I was living in a dump in 1992 which seemed romantic because it was a short subway ride from Manhattan- the idea of a dumpy area being withinn 100 miles of Manhattan is beyond comprehension to us now, just as outrageous as thinking that living anywhere in Rhode Island, dumpy or worse yet not dumpy, could lead one close to a Promised Land. Well, the wheel keeps on turning. It is 2011 and my previously dumpy home base is now a Disney Land Soho – a Bohemians-R-US theme park of grooviness, not a crack whore or curbside sofa in sight. Where are the crack whores and the sofas? The Elmwood section of Providence, what I have now labeled The New Bohemia, just as they did with my dumpy neighborhood in Brooklyn- 1993- when New York Magazine labeled it, The New Bohemia. Well, there went the neighborhood. They took the train over from the Lower East Side and we all had to relocate as the rents skyrocketed. Old familiar story. Gentrification. I had to move on, move out, but forgot to move up and so have ended up in what is considered the worst section of Providence, RI- Elmwood, or Slumwood, as I call it, a real trash-strewn downer with an exceptional ethnicity. If only somebody, anybody within a mile had more than 5 dollars, whatever our race, creed or color. No luck. Thanks Wall Street. Unlike 1992- the crack whores and aging whitey artists and latino drug dealers and asian noodle pushers all understand that it is not our fault after all that we’re broke, and we are all in this together, hence, there are less break-ins, less crime, than twenty years ago. Sure, we’re all still suspicious of each other, but the new divide is rich and poor not brown black white yellow. Plus, we all know that none of us have anything to steal. I am feeling Deja-Vu, living in Elmwood, — the trash, the potholes, the broken windows, the ramshackle historically signifigant houses, the chain link fences, the blight…the ugliness….where have I seen this before? Brooklyn. Williamsburg. 1993 – just before the TIpping Point- the New Bohemian label- the dumb-dumbs moved in, thirsting for hip-dumb, the scene, – the turning point- the scene starts before the rents rise- then boom it’s over and on to some other boom. Rhode Island, the last place and yet first place for a renaissance. They call Providence the Creative Capital, and I must say we are saturated with artists- with the thugs in control but being herded up by the FEDS. It’s a city larger and yet smaller than its parts. An enigma. I keep coming back to it. Confused. Now wait a minute. It’s ocean close, near New york and Boston, what is the PROBLEM? I won’t get into that now. Gentrification is germinating, but ever so slowly in Elmwood. Despite the bygone gorgeousness of the oversized Victorian houses, many of which have been invaded by lawyers and real estate agents and yuppies looking to double their money- block to block, it’s still a shit-hole. No matter how many lovely homes you have, with crack houses and no place to walk to except an overgrown cemetary, it’s pure dump. So, what’s next. Certainly, artists move into dumps. Here they come. But slowly. with hesitation. They need coaxing, the monied artists. The ones who can Tip that Point. And that is what a New Bohemia is all about. The CUSP before the fall into a pool of potential for payback. It’s sickening, I know, dealing with the vapid cheerleader consciousness of the pioneers, scared shitless, but buying in anyway- hoping for the miracle. And the miracle, I now predict, is coming and would it be anything less, RHODE ISLAND??– Providence? The worst SIDE of Providence. We proceed on tip-toe. We step over the garbage. We smile at the muggers,…Have a Nice Day. – and the soirees are about to begin, sabotaged by anxiety. We would have had much more fun in Williamsburg had we known it was going to turn out swell. I predict a swell outcome here in Elmwood. I am going to try my darn-dest to enjoy it this time around.
The moon was fat and floating in a bed of pink but it was overshadowed by Irene Lawrence, Cassandra Tribe and Judith Tolnick-Champa discussing book prologues. Irene had sent a request to a famous writer, asking that he consider writing an introduction to her book, Judith had been on the telephone for an hour wih another writer who wanted Judith to write an introduction for HER book, Cassandra had a couple of books under her belt and so had insightful suggestions for both Judith and Irene, and I just sat there and ate macaroni salad thinking about my unfinished book- still stuffed inside a cardboard box in my closet. It was no matter to me. The three powerful women sitting in my apartment under the July 4th moon made me feel momentarily irrelevent, joyously so. Irrelevence is the cure for hubris, and I have found that my “artists agenda” has lately taken me far from genuine curiosity, clear observation, life “as is” – for its own sake. In an over-processed world, I over-process myself and my work- striving to be a pulsing, thriving mission statement instead of a woman eating macaroni before pushing a doggie stroller down the street to Waterfire.
I think too much. I process too little. Last night, after taking a picture of the bulbous swooning moon, and listening to the smart girls figure out how to manuever themselves through another creative pin-hole, I wanted to stop thinking. I wanted to simply “be” without being somebody. Just breathe and eat macaroni salad. The salad was pretty good because I put double pesto sauce on it and high quality parmesean cheese, and the girls seemed to like it. But then Irene gave me a painting. It was so beautiful, so real, as I gripped it in both hands, and thought, mine…mine…why? — I wanted to leave and reenter the room as another me, the me I could be when I cared and in caring could manifest a masterpiece of equal worth.
Cassandra was discussing ways to multiply blog readership numbers, Judith was discussing the critical nature of the literary interview, Irene answered a question about her use of linen canvas. It was stimulating, valuable information. It was just the way I wanted my living room to buzz. But I was tired. In fact, I realized I had been tired for about ten years, from about the time I’d abandoned the book to the cardboard box.
We walked to Waterfire. The moon followed us as the sky darkened and the fires were orange, spurting blurs of warmth that shown on hundreds of tired faces and the faces were upturned to the fires, eyes closed. The moon shone on the water, and hundreds of people were walking and laughing or sitting and leaning against each other, eyes closed. The mile of Water fires, 80 odd blazing signatures of one man, moved the night and took everyone with them and we were all floating under the dry white moon, and I think everyone was remembering, at the same time, that we had nowhere to go and nothing we really had to do.
Winter, 2002, Davio’s in The Biltmore. Buddy and his constituents holding court, heavy handed drinks, people with an easy laugh, money in their pockets, a scam in the works. It seemed like everybody was getting laid and actually enjoying it. Brown University Professeurs, seeking tenure but completely confident of their future sipped champagne cocktails in the love seats and requested songs with suggestive lyrics. The Davio’s management, happy with the flow of money into their cash register, let the evening unfold without comment. The gays and straights and rich and bohemian and uptights and East sider and West siders crushed together in a frenzy of freedom from the Same Old. It was a true Cabaret room where all castes congregated, sharing bad jokes, sing-a-longs and lousy nachos. The young and beautiful students. the Brown intellectuals, the tourists, groups staying at the hotel for a conference — Turf Masters of America, a Mortician Convention — dull herds of men from Milwaukee and Baltimore pressing against the local Madonna-Wanna tarts of North Providence, and Voila, it’s Christmas week and Davio’s has decorated the front windows with fake mistletoe and an electric Santa and Mrs. Santa, who girate randomly until I readjust them for slow dancing and suddenly, Mr and Mrs. Santa are fornicating on the stage. The crowd absorbs the peculiarity and is amused. Nobody makes a move to separate the electric Christmas couple. The night heats up with more jazz swing tunes, heaps of snow pile up against the windows behind the stage, cars in the street are stranded in sleet. They double park and come into the room for a drink, welcomed with cheers, handed half empty beer mugs.
What is going on around here? A full page ad for Karaoke as the entertainment offering at the hippest new downtown restaurant, open-mike nights at places too cheap to pay entertainers. To Do Listings for meatball nights, wine tasting, Tapes bars, singles nights, Donny Osmond or another truck tour of “Grease” at Providence Center for the Performing Arts, and oh dear, not another Salsa night!
Clubs with half a dozen TV sets blaring third tier sporting events, throbbing, faux leather ultra-lounges; pricey, overly designed theme restaurants suggesting Paris in the ‘20’s or Rome during Nero’s reign. We’re all dressed up with nowhere to go, unless we want to eat. And eat. And eat.
Who doesn’t like a good meal, but how much can a person consume without exploding? We’re being reduction sauced to death, meatballed to madness. Swimming through olive oil en route to the gym, we are still starved. Starved for stimulation.
Why is Providence such a bore? Its sum continues to remain smaller than its parts. Lodged between Boston and New York, with easy access to moneyed Newport and the ocean, an Ivy League school and a top School of Design, it seems improbable that the mainstream restaurants, theaters and nightclubs continue to thrive, while those attempting the unique soon close up shop.
The artists are here, I’ve seen them. The intelligent are here, I’ve spoken with them. The misfits, rebels, and bohemians who might be in Paris, or New York, if they had more money- they’re here, too. Gay men keep the nights alive despite the cold and recession, forgotten musicians keep music alive despite exploitation and lack of venues. The mayor, a lover of arts and beauty, stands firm against corruption and ignorance. The journalists and columnists wrestle with silent censors; the students and youth rehearse their garage bands and provide us poetry slams and they are adorable, but it is not enough.
The Renaissance that Mayor Cianci inspired several years ago has left us a beautiful waterfront, loads of calories, struggling artists and little else. In 1998, Buddy said in an interview, “Cities have to breathe. They have to smell like a city, feel like a city, sing a song of a city with symphonic proportions.” It breaks my heart, but Providence is singing the blues. How can we shake it up again, bring back the gritty edge, the unpredictable eclecticism that makes art worthwhile?
It’s common knowledge that the general population, called general for a reason, doesn’t like surprises. These dull minds, with a taste for status they can never achieve, crave the nouveau as packaged by Madison Avenue. Scurrying around like desperate squirrels in search of a fat nut, the masses demand suggestions from glossy magazines and the local rags. They need to know what and who they should worship and in what order. The fewer choices, the happier they are. Their limited imaginations avoid challenge.
The monstrous Providence Mall, front and dead center, is the cities beacon. The pastel mausoleum still hums with activity, even during this recession, in the middle of an ice-storm, with glassy eyed hoards spending 10 dollars on a movie ticket and 4 dollars for bottled water before they head to the food court for pizza, Chinese food and ice-cream. Down the street, next to a busy hair and nail salon is a bawdy sports bar, a proper coffee shop, a near empty Jazz club offering, again, Vinny at the keyboard or Bob on guitar.
Why is Providence the East Coast’s answer to Toledo? Is there a secret organization of inbred plebeians undermining our efforts? A good old boy network invested in hiring cousin Vinny or Uncle Bob so that Aunt Brenda can keep her Jaguar?
Who or what continues to suppress the avant-garde within these city limits? Pawtucket offers us more sophisticated alternatives.
I need to know. I love this city very much, and keep returning to it again and again, as many artists do. We need to save it from the timid minds who suffocate the spirit of this great place. The recession may be a good time to do it. With nothing to lose, proprietors may be willing to take more risks. It is written that this should occur. It is, after all, Divine Providence.
(excerpted from Get Magazine, Mike Ritz, 11/08)
“Cold Weather clouds blocking your sun? Looking for a stress reliever? Experience Laurel Casey.”
“Laurel doesn’t just sing or put on a cabaret show, she creates a nightly experience that engages the audience on a level usually found at an AA meeting. Speaking of which: We’re addicted to Laurel! Come see the show that never stands still!
“Laurel’s voice is filled with emotion and beauty. Her 1920s – 1930s depression era songs are exquisite. Her comedic diatribes hones, bold and hilarious. If her unpredictable behavior and passionate voice don’t have you on the edge of your seat, nothing will.”
— Get R.I. Magazine
AP-Providence, RI: Several residents of Providence, RI have been admitted to St. Josephs Hospital with what was thought to be the flu. It has been discovered, through lengthy blood work, that they are on the verge of dying of boredom. Psychiatrists on staff suggested the boredom was due to weather patterns. The patients disagreed and stated vehemently that they were going to drop dead unless something exciting happened immediately. Buddy Cianci, hearing of the crisis, contacted Laurel Casey and requested that she move back to the city as soon as possible. The patients, upon promise of a springtime full of outrageous cabaret performances and ensuing ramifications, were released without bail.