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"WaterFire" Ignites Revival in Providence, Rhode Island

In the New England city of Providence, Rhode Island, an unusual public art installation called WaterFire has helped revitalize the city's waterfront by attracting one million visitors each year, and bringing business to downtown restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues.

As music wafts through the evening air, thousands of people sit or stroll along the riverfront. They are attracted - like moths to a flame - by WaterFire. On most Saturday nights from May through October, the Providence River is ablaze with this unique art display. Nearly 100 bonfires - spaced along one kilometer of the river - float on submerged aluminum buoys, and rise and fall with the tide. One of the project directors, Gary Calvino, says that in addition to presenting a spectacle of light and music, WaterFire speaks to people on many levels.

"It's primal, with the mix of water and fire," says Mr. Calvino. "For each person, it brings something unique. There are gentlemen out there reminiscing of being around a campfire and things that don't happen much in our society anymore. The demographics of our crowd out there are all over the place: there's multicolor, multicultural, multi-generational. Three year olds enjoying it and 80 year olds enjoying it. What it does is slow us down."

WaterFire, which was created by artist Barnaby Evans in 1994, is designed to engage all the senses. Mr. Calvino says even the types of wood chosen for the bonfires play a part in the overall effect. "What we do is burn pine because we get that crackling, the crackling sound of pine," he says. "We burn cedar within the fires so that we get the aroma of cedar. Tonight, as you saw, we're getting the heat."

It takes a lot of effort to keep WaterFire going. University student Caitlin Quinn, who grew up here, is one of many staffers and volunteers who do everything from refueling the braziers with wood to answering questions from visitors.

"The first time I came to WaterFire was five years ago," recalls Ms. Quinn. "And I went every summer because I enjoyed it so much. I love the arts and music. And I love my city and my state. So I wanted to do something involved with all that as [much as] possible."

Today's lively Providence waterfront was a depressed area just a couple of decades ago. The river was choked with waste, and large sections of the riverbank were paved over with parking lots and highways. Tim Ray, a native of Providence who now helps publicize WaterFire, says his city used to be the butt of jokes. "There was no reason to come to Providence on a weeknight after 5:00 p.m. Your goal was always to get out of the city as fast as you got into it."

Dramatic redevelopment efforts in the 1990s cleaned up the Providence River and created new footbridges, river walkways and park areas. And WaterFire, a project that was launched in 1994, was seen as the symbol of the riverfront's renaissance.

When Tim Ray returned to his city after a long absence, he was amazed at the change: "I remember driving downtown on a Saturday night in summer and not being able to find a parking space," says Mr. Ray. "That, to me, was the first sign that something was really different here. On a Saturday night in Providence there were people here? That just couldn't be!"

But it was. And by attracting crowds of visitors on Saturday evenings, WaterFire has had a huge economic impact on Providence, bringing more than $33 million in business to the city annually. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who see WaterFire each year, Mr. Ray says more than half come from out of state. "They were coming from way out in New England … from New York, Pennsylvania and California. Foreign visitors. People have heard about this phenomenon called WaterFire and if they're making a visit anywhere to New England, they're making sure to make a stop in Providence if WaterFire is on that night.

The effect of fire on water has been so dramatic in Providence that other riverfront cities are considering installing their own public art displays to light up the night. WaterFire creator Barnaby Evans is visiting several possible sites, both in the United States and other countries, to assess their suitability for the displays