Saturday night I went to the Revival! show, which reopened the Columbus Theatre on Broadway after years of vacancy, finally allowing the Theatre’s years-old ’Opening Soon’ marquee to host a far cheerier message: “Sold Out.”
The Columbus was packed and the sets by Brown Bird and The Low Anthem were, unsurprisingly, excellent. And the building, while not yet a finished product, really is a gem.
But the vibe in the Columbus last night seemed to go beyond the excitement produced by a good show. This is an unscientific measure, but from the people I talked to myself and the conversations I overhead and the general ebullience I observed on the faces of the (approximately 1,000?) concert-goers filling the long-abandoned hall, I could tell there was another emotion shared by many throughout the course of the evening—hope. Hope that this humming, spirit-filled theater might be a tool for, and a symbol of, the revitalization of the neighborhood and the city at large.
“This building comes alive for an event like this,” said Bryan Principe, City Councilman of Ward 13, who seemed to be having this same thought when I spotted him sitting towards the back of the theater with a big grin on his face. “The whole street comes alive. There’s electricity in the air. It’s absolutely a boon for the neighborhood.”
Principe had a good point. I can’t remember when I’ve seen Broadway like it was last night, lined with parked cars as far as the eye could see, the sidewalk bustling with people and the street filled with energy and excitement.
The social and cultural benefits provided by a place like the Columbus–which will soon be regularly hosting concerts, comedy shows, and other community meetings and events–are plain to see. But it’s important to also keep in mind the economic stimulus such spaces have the potential to offer to our city. The energy and the excitement and the crowd that the Columbus drew to Broadway this weekend resulted in an influx of folks simply wanting to be there, in that neighborhood, in our capital city, eating and drinking and talking and spending their money in the community
What I’m saying isn’t novel, of course. In Providence it is not a new idea that the arts can serve as a potent economic engine for the community, and I’m not just talking about WaterFire–just look at the unbelievable work AS220 has done to bring life and vibrancy and beauty to our downtown. Our city’s and our state’s amazing artistic foundation has been one of the pillars of our economy for some time, and as such, it must be one of the central pillars of our economic revitalization. That’s why Mayor Taveras (who gave remarks at Saturday’s opening), was absolutely right when he said, “This building represents what’s best about the City of Providence.”
And it’s why all of us–policymakers and consumers alike–should be prioritizing support for ventures like the Columbus, which epitomize the lesson that collectively, we can bring something empty and forgotten back, and make it work, and make it beautiful again. It might sound crazy, but for those few hours I was in that space, reveling in the rush of reincarnation, it really did all feel possible. We can revitalize, we can rebuild. Let’s keep it up.