New Ideas, New Markets, New Insights
All around the country, Americans are dreaming big. Their boldest ideas are changing their communities—and having a ripple effect throughout the world.
Like many Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) students, Nick Bauta had lived in one of Providence, Rhode Island's hulking abandoned mills, falling in love with its rusted, weathered charm. After graduation, instead of hightailing it to New York—the path of a typical RISD grad—he decided to put down roots. And so it was that he embarked on a pilgrimage throughout Providence to find an industrial property that could function as a similar kind of post-graduate artists' colony. "I spent two years driving around, looking at real estate, living in my van," he says.
In 2001 he bought a century-old firehouse, turning the ground floor first into a metalshop and then into the performance venue Firehouse 13. Then he met Clay Rockefeller (yes, as in John D.'s great-great-grandson), another civic-minded entrepreneur, who was developing an 1890s mill into live-work studios and eyeing a three-acre former steelyard on the banks of the Woonasquatucket River. They bought the property with the intention of turning it into a cultural center for teaching industrial arts like blacksmithing, metalworking, glassblowing, and ceramics. Artists flocked to the space, named The Steel Yard (rendering below), and other nearby mills and factories were converted into studios.
Bauta is the unofficial guardian angel of Providence's industrial building stock. The city has good bones: The 1800s saw a building boom on Providence's many rivers as textile and jewelry companies built their factories in architecturally stunning mills and warehouses. "This was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S.," says Lynne McCormack, director of Providence's Department of Art, Culture + Tourism (AC+T). "It was one of the richest cities in the country before the Depression."
Even as the factories vacated the city in search of cheaper labor, Providence's landscape benefitted from its economic dip: It was passed over by the urban redevelopment movements of the 1970s that eradicated historic buildings in other big cities, and developed a devoted preservationist movement. A zoning change to allow live-work spaces and a competitive historic tax credit made hundreds of abandoned mills even more attractive for the city's artists, many of them graduating from local schools like Brown and RISD.
But in 2003, a tragic fire ripped through the Station nightclub in nearby West Warwick, killing 100. "We went from the most lenient fire code in the state to the strictest," says Bauta. "All the live music venues that couldn't comply were shut down, which was probably 80% of the venues." But that wasn't all: artists living in the mills were evicted due to code violations and local cultural organizations were forced to shutter. "It decimated the art scene," Bauta recalls.
Suddenly, Bauta found himself the owner of two of the five existing live music venues in the city, and with that, a responsibility for rebuilding Providence's arts community.
One success story came from within The Steel Yard, where the nonprofit Public Projects won a series of city contracts to build trash cans, bike racks, and tree guards, a hugely successful endeavor that Bauta says demonstrates the value of artists to Providence. "We now have public art that functions in the role of cleaning up our neighborhoods," he says proudly. Soon the nonprofit was doing so well that it had purchased two of The Steel Yard's three acres, and in 2009, Bauta and Rockefeller sold the property to the nonprofit outright so it could leverage federal funds for the environmental cleanup necessary to erase years of industrial waste.
Wanting to convert another historic building—and employ his own metalworking and sculpture talents—last year Bauta partnered with Brown grad Don King to open the live music venue Fête in the Olneyville neighborhood, where it has become the center of a new creative community. "Fête was designed as an anchor institution," he says, pointing to other industrial properties in the area that were purchased by developers after Fête opened. "They were sold because there's a local arts organization right there." Now there's talk of naming the area the "entertainment and jobs" district due to its unique combination of culture and commerce.
"Nick's projects have transformed neighborhoods," AC+T's McCormack says. "The city realizes his vision and his willingness to take risks where no one else will." And it would appear that Providence is taking cues from Bauta, getting national attention for several art-centric projects, including a HUD grant to develop sustainable communities along transit corridors and an NEA grant to bring art to a new transportation hub downtown.
For all his boosterism, Bauta is careful not to be the overtly gentrifying force that ends up pushing artists out of newly vibrant neighborhoods. Instead he sees himself as an artists' advocate, keeping the city's policies and growth in check so they don't force creativity to move. "We have a wonderful community of nonprofits and artists working together to make a better city," he says. "I'm just amplifying the voices of the artists."