Andrew Losowsky and Lyra Monteiro, husband and wife, are huddled around a small table in a chilly and mostly empty room on the bottom floor of the Kresge building on Westminster Street in downtown Providence.
The Casual Corner women’s clothing store has long since abandoned this brick-lined space. And the Dress Barn, across the street, seems poised to leave, too. “We’re Sorry,” reads a pink sign in the window, “This Location is Closing.”
But all is not forbidding here. Mama Teresa’s, a neighborhood institution, is offering honey mustard chicken and chicken sauté among its specials today. Symposium Books is holding up under the assault of the Kindle. And Tazza bar and restaurant is bright and warm.
There is life and death on this two-block stretch of downtown Providence. Success and failure. And Losowsky and Monteiro, scissors in hand, are determined to tell the tale.
At the heart of their “Westminster Stories” project: a diorama in the window of the Kresge building. A large photo of the northern side of the street, between Dorrance and Union, serves as the backdrop. And cut-out photos of dozens of local characters and passersby stand on a miniature sidewalk, complete with stop signs and parking meters.
Losowsky and Monteiro, who live around the corner in the Peerless Building, are busy adding Mama Teresa herself to the scene when a visitor stops by. “We also realized that we’d forgotten a trash can,” says Monteiro. “Crucial.”
“Westminster Stories” launched December 2 and is scheduled to run through March 12. Every week or so there will be a new theme, reflected in cards that hang above the diorama — telling the story of a neighborhood fixture or someone drifting in and out. Sometimes, they offer bit of history.
First up: coffee.
Felicia, we are told, is going for her daily cup at Grace Episcopal Church a couple of blocks away. She is staying at the Crossroads homeless shelter, at the moment, but hopes to move in with her mother. She will be a mother herself, soon. “I’ll be happy with a boy,” she says, “but I really want a girl.”
Robert is an accountant who lives and works in the Alice Building and gets his coffee at Eddie & Sons Diner around the corner. Dan, the director of the Providence Foundation, is on his way to Tazza to meet his girlfriend for coffee. He says he’s working to revitalize the downtown. “It’s a tough time right now,” he says, “we’re a little worried.”
Walter Scott is no longer alive. But the project recalls his “night lunch wagon,” which once sold coffee and homemade snacks on the street from dusk to 4 am. Scott, who was “armed with a hickory club for protection,” is considered the father of the modern American diner.
“Westminster Stories” is the latest project of the Museum On Site, a series of roving exhibitions conceived by Losowsky and Monteiro to surprise and engage. “We try to do projects in a place where people already are,” says Losowsky. Airports, plazas, festivals.
The first project came in October 2008, in a collaboration with Barnaby Evans at WaterFire. “A Thousand Ships” was meant to celebrate the bicentennial of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and to recall Rhode Island’s involvement in the trafficking of human chattel.
Merchants from this state launched more than 1000 slaveship voyages. And to acknowledge that history, the Museum On Site had WaterFire revelers offer 1000 libations to the slaves by pouring water into the river and onto the land. There were also actors popping up in the crowd to do readings. And there was a burning of chains made of wire, newspaper, and construction paper.
“Westminster Stories” will have its ritual moments, too. On New Year’s Eve, as part of the city’s Bright Night celebration, Losowsky and Monteiro plan to move the project from diorama to living exhibit. There will be markers on the buildings of Westminster and some of the people whose photographs appear in the Kresge window will mill about, their stories slung around their necks.
After the exhibit closes in March, the Museum On Site will host a community conversation about the future of downtown Providence. Losowsky, a freelance writer, and Monteiro, a graduate student in archeology at Brown, aim to take on other parts of the city in the months that follow.
The hope? That people will feel an ownership of place. “When you notice things around you and you have more information,” says Losowsky, “you have more investment in the area.”
Among the museum’s discoveries on Westminster Street: old street car lines remain intact beneath the road paving; and Oscar Wilde was among those who took the stage at a performance venue, Low’s Opera House, that once sat in the empty lot across from Tazza.
Low’s figures into the latest “Westminster Stories” installation. The theme this time: music.
Ted recalls seeing Iggy Pop at an old iteration of Lupo’s on Westminster. “It was incredible,” he says. “He moved like a wounded jackrabbit.” And Betty-Lou is in town from Toronto for an a cappella convention. Last year, her group performed in St. Petersburg, Russia. “St. Petersburg is a lot like Providence,” she says, “very old, with lots of history.”
Buddy, once a mayor of the city, remembers singing lessons at the Alice Building. “I was about nine years old,” he says, “and my singing was terrific.”