster the reuse of mills, their cost puts them beyond the reach of less affluent individuals.

Some observers, like Berge Zobian, a photographer who runs Gallery Z on the edge of Eagle Square, thinks the Olneyville artists need to get more organized when it comes to solidifying their future by buying property. Zobian, who was among the 80 or so artists displaced from the Foundry complex in the late í80s, was able to use the equity he had accrued from fixing up a triple-decker to buy his gallery space, and he acknowledges having a bit of an edge. Still, he says, "There are always ways."

Indeed, some individuals and groups have succeeded in establishing ongoing arts spaces, like the Dirt Palace and Hive Archive in Olneyville, and Monohasset Mill, near Eagle Square. But although the quartet responsible for Monohasset Mill did a good thing by helping to save a historic mill, funding the project with a mix of market-rate and affordable lofts, not every artist is going to be able to buy ó or even afford ó what might be considered an affordable loft.

Others, like art dealer Agniel, say the collective lifestyle favored by some artists doesnít fit easily into the concept of buying property. Regardless, she says, the suitable properties have been snapped up in recent years by investors with more money and real estate savvy.

The problem is considered serious enough that Bob Jaffe of Rhode Island Citizens for the Arts says the organization has convened a special committee to look into the issues surrounding artist housing and live/work spaces in Providence and other cities in the state. "If Rhode Island is to continue to successfully attract artists to live and work in the state, we need to find housing models that are not only viable, but sustainable," Jaffe writes in an e-mail. "The entire thrust of our effort is to have discussion not only toward the development of tangible information (where is there successful artist housing in RI?), but also toward actionable ideas."

Similarly, Mark Van Noppen, a principal in the Armory Revival Company, sees joint efforts as vital to the development of cheap, sustainable artistsí space.

He calls the disappearance of the artist habitat "a great tragedy for Providence that, unlike homelessness or prejudice, is unique to this moment in our cityís history. As harsh as it sounds, I am not so worried about the artists themselves because, just as they went to Olneyville from the Foundry and Eagle Square, they will go to Central Falls and Pawtucket, where there are still hundreds of thousands of square feet of cheap mill space that no one is paying close attention to. The loss is Providenceís."

Some have criticized Armory Revival, which is working with Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse to develop 151 loft-style apartments, with most rents in the $700-$1100 range, at the former Providence and National Worsted Mills on Valley Street, for helping to gentrify Olneyville. The Armory Revival partners, whose project enjoys the enthusiastic support of Cicilline, have responded by describing the project as a much-needed source of investment in a poor part of the city.

Itís worth noting that Armory Revival is pursuing a preliminary plan to develop about 20 artist live-work spaces in a vacant 102,000-square-foot mill, nearby at Valley and Delaine, that was once part of Antonelli Plating. The project involves finishing the spaces to a minimum and using designs that are more collaborative in nature ó with up to four roommates in some ó to promote affordability and "to preserve some of the dynamism of the Olneyville scene," Van Noppen says.

"Obviously, we canít endorse the really unsafe situation that many of these mill spaces represent," Van Noppen writes in an e-mail, referring to the site of the Olneyville evictions. "But the community as a whole ó and that means private developers, foundations, and the city, and the state, need to step up and make a significant contribution before Providence loses the Mother of all incubators."

The strength of Providenceís continued appeal as a real city of the arts could well depend on whether such collaborative efforts take root.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis[a]phx.com


Issue Date: February 13 - 19, 2004
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