What does it take to create a neighborhood gathering place that’s beautifully designed and reflects a community's history and aspirations? In Providence, RI, it took months of give and take among community members, architecture students at the Rhode Island School of Design, the city and LISC. The result is an urban lawn and a translucent pavilion that lights up like a beacon at night, piquing curiosity and signaling possibilities.
This month, we are highlighting LISC's creative placemaking work in locales across the country, funded in large part by a grant from The Kresge Foundation.
Photos courtesy Rhode Island School of Design and LISC RI.
All during the fall of 2015, budding architects in professor Aaron Forrest’s advanced studio class at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) had been working on design ideas to enliven Trinity Square. The assignment was part of a collaboration with the City of Providence and LISC Rhode Island, who had invited the venerable architecture department to join their initiative to physically transform the square that lay little more than a mile from RISD’s urban campus. It’s a significant spot in Providence, a transportation hub and entry point to the traditionally working class, racially diverse neighborhoods of the city’s South Side.
In December the students unveiled imaginative concepts for revamping this patch of cityscape in a presentation at the Southside Cultural Center, a key neighborhood institution, and in the historic cemetery that forms the district’s geographic core. They talked about painting the streets to encourage pedestrian pathways and erecting an open shelter on a traffic island across from cultural center. The students envisioned blazing a broad “boulevard” through the nine-acre cemetery with landscaped paths, light boxes that would glow at night beneath the graveyard’s spreading oaks, and even a gathering space marked by a flexible structure that could double as sunshade and movie screen.
Community leaders and residents, however, cast a wary eye on the schematics and displays showing familiar territory in a startling new light. “They were like, ‘Where did you guys come from? What is this stuff that you’re going to put in our neighborhood?’” Forrest recalled. The mood grew tense.
Richardson Ogidan, the cultural center’s director and a longtime denizen of the neighborhood, found this uneasy encounter between planners and locals all too familiar. The usual sequel: People scattered. Nothing got done. Here, though, no one was content to let that happen; there was too much at stake.
The SouthLight Design-Build project, as it came to be called, was part of a larger initiative known as Illuminating Trinity. Its goal: to involve the Trinity Square community in a process to develop and implement changes, physical and programmatic, that would make Trinity a safe, vibrant gateway to the Southside neighborhoods of Providence, anchored by a cultural center that could attract and amplify community life.
In 2015, LISC Rhode Island and the Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism had received a $300,000 ArtPlace America grant for the project. This bolstered some $500,000 in support from the Kresge Foundation, which has provided $3 million for LISC’s creative placemaking work across the country. The Providence project leveraged an additional $1.2 million in infrastructure investments, and it built upon the city’s long-term planning and major investments. In addition, LISC has invested more than $25 million in the area’s housing and community facilities over more than two decades.
Illuminating Trinity proposed to take a fresh approach, making the district a laboratory for an emerging field of community development called creative placemaking. Creative placemaking adopts arts and culture as a kind of special sauce that, added to efforts like housing and commercial development, can help make a neighborhood become a place where good things are happening, people want to be, and communities have ownership.
That early SouthLight meeting where residents said “no” to RISD’s initial sketches “didn’t feel good,” remarked Laura Briggs, then RISD architecture department head and a principal initiator of the project, “but it was good.” The active give-and-take that followed shifted the project’s site and changed its shape dramatically over the course of a year. It also made SouthLight a model for how an anchor institution such as RISD can contribute meaningfully to community development in its own backyard. And it turned the project into an illustration of one of creative placemaking’s key principles: It’s not importing art into a community that catalyzes a neighborhood’s cohesion. It’s the far more unpredictable process of making art as a community.
About a half-mile south of its origin at the edge of Providence’s downtown, Broad Street makes a V with Elmwood Avenue. Here the two thoroughfares embrace the triangular Grace Church Cemetery founded by a downtown Episcopal congregation in 1834. The Gothic spire of Trinity United Methodist Church, built in the 1860s, rises high above the busy intersection. Trinity’s sprawling annex is home to the cultural center and associated groups, from Rhode Island Latino Arts to the Laotian Community Center, which reflect the area’s rich cultural mix. Surrounding residential blocks give evidence of many millions of dollars invested in affordable housing here; overflowing flowerboxes grace the tidy painted facades.
The area is also a place where the city’s homeless congregate, many of them arriving each morning from nearby overnight shelters at a bus stop a few blocks from Trinity Square. Some access day services or report to jobs. Others hang out with other jobless folk or visit the local liquor store that, until recently, opened at 7 a.m.
For all its potential to be a gateway to the South Side neighborhoods, a sign and symbol of the life there, and a point of community convergence, for years Trinity Square stubbornly failed to come together in those ways. Between the noisy traffic, the patterns of human transience, the burying ground at its heart, and even the name—there is no square at Trinity Square— the place seemed “a kind of in-between geography,” explained Stephanie Fortunato, the city’s director of Art, Culture + Tourism.
To hear the Southside Cultural Center partners tell it, there were a few things off about RISD’s first proposals to reshape the place that the students could not have anticipated from their person-on-the-street interviews and site analyses. Neighborhood residents felt rollicking entertainment in the graveyard would be disrespectful. They saw flourishes like painting on the streets as superfluous to their needs. Perhaps most importantly, something about the students’ images of change flashed a cultural signal that residents read distinctly as “oh, here comes gentrification,” Ogidan reflected.
“As resistant as people were,” said Valerie Tutson, director of Rhode Island Black Storytellers, a partner in the Southside Cultural Center, “I hope that the students heard, ‘You’re students, we get this, and we appreciate the efforts that you have put in. However, this is our community and you’re not going to be here in five years, so we need to have input.’”
Following the December presentation, LISC Rhode Island program officer Carrie Zaslow called a meeting of the project’s lead partners and together they scheduled community design days when residents could put forward their own priorities for the area. Said Zaslow, “We went back to the drawing board in a big way. We wanted to be sure that the community knew we heard them and wanted them to play the leadership role in designing a new neighborhood gathering space.”
That meant taking more time. RISD faculty and students allowed the work to overflow the bounds of the academic semester, with Forrest and fellow RISD architect Yasmin Vobis supervising students in extracurricular work-study positions. Local people, including residents and stakeholders brought together under the Illuminating Trinity grants, decided not to oppose or simply ignore the project but to engage the RISD students to make their needs understood.
In early 2016 Ogidan invited the RISD group to work more closely with the cultural center. “That helped kind of calm everyone’s nerves about gentrification because it was seen as coming from the inside,” said Forrest. “It also really helped us focus what we were trying to do.”
The RISD students, along with community residents, worked on ideas for a new, smaller, and more realistic site—the cultural center parking lot, a broad expanse of cracked asphalt where the center’s partners had long wanted to create an outdoor performance space. Around this time Ogidan also sought advice from key stakeholders in that site—congregants of Trinity, the cultural center’s host and neighbor.
Finally, after several community meetings, a plan emerged for a pavilion and urban lawn bordered by flowers. Rather than reflecting any one group’s taste, the pavilion, made from a simple greenhouse frame swathed in white, would function as a canvas, a backdrop to the cultural center’s vivid events.
The designers upgraded the greenhouse’s standard sheathing to a durable translucent material that would allow the pavilion, lit from within, to beam like a lantern at night. They designed giant doors cut into the pavilion’s walls all around that could transform it from a sealed box to a seeming tent, a light shelter intimately joined to the lawn and wedges of garden planted with drought-resistant grasses and purple and white coneflowers. Handsome cedar fencing, slatted to make it see-through, would enclose the area on two sides.
Last summer, the students did part of the construction themselves, and toward summer’s end, Trinity’s neighbors worked alongside the students to plant the SouthLight garden, literally putting down roots at the cultural center’s threshold.
For the RISD team, SouthLight was a labor of love. The students not only got to see their work constructed and honored with two design awards from the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects, they also developed some critical skills: “At a certain point,” said grad student Rahul Ghera, “we had to put down design and focus on our narrative skills and our ability to reach out to people.”
For LISC, the learning curve was about finding ways to bridge the gap between groups used to working under different requirements and in very different ways. “In order for the community development field to be successful in working with an anchor institution like RISD we need to understand how different institutions operate,” said Zaslow. “Understanding the demands of an academic calendar for RISD as well as the community’s need to feel fully invested was critical.”
A year after its grand opening in September 2016, the users of SouthLight are still working to activate the new space as only people can. There have been celebrations, a Sierra Club fair, and drumming workshops led by Rhode Island Latino Arts Director Marta V. Martinez. Cultural center partners are talking with RISD faculty about potential improvements to make the space more performance-friendly like a modular, moveable stage. It’s a collaboration both sides intend to continue and build upon.
One of SouthLight’s apparent strengths is as a light sculpture, a beacon that switches on each night like a porch lamp. This feature has sparked questions from residents. One neighborhood artist suggested projecting images—original works of light art—from within the pavilion. Cultural center program director yon Tande has pondered filling the pearlescent box with colored light to mark special events or holidays. “It’s there to look beautiful and pique your attention,” he said. “We’re going to use that as a first step. People are asking, ‘What is it?’ Well, at least they’re asking.”