Providential Happening

A fiery installation draws crowds in Providence, Rhode Island, illuminating a “daylighting” trend

At dusk, a small black boat passes down a river etched into the city. A crew member, dressed in black, beats slowly on a gong, as if summoning citizens to a sacred duty. Now other black boats appear, whose black-clad crews carry torches. Disks of fire, each about a yard across, blossom on the river’s surface like the footsteps of some mythical firebeast. The flames, reaching up from braziers that appear to float on the water, breathe streamers of sparks into the air. Music just past the edge of memory (African drumming, arias from half-forgotten operas, Indian ragas) mixes with the sputter and pop of burning firewood.

Tens of thousands of people line the riverbanks of downtown Providence to witness the curious civic ritual known as WaterFire, an event that occurs almost every other Saturday from April to November and combines avant-garde performance art with a block party. People dance in the street to swing, salsa or tango on some nights, but mostly they watch the mock-mysterious spectacle of bonfires burning in a hundred braziers, most of which rest on submerged floats that are anchored to the river bottom. Seven slow-moving boats make at least ten refueling runs from sundown to 1 a.m.

Depending on one’s point of view, the event evokes "the spirit of elemental beauty" or is "a campfire for the whole city." What’s more, it has played an important role in the revival of downtown, which used to empty out in the evening. Now, on WaterFire nights large crowds fill the city’s center. It used to be hard to find anyone enjoying himself on the banks of the ProvidenceRiver, night or day. Actually, it used to be hard to find the ProvidenceRiver, which had long since been largely covered over.

WaterFire started as a "fire sculpture installation" by local artist Barnaby Evans, which he first presented in 1994, in the midst of the city’s ten-year, $60 million effort to remove the bridges and roadways that had obscured the Providence River and the tributaries that feed it, the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers. WaterFire is thus the most flamboyant evidence of what urban planners call "daylighting," the growing practice of restoring long-obscured waterways.

Dozens of U.S. municipalities have completed or are undergoing daylighting projects. Arcata, California, daylighted a creek that became a high school ecology laboratory and the backbone of a pedestrian walkway. Barrington, Illinois, uncovered a creek to create a wetlands for storm water treatment. Kalamazoo, Michigan, uncovered a creek for flood control. Other cities have daylighted waterways to nurture local fish populations, attract people to parks or playing fields, and raise property values.

The common thread of the projects, says Richard Pinkham, a water management specialist who has studied daylighting, is the desire of city officials and residents to return to an earlier, richer relationship with nature, "setting right something we messed up."

A recent study that Pinkham conducted for the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, found that a project typically costs a municipality $1,000 for each linear foot of waterway restored. Planners face numerous obstacles, such as rerouting utility lines and roads, disposing of contaminated soil—and even, as in Providence’s case, redirecting the rivers themselves.

Daylighting Providence’s rivers has been such a success that practically everyone in the city is eager to take credit for it (including former mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, who was convicted in June for corruption and is now pursuing an appeal). But the prime mover is generally recognized as local architect William Warner, who secured $100,000 in funding in 1982 to study the "fantasy" (his term) of restoring the abused waterways. By the middle of the 20th century, Providence’s rivers had become so fouled by sewage and industrial waste that the city decked them over with highways and parking lots, creating what some observers derisively called the world’s widest bridge. Opening the rivers, Warner argued, would create a cityscape as friendly to pedestrians as it had been to cars. He formed a group of civic leaders, which regaled city officials and others with slide shows of what the riverfront might look like if the rivers were exposed.

The largest urban renewal project in the city’s history involved rerouting automobile traffic and building 12 new bridges. A downstream post office at the junction of the Woonasquatucket and MoshassuckRivers could not be moved, so the rivers were redirected. "We basically just picked up the confluence and moved it 150 yards east," Warner says.

As it happened, Evans, the artist, created his second fire installation at an arts festival in 1996, around the time of the daylighting project’s completion. Then he kept hearing from residents who wanted to see the piece again; it was as though they’d never noticed the rivers before, he recalls. A nonprofit group, WaterFire Providence, was started to continue staging the event. Its budget this year is more than $1 million, with money from the city and state governments, corporations, foundations—and fans. The event, the Providence Journal editorialized in 1997, is the most popular work of art in the city’s history.

Does WaterFire mean anything in particular? Is it a takeoff on a religious rite? A commentary on the lack of meaningful ritual in American life? Evans says it’s open to interpretation. "It is a ritual and a ceremony that refers to scores of religious festivals, as well as contemporary art," he says. "But I didn’t want all that symbolism to get in the way of someone enjoying it simply for the beauty of it."

The music, emanating from invisible loudspeakers alongside the rivers, seems to come not from a single point but from all of Providence, as if the city were one instrument. The heat from the fires, the cedar smoke and the rhythms and chants seem to transport visitors to another time and place. Around midnight, after the crowds have drifted away, people still sit by the riverbanks, staring into the flames. Not until the fires die do they seem to rediscover themselves, shake themselves out and head for home.

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