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A chance to change your idea of Olneyville

Providence's "Second Downtown"
By LIZ LEE  |  April 2, 2014

A VITAL NEIGHBORHOOD The Morales family.

Listen for a while to the stories told by the residents, artists, and business owners interviewed for the upcoming exhibit, “Community in Focus: Photographs and Stories of Olneyville,” and it’s not hard to envision a neighborhood that looks more like a Norman Rockwell painting than the post-industrial backdrop for the legendary Fort Thunder arts collective. It’s a neighborhood in which teenagers swim naked in a moonlit Woonasquatucket River, little boys peek longingly through the windows of the bowling alley, hamburgers cost only a nickel, and the bell towers at Atlantic Mills still ring out every morning to signify the changing of shifts. It might seem far from the way we perceive Olneyville today, but altering public perceptions is part of what this show is all about.

The exhibit will be hosted by Yellow Peril Gallery as part of the 25th Anniversary Celebration for Olneyville Housing Corporation (OHC), a community development organization founded with the mission of revitalizing the neighborhood. The show features portraits of 25 people selected for their various contributions to the community, along with audio recordings of each person discussing what makes the neighborhood unique. “When you look at the people who were interviewed,” says OHC associate executive director Jennifer Hawkins, “it’s the old Italian women and the Polish contractor, the artists and the school principal, the people involved in the reclamation of the Woonasquatucket River. It’s not just one element — it’s all of these people coming together to revitalize the neighborhood.”

Yellow Peril director Vanphouthon Souvannasane says that when he moved to Providence from New York in 2011, Olneyville felt as safe and vital to him as any other neighborhood in town. But he eventually realized that local perceptions of the area were different. “I think for a lot of people who grew up in Rhode Island, they hear the word ‘Olneyville’ and they get scared,” he says. “They might not understand that this is where a lot of artists live and create work. It’s where a lot of immigrant families live and are trying to achieve the American dream, however you might define that.” As a commercial gallery that aims to “establish Olneyville as a cultural destination,” Yellow Peril is presenting the show in partnership with OHC and The Armory Revival Company, which is lending one of its vacant spaces at The Plant (a refurbished former mill complex) to house the exhibition.

AT YOUR SERVICE Anthony Solomon, owner of Anthony's Pharmacy.

The show’s interviews and photographs were produced and compiled by two former OHC interns, Carolina Buitrago and Vera Carothers, during the summer of 2013. An earlier iteration of the show on view at City Hall last month featured photographs with accompanying printed quotes in both English and Spanish. In its upcoming incarnation at The Plant, complete audio versions of the interviews will be featured as well.

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