SOUNDING OFF Supporters at the Cluck! site. [Photo by Natalja Kent]
It's just after 9 am on Sunday and every on-duty journalist in Providence seems to be gathered at an abandoned gas station on the city's West Side. The ProJo is here. So is Rhode Island Public Radio. So are WPRI, WJAR, and ABC6. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras is here, as are State Representative John Lombardi and Providence City Councilman Bryan Principe. And then there are the scores of people milling about holding dogs; balloons; babies; coffee cups; free scones and cupcakes (courtesy of the Sin bakery on Allens Ave, a note says); and signs that say, "Vacant Lots are For Building," "I SMELL A RAT NOT A CHICKEN," and "WE LIVE HERE, WE WANT CLUCK!"
What the cluck is going on? The synopsis: last year, Drake Patten — the longstanding executive director of Olneyville's hands-on community arts center, The Steel Yard — announced she was leaving the Yard to start an urban gardening supply shop in an unused gas station on Broadway. Her plan was a new urbanist's dream: a small business that would reuse an existing building to pump out mulch and seedlings instead of fossil fuel. After Patten successfully attracted investors, obtaining a zoning variance was her biggest hurdle.
This zoning variance was initially granted, then appealed by some of Cluck!'s neighbors. Then on the Friday before last Sunday's rally, the zoning variance was tossed out in a Providence courtroom due to the fact one of Cluck!'s many abutters (those within 200 feet of the property's limits) wasn't properly notified. Some $10,000 in administrative costs later, Patten was back where she had started.
The balloon-toting, bike-riding, coffee-sipping masses are not pleased about this. Will they revolt? Three Providence Police cruisers sit at the ready across the street, just in case.
"I just wanted to open a business," Patten says, standing in front of the crowd and holding a microphone. "It's a small business that wants to be part of the evolution of this city . . . This is urban farm supply. I want to help people grow food." As she talks, spectators walk up to hand her cash for the next step in her legal battle. There are so many donations that a friend eventually runs into the store to grab an orange ceramic planter pot.
Patten is followed on the mic by a cavalcade of politicos and small business owners. "I love how the West Side represents, but there's a little East Side and Pawtucket love here too!" says Jan Dane, the owner of Stock Culinary Goods on Hope Street. Representative Lombardi feigns shyness, then steps up to zealously describe how, for years, the gas station has been a "pall on the neighborhood.
"It was the subject of graffiti prostitution, drugs, vandalism," he says. "It was an eyesore."
So why the opposition to Cluck!? Will the rakes and shovels inside the store be used in a hostile takeover of the West End? Will the subversive tracts that line the store's shelves (What's Wrong With My Vegetable Garden?, Homegrown Honey Bees) undermine the social order? Should we fear the store's coin-fed dispenser labeled "SEEDBOMBS. THROW + GROW!"?
The answer, apparently, is parking.