A groundbreaking was held early Monday for the Wexford Innovation Complex being constructed on former I-195 land in the heart of Providence‘s new Innovation and Design District. The project is projected to generate approximately $100 million in additional state revenues over the next 20 years.
The Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) (63,000 square feet), Brown University’s School of Professional Studies (50,000 square feet), and Johnson & Johnson (31,000 square feet) will be tenants in the nearly 195,000-square-foot Innovation Building. Construction is expected to take approximately two years.
In addition, CIC is also planning to locate an 8,000-square-foot Innovation Hall and Venture Cafe-dedicated civic spaces that are modeled after CIC’s highly successful District Hall in the Seaport District of Boston, where the innovation community can gather and exchange ideas.
Groundbreaking ceremonies are little rituals. Politicians and business people don hard hats and grab shovels in pantomime of laborers, to toss dirt in the air. But in today’s new era of desperate capitalism, these rituals seem to have been transformed from ritualized photo-ops to full fledged religious celebrations hearkening back to ancient and medieval times.
In the late middle ages massive Catholic cathedrals were financed by bishops who drew upon “every imaginable source of funds they could identify.” Gifts from secular rulers such as kings and tithes levied against parish churches were just two of many funding sources. This was a time when tax dollars and church donations were essentially the same, when church building was the business of the government, because the government was the church and vice versa.
Cathedrals were extremely profitable for the church. The bishops that oversaw them often led lavish lifestyles and expropriated a great amount of wealth from the poorest of parishioners.
Thanks to the First Amendment, Americans no longer pay taxes to or are required to tithe to churches they may or may not support. We have separated church and state. But through the use of sophisticated business funding schemes called public-private partnerships (PPPs), Americans pay taxes that are used by corporations to fund their profit centers, and these centers are often spoken of in overtly religious and classist ways.
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo‘s Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor evoked religion (and class) when he spoke about the governor. He called Raimondo’s words, spoken ahead of the Wexford Innovation Complex groundbreaking, “poetry.”
“You heard the poetry that accompanies the pushing, the prodding, the advocating, the leading that has led to this project,” said Pryor.
“This past week was the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, in the Jewish faith community,” he continued. “I was at Temple Beth-El and they use a prayer book called Mishkan HaNefesh and I was reminded of he governor. In the prayer book thee is a comment from Rabbi Yehuda who says: ‘Torah study is good together with an occupation, and to our sages who toil, from those who chop wood to those who raise cattle, from the storekeeper to the cobbler to the one who sold salt, to the doctors and scribes, let us give thanks to the tradition that sanctifies work. Let us honor those who toil and sustain the world in both noble and humble ways.'”
Turning to the Governor, Pryor continued, “Governor, thanks for producing a project that will generate jobs at every level… [and] to those who work in noble and humble ways, we honor all involved with this project.” [italics mine]
Like cathedrals of old, the Wexford Innovation Complex will be more than a mere building. Where cathedrals stretched to the sky invoking the promises of both heavenly and earthly reward, serving as symbols of piousness to all, the complex to be built in Providence is, as Governor Raimondo puts it, “a symbol to the rest of the world that Rhode island has momentum in this 21st century innovation economy…
“One of the things I love about this project is that it’s going to create jobs at every level. It’s going to create nearly a thousand jobs just building it… Then, when we’re in the building there’s going to be jobs like lab techs, assistants, folks that clean the building, all the way up to PhD engineers, executives and every level of entrepreneur in-between.”
Or as Pryor might say, putting it into class terms that hearken back to the medieval: There will be jobs for both the noble and the humble alike.
Pryor introduced Tim Rowe, founder and CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center, by noting the “transformative power” of Rowe’s previous work. Pryor also described Rowe as a “visionary.” This use of religious metaphor may be hyperbolic, but it is not accidental. Pryor is announcing the construction, after all, of a modern cathedral.
Rowe took the mic and almost immediately confirmed Pryor’s intimations of the divine, saying, “The Gods are smiling on this project, giving us this kind of weather.”
Rowe preaches the gospel of innovation, which allows economies to prosper. But innovation is a mysterious force. “What we know less about is this process of innovation, what actually causes it to happen,” said Rowe. “None of us knows exactly what happens, but it seems to start with the universities…”
Today, capitalism is the new Catholicism, venture capitalists are the new bishops, PPPs are the new cathedrals and the poor…
The poor are the same as they ever were: Struggling to survive as they fund hugely profitable buildings that at best will provide them “humble” jobs.