Reflecting Change: City. Plaza. People.

June 17, 2013

Since its creation in 1848 as City Hall Park, Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence has undergone continuous, rapid, and significant change.  It has served as a transportation hub for horses, carriages, trolleys, and buses. Buildings have been built up, torn down, abandoned and renovated. Audiences have watched Houdini perform feats of magic, John F. Kennedy speak, and the aerial performers of Bandaloop dance on the side of a building. The Plaza has grown and changed, shaped by politicians, planners, and the people who live and work nearby and pass through. Over the course of this semester working on City. Plaza. People., our Methods in Public Humanities student group came to not only appreciate the plaza but to understand its complex history, and its potential.

Introducing the Project
For our spring “Methods in Public Humanities” course, our group of five undergraduate and graduate students –Raina Fox, Ann Kremen, Lara Savenije, Selen Senocak, and Nate Storring – were tasked with the goal of bringing the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s exhibit about Kennedy Plaza to Kennedy Plaza. We took the opportunity to extend that work, to participate in an ongoing conversation on the plaza’s redevelopment.

The initial exhibit (Rebecca Carter's fall 2012 course: Anthropology of the City)The initial exhibit (Rebecca Carter's fall 2012 course: Anthropology of the City)The original exhibit was based on the research and creative production of students in Rebecca Carter’s fall “Anthropology of the City” course at Brown. It highlighted the history, present use, and future possibilities of the plaza in a series of panels, a video of people moving through the plaza, an iPad with digital content, and a series of photographs of people holding signs reflecting their hopes for the Plaza. But because of its location on campus, a mile or so from the Plaza, its audience was mostly Brown students, faculty, and staff. Our goal was to make this project more public, finding ways to link the information explored in the exhibition to those for whom it might be most relevant.

Our project coincided with an important moment in Kennedy Plaza’s ongoing development: a new plan for the space, revealed by Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy (DPPC) on April 18, will soon begin to reshape the plaza and the ways that people interact with it.  In this new vision of the plaza, bus operations that currently make up the heart of the space will be moved to its outer edges, allowing the middle of the space to be reimagined for public use. The plan envisions the Plaza as a more pedestrian-friendly environment with trees, public art, activities, dining and shopping opportunities, arts and cultural events, space for public organizing, and safer, more pleasant travel experiences for those using Rhode Island Public Transit (RIPTA).

We took advantage of the research and analysis of Prof. Carter’s class, and the ongoing planning, to create a new exhibition that brings Kennedy’s Plaza’s history back to Kennedy Plaza.

Our Process
Though we ultimately produced a series of panels highlighting thematic and geographic elements of Kennedy Plaza, the project itself comprised much more – researching the demographics of Kennedy Plaza, learning about the history of the landscape and buildings and uses of the space, and communicating and planning with community partners.

In our initial meetings, we struggled to identify the shape and goals of our project, most notably due to the complexity of the needs we sought to address. We needed to identify and respond to a diverse and undefined audience - a diversity not only of age, gender, language, and ethnicity, but also of use. People come to the plaza for many different reasons- to eat lunch in the middle of their workday, to wait for a bus on their way home from work or school, to pass the time when there is nowhere else to go. We found it difficult to identify an approach that would be meaningful to these many different audiences. We considered many possibilities: implementing a series of speaker panels highlighting the themes of the original exhibition, creating a phone app to engage younger visitors to the plaza, and implementing a one-time public art or performance piece to draw people into the space. Ultimately, though, we felt that these methods would continue to appeal to only a small portion of the audience who use the plaza. We wanted our project to be accessible to all.

Exhibit Panel in Kennedy Plaza, spring 2013Exhibit Panel in Kennedy Plaza, spring 2013And so, we decided to create a series of thematic panels to insert into Kennedy Plaza itself, which would be light, quick, and cheap to implement. We thought carefully about the design and placement of these signs to make them as accessible as possible, and brainstormed themes that could encompass elements of the plaza of interest to a range of viewers.

The Product
Our group researched, wrote, and designed eight panels, received appropriate rights and permissions for all images and quotes included, and specified materials. We worked with the Downtown Providence Parks Conservancy so that upon receipt of funding, the panels can be printed and installed in the plaza. Each panel follows a similar format: a title, large image, smaller text broken up into easy to read sections (in the form of a quote, caption, and short body paragraph), and smaller images.

The eight panels focus on these themes:

  1.  The Unfinished Plan for Downtown Providence, 1970
  2. Occupy Providence and Political Movements in the Plaza
  3. Words of our presidents: Political Speeches at the Plaza
  4. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument
  5. The Statue of Ambrose Burnside
  6. Getting Around Providence
  7. Providence’s “Superman Building,” the Industrial Trust Tower
  8. The Struggle of Life: The Bajnotti Memorial Fountain

City. Plaza. People. began as an attempt to bring an exhibition to Kennedy Plaza. Yet ultimately the experience proved to be more about the process than the product, and about practice working with student colleagues and community partners. We were inspired throughout the process by the enthusiasm with which our ideas were received by people in the community, and encouraged that our efforts seemed to be of interest to the general public. Ultimately, our exhibition is a small step in the revitalization of Kennedy Plaza, but it comes at an important moment in the plaza’s history. The plaza is once again about to change, and we hope that our exhibit can help people develop their own informed opinions about the changes coming to the plaza by engaging with its history. As it does, we hope to follow – and perhaps participate in - the decisions and changes that will continue to shape a resilient and fluid public space.

Guest blogger, Raina Fox was part of the methods course group that conceptualized this project and the exhibit panels in Kennedy Plaza. 

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