Over the years, Providence has attracted plenty of attention for its transformation from an urban ugly duckling to an attractive swan. All the attention has left Pawtucket, the similarly ambitious city on its northern border, obscured by its shadow.
A spotlight snaps on with Pawtucket Rising, an hour-long documentary airing on Channel 36 (WSBE) and Cox Channel 8, on January 22 at 10 pm and January 24 at 7 pm (pawtucketrising.info). The first major production by Newport filmmaker Jason Caminiti uses no narration, only the comments of its participants and occasionally music by Francisco Rodriguez.
The film doesn't compare the efforts of the two cities or even mention that the innovative 1996 tax incentive legislation which encouraged arts and entertainment district development was championed by Providence's then-mayor Buddy Cianci. The focus remains on Pawtucket.
In unidentified voiceovers before the title appears, someone mentions that empty mill buildings were purchased and renovated for use by artists and artisans once it was realized "how close the city was to so much wealth." Providence's upscale East Side isn't far from its southern border, after all.
Designer Morris Nathanson is the first familiar figure seen, credited with convincing the City Council in the late 1980s to allow workplace/residences, which hadn't been permitted before. "There were kids, artists, who were living illegally in department stores and whatnot, but I wanted it part of zoning, a legal thing," he says. Nathanson went to the trouble of moving his business into a derelict building across from the high school he had gone to. "But it was a real mess," he says. "When I showed my wife what I wanted to buy, she actually went into tears. She thought I had lost it!"
Mayor James E. Doyle mentions a couple of his less-than-admirable predecessors — Thomas McCoy of some 60 years before, who was appreciated by residents for keeping the tax rates low, which allowed him to get away with being less than ethical, and Brian J. Sarault, arrested in 1991 for corruption. In contrast, Northeastern University arts policy expert Ann Galligan gives credit to Doyle: "If you tap the mayor on the shoulder and you say, 'What do you think about the cultural plan, what do you think about the arts?' the mayor knows what he's talking about. He doesn't use scriptwriters, he feels that he owns it."
As the mayor says, "What the artists find when they come to Pawtucket that they may not find in some of the bigger cities is the personal approach. We truly roll out the red carpet."
The person that Doyle relies on to take visiting parties in hand is Herb Weiss. "I'll give them a dog and pony show and show them the locale," says the city's economic and cultural affairs officer. As any reporter who has dealt with Pawtucket development knows, Weiss is on top of every mill conversion as soon as it's a beam in the eye of a developer.
"Over the last 9-1/2 years we've seen hundreds of artists move throughout our city and to the arts district," Weiss says about efforts to build population density in the 307-acre downtown arts and entertainment district. "We are experiencing one of the biggest building booms of 30 or 40 years."