At Kennedy Plaza, plans for rebirth

Public Works Dept.
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 4, 2012

CHASED BY THE GASPEE Henrichs’ playground.

Kennedy Plaza, in the heart of downtown Providence, has long been a problem. Seedy, unwelcoming, it is a troubling — if helpful — reminder of the poverty and addiction that still plague the renaissance city.

Officials have moved, with some success, to cut down on crime in recent years. And they have taken a few steps toward revitalization: a farmer's market, a beer garden in the summer, repairs to the fountain in Burnside Park. But Kennedy Plaza is far from the civic hub the city's boosters envision.

And so it was with some anticipation that a handful of the city's doers gathered in a small conference room at the city's Art, Culture + Tourism department on Westminster Street this week to watch a collection of Rhode Island School of Design students roll out their ideas for rebirth.

The pupils, part of a course called "Spokes of the Wheel: Public Art in Kennedy Plaza," were the usual RISD brew: international, a bit unsure of the local geography, enormously creative.

Here was Qian Huang, a landscape architecture student, with plans for a storytelling fence at Burnside Park: images of the plaza's history sprayed onto the existing black-bar fence, coherent when the viewer looks at them from an angle.

Here was Quintín Rivera-Toro, a sculpture student, with plans for painting the streets blue to evoke the city's nautical history — and to slow down the captains at the helms of the Fords and Toyotas racing through the plaza.

And here was Cody Henrichs, another sculpture student, with plans for a large boat jutting up from the ground of Burnside Park — only the bow and a piece of the mast visible.

The project makes a nod to Rhode Island's colonial history — the boat a replica of the Hannah, a packet boat chased by the British customs schooner the HMS Gaspee, which ran aground and was looted and torched on June 9, 1772 in the run-up to the American Revolution.

But it was born of more contemporary concerns: Henrichs's four-year-old son Elijah attends downtown Providence's Feinstein Child Development Center, which often sets its charges free at Burnside. The boat, the sculptor figured, would make for some fine climbing.

"I love the ambition of it," said Cliff Wood, a former Providence City Councilman who now serves as executive director of the non-profit Greater Kennedy Plaza — enthusiastic, wry, in tortoise shell glasses.

Also in the room: Daniel Baudouin, in suit and tie, of the Providence Foundation, and Lynne McCormack, a RISD alumn who serves as director of the Art, Culture + Tourism department, her eyes gone bright at the sight of the student proposals.

The RISD class is but one part of a broader effort to bring art to Kennedy Plaza, an effort funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — its chairman, the energetic theatre producer and race track enthusiast Rocco Landesman determined to brighten public squares around the country.

Other elements of the Kennedy Plaza initiative — including portrait photography from youth at the AS220 arts organization, public art from the Steel Yard arts center, and a big festival planned for the fall — were to be unveiled at an event the afternoon of April 4, after the Phoenix's deadline.

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  Topics: This Just In , Kennedy Plaza, Gaspee
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