In which I wind up being the interviewee

I recently met with Stephanie Zurek, an architect at Union Studio in Providence and Vice President of CNU New England. She and I talked generally about highways, boulevards, and pedestrians. Eventually, she just asked me to talk about my ideas and after that, she gave me a brilliant nugget of insight. Here is an excerpt of the interview, edited for clarity and length.

The area in question, pretty much dead center of Providence.

The area in question, pretty much dead center of Providence.

Surface Parking under the overpasses behind the convention center

Surface Parking under the overpasses behind the convention center

Stephanie Zurek: So what is your research methodology?

Emily Fishbaine: I just feel like this space would be pretty much Providence city center. It’s next to the state house, it’s next to the mall, it’s next to city hall. It should be an extremely valuable piece of land, this interchange. Instead, it’s unoccupied except by the highway. And it’s football field upon football field of space. So this [see photo at right] was behind the convention center, and there was some surface parking. I was just wandering around down here and thinking about… I wasn’t sure if i was allowed to be down there. But I mean, there was nothing preventing me.

SZ: It’s this total no-man’s land.

There are sidewalks for pedestrians, but walking through a tunnel-like structure creates anxiety

There are sidewalks for pedestrians, but walking through a tunnel-like structure creates anxiety

EF: Yeah, and the space is being used by cars, but then there’s other space that’s just occupied by construction vehicles. And it makes no logical sense in terms of how to get… there’s no "as the crow flies" way to get across. But on the other hand, there was a sidewalk that I saw people walking on cutting under the overpasses. So there are a couple of ways under, but it’s buried, and scary, and--

Secret cut-through in the mall.

Secret cut-through in the mall.

SZ: No, there’s been no thought to how a pedestrian would cross.

EF: No. And I did see a couple of people, which surprised me. So one of the things that i’ve been doing is: how many ways can I walk around the highway, and where can i get, and where can I not get? The other day I went through the mall in that little tiny archway I didn’t even know existed. And I wound up on Harris St, and from there I realized, ‘There’s Federal Hill, there’s Valley. I cannot get to Federal Hill, because I am under the Dean St. Bridge, until I go to Atwells. So I’m completely cut off.’ Today, I tried to go around the mall behind the CVS, and I’m walking walking walking, sidewalk ends, fence. Which is pretty typical. So then I went around the Omni Hotel behind the convention center. I’m just seeing where I can go and where I can’t go. And I’m willing to go in places that are not hospitable, but these are not convenient ways to get anywhere.

I have to do a lot of research about who owns that land, what that parcel is. I saw somewhere that it was managed by the dept of transportation. But I don’t know if that’s state or federal, and because Amtrak runs through there, I feel like that also complicates things. I saw a sign down on the other side of the mall before I got to Harris and Promenade that said “State Property” so that portion was clearly marked.

So I’m doing that, but then on the other side of things, I’ve been fabricating bricks. Partially because I’m like 'Jesus Christ, this scale is too huge to get my head around, let me just make something that I can hold.' So I’ve been making bricks that have words in them, doing a magnetic poetry-for-street kind of thing. And if I’m able to continue with this, phase 1 I think will be me replacing some bricks - some of the gap-toothed portions of paving with some of my bricks, and I'll make statements where I see the opportunity. And then phase 2 if I can get enough of a quantity, I would try to figure out some kind of system where I could either leave bricks stacked somewhere or create some kind of opportunity for people to do their own sort of magnetic poetry.

Some of my friends who are interested in repair were like, “Oh that’s so cool, you’re doing guerrilla repair” and I said, "I wasn’t even thinking about that." I’ve kind of gotten to a point where I've accepted that Providence infrastructure is broken and I saw it as an opportunity, rather than as a comment of, “hey Providence, fix this."

That would be my first foray into public art. And I’ve been thinking, I’m having a lot of fun with these bricks, bricks are everywhere in Providence, I feel like I could totally go down that rabbit-hole and just do a thesis about bricks, and the history of bricks and who makes them, blah blah blah… But I’m not sure I want to go that route. So I’ve been thinking, “Ok, what does this brick project symbolize?” And I think a lot of it is the tangible, small multiples, the pedestrian/human scale. And also a disruptive moment with some humor, with some softening, making meaning in a place that’s traditionally overlooked-- all of these elements that I think are elements that could be cited as pieces of a healthy neighborhood. Because my heart is really in healthy neighborhoods and that kind of Jane Jacobs tradition. But I'm also fascinated by this massive infrastructure. And how the placement is so destructive. I’ve also been looking into redlining and why things got placed where they are.  I saw a redline map that looked like it was mostly Charles and the Point St./Wickenden area. And then everything else that you would suspect based on the current socio-economic breakdown was yellow-lined. There wasn’t as much red-lining as I expected. So I’m not sure how the red-lining and the highway build coincided, but I know that the two were talking to each other. And yeah, the Robert Moses concept that people are flexible, people are movable, neighborhoods can just be uprooted and moved and they’ll be fine, they’ll figure it out— we’ll compensate them with housing units of equivalent value, which of course wasn’t done, and not taking into consideration street life and all these things. [See also William Whyte's work}

So I guess given that these destructive things have occurred and that this huge piece of concrete and steel is there, my question becomes: can some of these street life qualities be applied to this area? I’m still struggling to form the question clearly, but I’m somewhere in that realm.

SZ: The bricks sort of represent this very tactile material that was — that’s representative of the detail and intention that was used in building in older places, older neighborhoods. We’ve lost that now. And I would say that the highways and the superstructure for the highways is just so monolithic and lacking in any sort of detail. And those are actually constructed elements. What’s below the highway is not even considered at all. So it’s sort of like bringing the attention of the brick— you know?


Thank you, Stephanie Zurek, for your time, insight, and for helping me talk this through.