Passionate in Providence

By Anne Diffily '73 / March / April 1998
December 28th, 2007
The word that comes to mind when you talk with Providence's best-known extrovert, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr., is passion. He loves politics, people, pasta, and above all, Providence. These days Cianci is on a roll: virtually assured of reelection next fall, he is a highly visible symbol of a city on the rise.

Although he has been mayor for all but five years since 1974, Cianci won't take credit outright for Providence's massive downtown renewal and cultural rebirth. "You could say," he says cagily, "that if [the renewal] didn't happen and Providence today was the way it was in 1974, they'd blame me."



Buddy on the move.


One of Cianci's strengths is an ability to turn skeptics into believers. "When we originally proposed uncovering the rivers," he notes, "many people thought I was crazy." Like a fox. The rivers now draw tourists, strollers, and all manner of festivals into Providence's very heart.

"What kind of mayor do you have to be," Cianci continues during a rapid-fire inventory of the city's assets, from four-star restaurants to four planned hotels, "to say `yes' when a guy in a beard walks into your office and tells you he wants to set the rivers on fire?" He promptly supplies the answer: "A risk taker! You can say that about me - I'm a risk taker."

So, in his own way, is Barnaby Evans '75, Cianci's bearded visitor who dared to set the rivers on fire. Last fall the mayor presented Evans with the city's Renaissance Award for his contributions to Providence's cultural ambience. At Brown Evans concentrated in biology; an eclectic reader, he moves easily from classical mythology to urban theory. He's a prominent member of Providence's thriving artistic community that has energized formerly-rundown factories and lofts around the city.

Like Cianci, Evans is passionate about Providence. Water Fire, his public art installation, has drawn increasingly large crowds during the past two summers (see "Riverfront Renaissance," page 36). "Everything is designed to break down natural inhibitions," Evans says of his work. "You get total strangers talking to one another - about the smell of the smoke, about the music, about how nice it is to see people out in the city."

The visitors' book that Evans sets up at each Water Fire is filled with glowing responses. "This was the most wonderful event I have ever attended in the U.S.A.," one tourist wrote. "The crowd was fantastic: respectful, thoughtful, and spiritual." As Evans points out, "A four-year-old can like [Water Fire] as much as an art historian." (Water Fire is scheduled for Commencement Weekend this year.)

Meanwhile, here's Buddy, as Cianci is known around town, cruising in one of two gondolas that ply the city's waterways. A master of the photo op, Cianci has posed with a jar of his marinara sauce, manufactured and sold locally with all profits going toward scholarships for Providence children. "I've got thirty-eight kids going to college," he crows. "Tell your readers that if they make a big donation to my scholarship fund, I'll take them on a gondola ride and sing them a song." We can't be sure just what the mayor will sing if you take him up on his offer, but we'll bet it will be rendered with passion.


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March / April 1998