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As a student in Providence, R.I., I used to love to head down the hill past the RISD to the banks of the river running through the downtown core.

Crowds are mesmerized by Waterfires

Back then, I knew a little about the story of downtown Providence and its problems, and was experiencing first-hand the revitalization of the now-dubbed “Renaissance City’s” downtown core.

People arriving early to stake out their preferred spot for the evening

From the moment I left my door in the student ghetto surrounding Brown University, my alma mater, it was clear that it was a Waterfires night.  If it was later in the evening, the first thing you’d notice was the smell of burning cedar in the air.  But then you’d notice the people…

Crowds of tourists throng to Waterfires

You see, people would be traveling.  Some of them would have come by car if they had come early enough to secure a parking space on the outside of the downtown core.  Traffic downtown, on a Waterfire night, had to be closed down.  Instead, many chose to park on the outskirts of downtown and stroll through the streets on warm summer evenings to the banks of the Providence river.

People travel miles to experience Waterfires

Many others would have taken public transportation, as the city had stepped up express service to stations on the edges of suburban neighborhoods.  They had had to, in order to move so many people into and out of the downtown core efficiently on these nights.

Diners casually enjoying an unforgettable evening with dinner and dancing overlooking Waterfires

And then there were the walkers and the strollers, mostly living somewhere in or near downtown.

These were pleasant walks.  I remember greeting other strangers and striking up simple conversations as we strolled alongside each other toward the spectacle.

A street busker offers up a dazzling display for thrilled onlookers

As you got closer to the river, more and more people thronged the streets.  Vendors sold jewelry and teeshirts and artworks and more.  You could eat cotton candy and flavoured popcorn.  You could chow down on a sausage on a roll, or a burger on a bun.  Everywhere, people were conversing and exchanging and collaborating.

And people came from everywhere.  From Connecticut, Maine, New York, Massachussettes they drove.  From all over the States they would book vacations explicitly to come experience Waterfire.  Not to mention Rhode Island; it seemed that everyone from Rhode Island was there every event.

And every single one of them had to stroll through the downtown core.  Whether because they had driven or because they had got off the bus or if they had walked all the way from their own door.  Every single one of them had to stroll through the downtown core.

"Providence - The Renaissance City," by Leazes & Motte features a contribution to the text by Barnaby Evans - the artist who created Waterfires and sold it to the Providence City Council

And guess what?  Providence, a city that had struggled for years to revitalize its downtown; a city whose downtown restaurants struggled and where other smaller merchants had long ago closed up shop — this city that was struggling with a desire to attract tourism, but was struggling to re-brand itself, put itself on the proverbial map beyond its wildest dreams.

Maybe Waterfire would work here.  Maybe it wouldn’t.  Wouldn’t it be fun to think about, though?

The Lighting Ceremony

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