I’ve been to every PVDFest since its inception, from the days when it was little more than a stage at Kennedy Plaza to the years where it seemed to take over the city for the weekend. It became an event that my friends and I would circle on the calendar every year.
When Mayor Brett Smiley announced the drastic changes to PVDFest earlier this year (change in location, change in date, smaller size, no open container, etc.), I was upset. I considered not going. Ultimately, I decided not to let my own cynicism get in the way of an event I’d spent all year looking forward to and I headed downtown Saturday with every intention of keeping an open mind.
Immediately it was clear that the changes were worse than I had even imagined. They had rendered the festival unrecognizable. Rather than the festival we all grew to love, we were presented with a beefed up farmers market.
Moving the location from downtown to the 195 land by the river confused the layout of the festival and made everything feel too spread out. There was no shade, and many of the vendors were so far down South Water Street that they were cut off from most foot traffic.
The change in date was also a problem. PVDFest in June marked the beginning of the most exciting time of the year in Providence. Everybody congregated downtown to enjoy the first days of summer sun, show off their new warm-weather outfits, and celebrate the end of winter. By September people are burned out— they’ve already had months of being out in the heat and in crowds. Scheduling PVDFest during the weekend of the Patriots season opener AND moving the location away from all of the downtown bars where people can watch makes absolutely no sense.
Then there was the festival’s approach to alcohol. Does our mayor really think so little of us that we can’t be trusted to walk around with drinks? This year alcohol was only allowed in one small beer garden that wasn’t close to the food trucks, the vendors, or the stages. If you came to the festival and wanted to have a beer, you could not take that beer to the stages to watch live music, you could not walk around with that beer and browse vendors, and you could not sit with that beer by the food trucks and eat lunch. What you could do is stand in a fenced off section of grass.
Who does this benefit? On Saturday afternoon, I walked by a stage with a band performing that couldn’t have had more than five people in the audience. We were told that the goal of these changes was to refocus this year’s festival on the arts but these decisions clearly hurt artists, they hurt musicians, they hurt downtown businesses and they hurt people attending the festival.
Obviously the weather was unfortunate. Instead of sheltering from the storm inside nearby businesses downtown, people were left running for parking garages. Rather than gathering their things and quickly bringing them inside, vendors were isolated from commercial streets, and left watching their inventories get destroyed. If I left the festival frustrated, I can only imagine how they feel.
I think the biggest disconnect is that the mayor has a misunderstanding of what PVDFest is. He made it clear that he wants it to be a family-friendly arts festival but what it really is is a celebration of the city. Yes, that includes artists, it includes families but it also includes young people, it includes people from every corner of the city.
I was born and raised in Providence. I went to public schools here. To me the festival has always been as much about the art, music and architecture of the city as it is a reunion. A weekend where I could walk down Washington Street and run into old football teammates or watch the skaters behind Trinity and grab a drink with someone from middle school. Where I could catch up with someone I used to see at the basketball courts while browsing shops on Westminster or pretend to know how to dance at the citywide electric slide at Kennedy Plaza.
This year I heard nothing leading up to PVDFest. My friends were noncommittal on going, social media was quiet. It was an afterthought. I barely saw anyone I knew on Saturday and the festival was over by 7 p.m.
It’s clear that these changes were a mistake, but there is no reason the mayor can’t restore PVDFest next year. I love Providence and there is nothing I’d rather do on a summer weekend than hang out downtown and celebrate my city, but if next year PVDFest resembles last weekend, I doubt I’ll be there.
Jackson Ferrari Ibelle grew up in Providence and now works as a hydroponic farmer and mover.