(Providence, RI) At an Everyday Democracy board meeting here today, we met Barnaby Evans, the charismatic founder and leader of WaterFire Providence. Every couple of weeks, the downtown of this old city is transformed by the lighting of fires that float above the river. Boats bearing fires, flowers, and people also pass by, and the crowds are entertained and challenged by performances–music, dance, real funerals, libations, and other displays that evoke the myriad cultures of the state. Literally millions of people have observed and participated, and thousands help as volunteers.
I draw a few general lessons:
- The success of WaterFire depends on a fruitful interaction between a visionary individual with a non-profit corporation, on one hand, and all the performers and active audience members who use his framework to express and exchange their own ideas. Without either the centralized control or the open space for public creativity, the whole would not work.
- Important civic ideas (in this case, diversity and unity) can be communicated without words. WaterFire generally discourages narration and explanation in favor of movement, music, and symbol.
- It is effective to draw people into a public space with a glamorous, marquee event and then expose them to much more challenging and interactive events and activities.
- Attractive public spaces strengthen public life. The general degradation of American public buildings undermines civil society. But a beautiful public space can be created at relatively low cost through regular events. To be sure, downtown Providence had assets before Barnaby Evans founded WaterFire: 18th-century steeples and roofs on the skyline, and a tidal river in the heart of town. But downtown was generally considered ugly and deserted. Lighting the fires transformed the space immediately, and since then, the millions of visitors who have come to watch have encouraged private and public construction. Thus the durable infrastructure of downtown Providence is better because of the ephemeral fires.
Like the anti-fascist movement of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement of 1950-1965, a 21st century movement for democracy would need its own aesthetic and symbolic language. It would need more than programs and policies–also images, stories, and sounds. WaterFire is by no means the only example, but in its openness to mass public engagement, its commitment to volunteer labor (even if paid workers would be more efficient), its enthusiasm for cultural diversity, and its effort to create one common public space, it is exemplary.