On June 4, 2017 Deanna “Deedee” Brown closed the Matthewson Street stage at PVDFest, the City of Providence’s signature summer music festival featuring hundreds of local artists. She had been preparing to share the live documentary pilot for her Beauty in the Backstreets concept since the winter, and despite the challenges of bringing together her r&b and gospel vocals with a live band, poets, and emcees, and synchronizing it all with dynamic multi-media projection, Brown was ready. When we met up at URI’s downtown media lab to talk about her performance a few weeks later, Brown was still beaming. The pilot was a success, both artistically, and in terms of how it publicly debuted her applied vision for using media arts as a mode of community-engagement in the often neglected “backstreets” of Providence. Brown was adamant that this was just the beginning. She believes that more artists could and should learn to use film, audio, and other modes of digital storytelling to craft their own narratives of self-empowerment.
When Brown was awarded an Kresge Foundation-funded EmcArts Community Innovation Lab cluster grant in the fall of 2016 to develop her Beauty in the Backstreets project, she envisioned offering an accessible media arts curriculum out of the Codding Court Multipurpose room. The Public Housing Family Development is a tidy low-income apartment complex owned and operated by the by the Providence Housing Authority. It is tucked away from Trinity Square, behind what is now the Southside Cultural Center of Rhode Island (SCCRI). Brown was born in Codding Court and her grandmother still resides there after more than forty years. Brown still has fond memories of the area, calling the courts, and other neglected areas like them, the “backstreets.” For Brown, the Providence backstreets are spaces behind and beyond major arteries connecting sites of commerce and high culture. These stoops, neighborhood joints, and rec rooms that get little shine are where she finds the beauty, creativity, and innovative practices that inspire her art. As we enter the twilight of our nearly two year-long collaboration with LISC RI, Artplace, and countless community partners and artists on the Illuminating Trinity project, AC+T is finding ways to heed Brown’s call to knit the front streets of Elmwood and Broad to the cultural work happening quietly on the backstreets of Bridgham, Arch, and Somerset.
Between July 2 and August 13, 2017 Rhode Island Latino Arts (RILA) brought master drummer Jesus Andujar to teach free weekly drumming workshops in the Southlight Pavilion. With between eight and twelve students each week, Sunday drumming sessions became a perfect way for artists at SCCRI to connect with neighbors and passers by during the summer months. On July 30, Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS) and RILA co-hosted a Cultural Celebration and Community Tree Wrapping with nearly 40 attendees. The event, designed to call attention to an old tree on the Southlight Pavilion grounds that was saved during the site renovation, began with a storytelling circle and drumming. RILA and RIBS artists guided participants to a table where varieties of fabrics, ribbons, and writing implements were arrayed. They then invited participants to contribute a poem, prayer, or other piece of adornment to the tree. Food Trucks provided some light fare while participants made the tree into an evolving sculpture speaking to their hopes, dreams, and memories.
Throughout summer 2017 a team including Providence Police officers, Southside Cultural Center of RI staff, LISC and members of the Southside Neighborhood Association worked with support from the Kresge Foundation and SafeGrowth to design a Crime prevention through environmental design project (CPTED). The team, along with community stakeholders, chose the bus stops in Trinity Square, areas that were affected by fifteen violence crimes, ten property-related crimes, and over 200 police calls for service in the past six months, as its focus areas. As the Providence SafeGrowth team describes in its report, “most of the activity on that site is negative in nature and works against the progress of positive growth with high levels of drug activity, panhandling, homelessness, and abandoned property.” The team started getting locals involved in positive social events, installing some board games and then launching a promotional program for regularly scheduled happenings. On October 2nd, 2017, nearly 20 Trinity Square stakeholders from organizations like Renaissance Church and Southside Community Land Trust, as well as 80 recruits from the City of Providence Fire Department, joined Safe Growth leaders from LISC, the Public Safety personnel, and artists from Southside Cultural Center of RI for a chess, checkers, and dominos game-off, as well as a neighborhood-wide cleanup. “We set out to effect change in the real and perceived community safety in Trinity Square and we are seeing real change, change in how the neighborhood works together to solve complex challenges, whether it’s speaking a unified voice, or bringing together merchants or playing dominos in a bus stop,” said Carrie Zaslow, Program Officer LISC.
On Thursday, November 2nd, 2017, RILA hosts the final performance of the Illuminating Trinity project, a Dia de Los Muertos procession connecting the histories of those interred in Grace Church Cemetery to installations and performances in the Southlight Pavilion. Performances will include theatrical monologues created in collaboration with the Manton Avenue Project and the Providence Public Library’s Rhode Island Collection and audiences are invited to bring flowers and photos of a loved one to place on an ofrenda, or community altar.The procession will take audiences back to the site where AC+T first commissioned temporary light installations by RISD Architecture students in February of 2014, before the Illuminating Trinity Project was launched in fall 2015. The cemetery has a brand new fence now, courtesy of the City of Providence and CDBG, and Trinity Square has a widening circle of engaged stakeholders taking ownership of its culture. Not long after Dia de Los Muertos, teaching artist Anna Snyder, and her students from Alvarez High School, will unveil their Southside Stories mural at 358 Broad Street, a final piece of durable public art that is the product of several months of research with community activists, public art professionals, and neighborhood residents.
The City of Providence Department of Art, Culture + Tourism looks forward to being a part ongoing work connecting the back and front streets of Trinity Square in years to come, in particular through its ongoing work with the Kresge FreshLo-funded Sowing Place project, which connects artists from the SCCRI to the work of the Environmental Justice League of RI, and to growers and vendors from the Sankofa Market collective at the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation and the African Alliance of RI.