Since 1973, the Council has linked established institutions to new voices from the public humanities and creative sectors. The Place Making grants collected here reveal the echoing impact of Council grant making on the revitalization of Providence, beginning with “Interface: Providence”. This now legendary grant envisioned a plan for the redevelopment of downtown Providence that prioritized the city’s unique local qualities. Its compelling vision of a livable city rallied the changes that were later put in motion to move the railroad tracks, uncover the cove, and eventually move the rivers—Herculean acts that set the stage for greater commerce and creative place making such as the city’s signature Waterfire experiences.
It is remarkable to realize the RI Council for the Humanities helped fund “Interface: Providence” in 1973 with its first cycle of funding. This RISD architecture project had received major support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) but with a requirement to secure local matching grants. Two new organizations whose missions were only partly aligned stepped up to support the project: the Providence Foundation—a new consortium of downtown business owners—and the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, as the RI Council was first called—a new and experimental non-profit.
The “Interface: Providence” grant was a test case for the role of the state council as a new kind of community-based change agent.
Council grant making has supported pioneering studies on the cultural re-use of mill buildings and other endangered white elephants from Rhode Island’s industrial past. Many helped establish best practices to connect adaptive re-use, sustainable development, and entrepreneurship in a post-industrial economy. Other grants convened stakeholders with different agendas to begin the search for common ground on difficult place making concerns across the state. What were the best development options for Quonset? How could Newport better address public participation in community development? What strategies could help rural Rhode Island retain traditional community values in the face of suburban development? What did it really mean to create the Scituate Reservoir in the 1920s as a large-scale civic damming project that secured drinking water for 60 percent of the state but also displaced a thousand inhabitants in a miles-wide zone of now-flooded villages, farms, and mills? What should be the RI attitude toward land seizure by eminent domain?
Throughout the 1980s, the Council expanded its role supporting public humanities engagement with the evolving plans for reimagining the capital city. “The Providence Trust Doctrine and the Providence Cove” brought public attention to the far-reaching development implications of uncovering the cove waters, while also highlighting the need for public debate to set priorities and insist on accountability. This grant was one of the reasons the Council convened a series of community conversations with city and state officials, including “Turning Back to the Water: A Public Policy of the First Waters”, and also “The Providence Waterfront Study: Public Workshops”.
How might the public humanities inform current development options? Rhode Island faces many important decisions about preservation and adaptive re-use, such as the future of the Industrial Trust building in Providence—aka the Superman building—and re-development, such as the use of the lands opened up by the relocation of Route 195. Since 1973 RICH has demonstrated how transparency and civic engagement deliver long term value. There will always be ongoing questions in a democracy, and the public humanities provide a platform for debate.