Community has its say on George Street Bridge art

The Valley Breeze, March 24, 2015 • Ethan Shorey

PAWTUCKET – Let’s get this bridge right, said Pawtucket residents Monday night.

This city needs to redefine itself in a big way, said those who turned out for a community conversation on what the future George Street bridge should look like, and a project to turn the bridge into an artistic masterpiece, done well, could help make it happen.

Margie Butler, the community engagement coordinator for the project “Art Bridges Pawtucket,” said she heard some great ideas for what she and others hope will be a prominent new focal point in the city, located on I-95 at the very busy George Street exit.

Crafting the city’s identity is all the more important in the face of potentially losing the Pawtucket Red Sox, said Butler and others, meaning this project is coming at an opportune time in the city’s history.

Some residents focused on the bridge as a tribute to Pawtucket’s past, others on a way to promote what’s happening here today, and still others said it needs to tell passersby what the city wants to be decades from now. Suggestions collected as part of an ongoing community engagement effort will be given to three potential artists when they come learn about the city in June.
Some of the suggestions brought up Monday included incorporating Pawtucket’s industrial past, the city’s rivers, the Slater Mill and a new National Park status, a vibrant arts scene, and the city’s great diversity and welcoming environment for all cultures, among other aspects.

One person at Monday’s meeting wrote on a post-it note that they want “no ghetto art, no sexist art, no racist art, and no advertising.”

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, of Mixed Magic Theatre, said the city is in “desperate need” of redefining itself. The new artwork should “in some way reflect what the city wants to be, what it will be in the future,” he said. “You can only celebrate the past so much” before you turn your eye to the future and give people reasons to come here.

Lifelong Pawtucket resident Ivan Gutierrez agreed, saying much of the city’s past has been replaced with modern amenities. Gutierrez said he wants to see youth involved in the process of planning the bridge art. This bridge has long been the dividing line between east and west, between Tolman High School and Shea High, he said, and he’d love to see the span “bring the city to one.”

Oak Hill resident Meghan Kallman agreed that young people should have a big say on the bridge. Involving them will make them feel like an “important part of the community” and give them a “sense of ownership,” she said.

Butler said she has reached out to schools and youth organizations and has every intention to make sure youth have a voice.

Though this bridge will have its limitations, said Butler and Sue Mara, of the Pawtucket Planning and Redevelopment Department, organizers of the arts project believe it can help make Pawtucket a better place to live and work in, act as an economic development tool, and promote interaction between residents.

The “Art Bridges Pawtucket” name has an obvious double meaning, said Butler, intended to highlight the project’s goal of bridging neighborhoods that were divided when the highway was built. The art on the bridge may take very recognizable forms or abstract forms, she said, but whatever the look, it will tell the story of Pawtucket.

Some residents expressed concern that a bridge as an arts piece could distract drivers on a section of highway that leads into the dangerous S-curves.

Officials said similar art in other places hasn’t led to more accidents and they hope it actually causes people to slow down. Who knows, said Planning Director Barney Heath, the bridge may even cause some people to look up from their phones.

The Department of Planning was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Grant last year that will allow artists to remake the nondescript George Street overpass into a “highly visible public art piece.” The art will be installed on the bridge’s walkway, fence, and the actual overpass structure, according to officials.

An NEA “Our Town” grant of $75,000 will be matched locally with another $75,000 from the city.

Partners on the project include the Pawtucket Foundation and Rhode Island Foundation.

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