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Making room for the
arts in Pawtucket

By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent

PAWTUCKET, R.I. - Unless they're bound for a minor-league ballgame, most people who travel Route 95 between Boston and Providence see Pawtucket as just a dot on the map south of the Massachusetts border. It's a hardscrabble industrial city of 73,000, full of abandoned factory buildings. But if residents and city officials have their way, Pawtucket is on the cusp of a cultural renaissance.

Two years ago, Mayor James Doyle spearheaded the designation of Pawtucket's Arts and Entertainment District. The district comprises more than 60 blocks. Artists can waive the sales tax on art they sell there. Those who live and work in the district are also eligible for a state income-tax exclusion on any money their art generates. The city has lured two longstanding cultural institutions from Providence.

Stone Soup, a 20-year-old club that attracts folk musicians from all over the country, has taken up residence at the Slater Mill, the first textile mill in the United States and now a National Historic Site.

The Foundry, which puts on an annual holiday sale of work by local artists and craftspeople, has taken advantage of the no-sales-tax policy and set up shop downtown. Plans are in the works to develop an old armory building into a theater with studio, rehearsal, and office space for cultural nonprofits.

''We felt we had to leave our place in Providence,'' says Richard Walton, president of Stone Soup. ''We liked Slater Mill, but we were concerned about the rent, which was twice what we were paying. The city got us in touch with local businesspeople to help subsidize the rent. When we moved, they arranged to provide a truck, a driver, and worker to help us. They moved us. They've gone well out of their way to make our stay here financially feasible. In return, we've brought them a lot of publicity.''

As for those empty mill buildings - 90 throughout the city, and 22 in the arts district - Doyle is pushing the Rhode Island legislature to revamp building codes in order to make the prospect of creating artists' live/work space more attractive to developers.

Pat Zacks, president of Pawtucket Arts, an advocacy group founded last summer, says Doyle is responsible for the city's new status as an artists' town. ''You're looking at the rebirth of a city,'' she says. ''It's all the mayor's fault. He gave us hope. He made this possible. He never said no. He only saw the possibilities.''

Doyle, a City Council member for 27 years, admits to being a Johnny-come-lately to Pawtucket's cultural possibilities.

''I became mayor in 1998, and I was not an arts fan prior to that,'' he says. ''But I started to meet with these people, and it was an education. I saw what Pawtucket could be if we moved in this direction. It's an awakening.''

The Arts and Entertainment District is not a new idea; more than 90 have sprouted up around the country in the last decade, as legislators and city officials recognize the economic-development potential in the arts. Artists looking for affordable rents are often the first to move into depressed neighborhoods; their presence can turn what used to be a place to avoid into a hot spot for cultural events and restaurants. For all the good they do, the artists often get priced out once their neighborhoods become trendy and start the cycle in another downtrodden area.

Providence started a similar arts district at the same time Pawtucket did, with the same tax incentives. In Massachusetts, Worcester has instituted an arts district, where plans are in the works to develop artists' housing. Still, Pawtucket boasts the largest arts district of the three, geographically speaking, and it's already drawing artists from Boston, where the market for studios is increasingly tight.

Gwen and Plato Kangis moved from Newton to Providence 18 months ago, then started looking for studio space. He's a leather craftsman, and she manages his business. ''We could not afford Providence for artists' space,'' she says. She saw an article about Pawtucket's arts district and called the city. ''They were dynamite.''

She spoke with Herbert Weiss, the arts district's program manager. ''He asked how many square feet I was looking for and what my medium was. Then he sent me a list so we could go around and look at different spaces. He said, `Here are people to call to get a sense of what's happening.'''

The couple quickly found space in a factory building on Esten Avenue, for the rock-bottom price of $3 a square foot. (In Boston, you might pay $12 to $18 a square foot in the South End; in Hyde Park, Dorchester, and Roxbury, prices run $6 or $7 a square foot.) ''They did a terrific job on this studio,'' says Plato. ''They painted and insulated the walls, the ceilings. Put in new lights and new windows. They obviously want us here.''

Two years ago, Rick Roth moved his Cambridge company - Mirror Image, which designs high-end T-shirts - to Pawtucket. Many of his 30 employees, most of them artists, also made the move.

''The rents in Cambridge were not affordable for manufacturing,'' Roth says. ''Pawtucket was artist friendly. The city government really wants artists. The people who work for me - it's like I gave them a huge raise, because the cost of living is better.

''The people in Rhode Island are hardworking. But they've been beaten down with factories closing. There's a place here for people with vision, for artists and entrepreneurs. And there are so many well-lit spaces and beautiful brick buildings. If you were to bring a busload of artists down from Fort Point Channel, a good portion of them wouldn't get back on the bus to go back to Boston.''

Another businessman-artist, Morris Nathanson, was the first landlord to develop live/work space for artists in the city, starting 15 years ago, when the interior designer bought an old paper mill.

''I thought, `Wouldn't it be wonderful to create a consortium of people to work together in one building?''' he says. ''We went to the Pawtucket City Council and convinced them to create special zoning for loft space. We made a list of artists and craftsmen to invite to live here, who would work best with us: muralists, ceramic artists, graphic designers.''

Today, Nathanson leases 12 units to artists who also subcontract for his business. He hopes to develop another dozen units in the old mill next door. ''We're trying to convince people that these old mills have life in them and make great spaces,'' he says.

For some, Pawtucket has long been a well-kept secret. Internationally known artists have had studios here for years. Sculptor Howard Ben Tre owns the building where he's had his studio since 1984. Glass artist Steve Weinberg has a storefront downtown where he's made art since 1980. Painter Gretchen Dow Simpson, known for her dozens of covers for The New Yorker, rents a corner studio in an old dairy.

''I could never work in downtown Providence,'' Ben Tre says. ''Here I have easy access, right off 95. There's not the same density issue. Taxes are cheaper. And this is a smaller place. It's much easier getting a problem dealt with through the city. It's the difference between living in a small town and a big city. Plus, there are industrial suppliers in Pawtucket - that's great for art makers like me.'' He shrugs. ''I don't see any point to living in Boston. Access to foreign films? Hardly. It just doesn't make economic sense.''

''In 1998, if you said `arts community' and `the city of Pawtucket,' one could not be further from the other,'' says Doyle. ''We're not Boston or Providence, but we're this David that sits between two Goliaths, and we want people to come and appreciate the arts here. We're going to be a small city with a huge arts community. That's my vision.''

This story ran on page E06 of the Boston Globe on 5/20/2001. Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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