To mark the one year anniversary of her work Secret Passage, Voluminous Arts founder Gavilán Rayna Russom revisits its themes through an in-depth investigation of the industrial development of her birthplace of Providence, Rhode Island. By intertwining research into several threads of her hometown’s complex history with personal reflections on her foundational experiences with mediumship as a child; she presents a constellation of viewpoints from which to engage the East Side Rail Tunnel and its surrounding area. In the process she interrogates and disturbs settler colonial myth-making and the ideas about time and progress that accompany it. Passageways and Portals is an interdisciplinary text offered as a tool to deepen the possibilities of engagement with the music on Secret Passage .
Secret Passage was released as a digital album and limited edition cassette on Voluminous Arts March 10th, 2020 and was reissued as a vinyl 2xLP on Superior Viaduct sub-label W. 25th January 22nd, 2021.
Part I , Part II , Part III, Part IV
Black residents of Providence “maintaining the inside walk” was the spark that set off the October 18, 1824 riot in Addison’s Hollow; a neighborhood on the East Side which in the aftermath of the riot became known in the press as Hardscrabble. It is part of what became known as Lippitt Hill in the late 60’s and is currently officially called Mount Hope. During the night time riot, whites entered the neighborhood with lanterns, as it was a dark moon, and began to tear down homes with axes, eventually destroying 20 houses, carrying off some furniture to be sold at auction and burning several more items while a crowd of white spectators cheered them on. In a 2019 article, David Brussat describes Addsion’s Hollow at the time of the riot:
“Hardscrabble in 1824 was a poor hamlet of respectable families headed mostly by free black tradesmen, craftsmen and servants in the town of Providence. Blacks and others along Olney Lane (now Olney Street) lived cheek by jowl, however, with prostitutes, gamblers and others of low repute on the edges of society.”
Brussat’s quote is impressionistic and provides important details about Addison’s Hollow while at the same time it illuminates the views of the neighborhood many had at the time, which have lingered into the way it and the riot have been historicized. These views are identifiable as connected to what has come to be known as “respectability politics.”. Interrogating and complicating these frameworks is one of the aims of this essay. In the emerging urban and settler colonial space of early 19th century Providence, custom dictated that Black folks must defer to whites when passing each other while walking in town and move closer to the street to let whites use the sidewalk. This custom was often enforced through violence. The “street” at that time was little more than an unpaved dirt road, so stepping closer to the street meant being more likely to be splashed with mud by a passing carriage. To “maintain the inside walk” meant refusing to do this. The institution of slavery had begun being slowly dismantled in Rhode Island in 1784 using a phased model. This phased model meant that while enslaved people were not officially emancipated until 1824 when slavery was abolished in Rhode Island, their children were no longer automatically considered property and were allowed a pathway to emancipation. By 1824 there were already about 1,200 Black residents of Providence who had achieved emancipation. This happened through a complex of factors. On the legal side, a growing movement amongst the state’s white Quaker population began to question the moral ethics of both the slave trade and the ownership of other human beings in light of their faith’s doctrine of spiritual equality. Many Quakers who had previously held enslaved people as property began to manumit them, leading not only to the emancipation of individuals but to a destabilization of the institution itself, since many of these Quakers held sway within the colonial governments. Additionally there was a growing abolitionist sentiment among white Rhode Islanders of other faiths who petitioned for the end of the sale and ownership of other human beings. Most critical to the process of emancipation, though, were the actions of enslaved Black people in Rhode Island on behalf of themselves and their families. The war against the British for colonial independence presented several opportunities for resistance and emancipation which they used in transformative ways towards their own liberation. For a time, Black soldiers were offered emancipation in return for their service in the war. This dramatically shifted both the legal and moral frameworks that had previously legitimized their enslavement. Many enslaved people fled their imprisoners during this time, while others negotiated with them successfully on ethical grounds that they and their families should be released since; if one was human enough to be enlisted in the war, one must also be human enough to not be considered property. As Rhode Island’s laws began to change, it became permissible to buy freedom for an enslaved person by financially compensating the person or people imprisoning them. A growing population of Black Providence residents who had achieved freedom for themselves could then insist upon payment for their labor and use that payment to buy their family and community members out of enslavement. In doing so they expanded and accelerated the emancipation process. While most Black residents of Providence were no longer enslaved by the time of the Hardscrabble riot, their freedom was limited, ambiguous and in constant renegotiation with both the white citizenry and the state’s government. In her 2016 book Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, Christy Clark-Pujara gives more detail:
“The vast majority of black and mixed-race Rhode Islanders, as we know, were free by the turn of the nineteenth century; however, free was a relative term. People of color still had to contend with slavery on multiple levels. The practice of slavery still continued, as did statuatory slavery. Free blacks also had to cope with the legacies of slavery-most urgently the poverty that came with nothing but freedom. Moreover, being free did not mean having rights. Free blacks had ambiguous legal protections because they were not universally recognized as citizens. Though the legal victories that led to emancipation were real, they were accompanied by the reverse-legal losses that retracted these newfound gains. Interracial marriages were banned in 1789, and African Americans men were barred from voting in 1822.”
This marginal, incomplete and constantly shifting form of freedom brought forth new forms of resistance on the part of Black Rhode Islanders, which was accompanied by an increased and reactionary hostility on the part of both the white citizenry and the local government. In addition to these factors; competition over limited sources of employment and a mood of resentment among working white people at “suddenly” having to share work and wages with their Black neighbors, who they had previously seen as unpaid labor-generating property, exacerbated building racial tensions. The “Shingle Bridge” which crossed the Moshassuck river near what is called Smith Street today was a place where working people would gather in search of work. A critical source written by a Black author about this period is The Life of William J. Brown, an autobiography published in 1883. Brown’s text describes the connection between Addison’s Hollow and the Shingle Bridge in terms of the economics of Black life in 1820’s Providence:
“In the Northwest part of the city was a place called Addison Hollow, but was nicknamed Hardscrabble. A great many colored people purchased land there, because it was some distance from town, and hence quite cheap. They put up small houses for themselves, and earned their living in various ways. They could be seen almost any time, with their saw-horse, standing some on the Great Bridge, some on Shingle Bridge, and some on Mill Bridge, waiting for work.”
An important site of access to paid labor, the Shingle Bridge became a contested space with divisions drawn along racial lines. Whites who sought to impede the progress of Black emancipation attempted to regulate use of the bridge through violence and intimidation, with Black residents often responding through collective occupation of the bridge and refusal to move. Maintaining the inside walk in Hardscrabble was a part of this practice of occupation and, thus, a form of resistance on a previously unavailable level; one that challenged the white supremacist frameworks that both legitimized and grew out of the institution of slavery. In an 1824 pamphlet that recorded the trial of the white instigators of the riot, the situation that led up to it is described as follows:
“Owing to the difference in the severity of our Police and that of the neighbouring cities in relation to the blacks, the number had increased in this town, as ascertained by a recent enumeration, to upwards of 1200 persons. Among this number there are a great many industrious and honest individuals, who in their departments render themselves useful members of society; but the mass, as might be inferred, can hardly be considered a valuable acquisition to any community, and their return to the respective places from whence they came, probably would not be considered a public calamity. Between this class and the whites bickerings and antipathies would naturally arise. This had long been partially the case, until on the evening previous to the Riot, a sort of battle royal took place between considerable parties of whites and blacks, in consequence of an attempt on the part of the latter to maintain the inside walk in their peregrinations through town. Under this excitement, on the following evening a large number of the white population assembled on the great Bridge, and after some consultation, the greater part repaired to Hard-Scrabble, which they laid almost entirely in ruins.”
11 individuals connected to this destruction were charged with rioting and tried. Most were acquitted and those that were charged were charged with lesser crimes, then let off. Natanael Metcalf, who is largely believed to be the initial instigator and leader of the riot was later appointed town crier. The trial and the report quoted above both illustrate the white supremacist perspective that had already entrenched itself in the local government. The warped language of the pamphlet, although antiquated in its grammar, is remarkably similar in tone to that still in use today when the press reports on issues of racist policing and white nationalist violence. The procedures and perspectives of the trial are also consistent with the pervasive inequalities embedded in the U.S. justice system today. Although clearly connected to the shifting dynamics among working people using the Shingle Bridge as an access point to employment, documentation is unclear as to whether the decision to maintain the inside walk by the individuals involved in the incident the night before the riot was spontaneous or the result of previous planning and organization. Newspaper accounts from the time are largely framed in “law and order” terms and respectability politics, and the articles that describe the events leading up to the riot contain enough openly anti-Black sentiment as to not be reliable in terms of objectivity. In his article Providence Newspapers and the Racist Riots of 1824 and 1831, attorney John Crouch describes one of these accounts:
“Two days before the ‘Hardscrabble’ riots, the Providence Beacon editorialized on "Our Black Population." The Beacon, published almost single-handedly by William Spear, was described simply as ‘a fearless paper’ by one of the rioters' lawyers, Chief Justice William Staples, in his Annals of Providence. It advocated universal suffrage and vowed to unmask "vice, immorality and hypocrisy" indiscriminately. Spear was sickly, prickly, righteously wrathful, and chronically short of funds.
...Spear lamented that blacks were ‘naturally vicious and wicked,’ ‘profligate’ and ‘worthless.’ He elaborated that groups of blacks had taken to forcing whites off the sidewalks, and the previous weekend they had defeated a white crowd for possession of the Smith Street bridge, since nature had given them disproportionate ‘physical strength.’ A stone had wounded ‘a respectable lady’ on the breast. Spear warned that Providence after dark was now ‘absolutely dangerous for females.’”
William J. Brown’s writing, quoted earlier for his 1883, autobiography, The Life of William J. Brown also occasionally relies on a moral framework that conflates resistance with misbehavior and suggests that the neighborhood’s low rents “...drew a class of bad men and women, so that the good were being continually molested, having no protection.” Brown does, however, describe in detail an incident related to “maintaining the inside walk” in which he was personally involved which creates a more well rounded picture:
“Colored people had little or no protection from the law at those times, unless they resided with some white gentleman that would take up their case for them. If you were well dressed they would insult you for that, and if you were ragged you would surely be insulted for being so; be as peaceable as you could there was no shield for you. One day I was going in company with another young man to an evening school, carrying our lamps with us which we used in school. Two colored ladies were close behind us followed by two white men, who ordered them off the sidewalk, or they would kick them off. The females fearing they would do so, went out into the street and walked until they came on the walk near us. The men then ordered us off. My companion gave me the lamp and grappled with one of them, who being a tall, strong man, threw him into the gangway, where he fell striking on a joint bone of an ox.”
Based on these sources and a more filled in context, the event that precipitated the Hardscrabble riot does appear to have been a decision made by a group of Black residents acting together in defiance of racist custom. Brown’s text indicates, from a first hand perspective, that members of the white citizenry of early Providence displayed open hostility towards their Black neighbors based on white supremacist assumptions. While historical memory of the riot has reinforced these assumptions across time by highlighting the actions of white people as historically important, it is in fact the actions of Providence’s Black residents and their refusal to be intimidated that merits remembering as an important event among the rich lineages of Black resistance to the dehumanizing, fundamentally racist, frameworks of the United States. The riot, and the destruction of homes and property that occurred during it, were attempts to punish this group and their neighbors for this act of resistance. While most historical accounts of Addison’s Hollow and the riot attempt to delineate; as modern news reports continue to, between imagined “good” and “bad” Black individuals, no such delineation was made in the violence of the riot. All the homes in the neighborhood were destroyed as punishment for a group of people simply staying on the side of the sidewalk they were walking on, while Black.
Early settler colonial modes of categorizing people did not leave room for nuance, complexity or more spectral ideas about racial identity. Regularly the population was grouped into simply white, Black and “colored.” While the requirements for whiteness were strictly managed, both Black and “colored” were often vaguely assigned based on casual observation. Being assigned to one of these groups regimented one’s realm of possibility, which was the main purpose of this type of categorization. It was designed to assign different levels of access to wealth and power based on skin color, not give access to one’s ancestral connections. There were many residents of Addison’s Hollow who were of Indigenous descent, and the negotiation of paid labor on the Shingle Bridge was a significant part of their complex experience of coping with the settler colonial entity that was encroaching upon their homelands. In her 2020 book Native Providence: Memory, Community and Survivance in the Northeast, Patricia E. Rubertone brings a needed perspective and complexity to these histories:
“Much like Providence’s other Native homelands, Lippitt Hill’s boundaries were permeable with people of different ethnicities and economic means crossing over and intermingling for work and entertainment. In sections such as Addison’s Hollow (nicknamed Hardscrabble) along the west bank of the Moshassuck river and the Olney Street area called Snowtown (considered to have been traditionally, if not strictly, African American) many residents were Native American-some with African American ancestry. As in Providence’s urban homelands, they would have bumped into, come across and interconnected with each other. Their shared experiences and bloodlines, along with labels such as ‘African Indians’ and ‘Afro-Narragansetts,’ hardly begin to describe the complicated individual and collective histories of Lippitt Hill's Native residents, let alone shed light on the complexities of identity formation and ascription in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century New England.”
In this more nuanced picture of the context in which these riots occurred, a complex of economic factors brought on by the progression of the settler colonial entity towards industrialization also plays a significant role. In her 2017 article, How Two Riots Made Providence a City, Sophie Hagen explores these, in part through the work of Joanne Pope Melish:
“Joanne Pope Melish, who has a Ph.D in American Civilization from Brown University and is associate professor emerita at the University of Kentucky, argues that a central problem undergirding the riots and other forms of racial conflict today is one of distance: prejudice grew as black and white people moved further away from each other. Rich and poor people had lived in close quarters in colonial times, but at the end of the 18th century, poor people were pushed to the margins, forming ‘sites of racial mixing’ that began to be seen as ‘disorderly and a problem.’ The participants in the riots were not, contrary to some reports, the poorest whites, who lived with blacks and formed families with them. It was white former artisans who had recently been forced into factory work by industrialization and resented it. They ‘latched onto racism,’ says Melish, ‘as an engine of respectability.’”
Addison’s Hollow was a “site of racial mixing”; a place where Black, Indigenous and mixed race people owned property and ran businesses patronized by an interracial clientele. It was a largely unsupervised zone, being thought of as not worth paying attention to; until the riots when it became publicly touted as “disorderly and a problem.” Previous to the riot many residents of Providence did not even know it existed. Within the neighborhood's permeable and mutable boundaries, many forms of critical exchange were practiced; some documented and some lost to time. Black business owners ran “dance halls”, sometimes with liquor stores, snack stands and bars operated by other, independent business people as part of them. Women operated sex work establishments both connected to specific houses and buildings and in more independent ways. Black and Indigenous individuals cooked and sold foods to neighbors. Services of folk healing through herbal and spiritual remedies were practiced, shared and exchanged for goods, services or money. People built networks of mutual aid and community. These goods and services were also provided to people from outside the neighborhood who came there specifically to purchase them. Sailors in particular often found comfort, nourishment, companionship, joy and a sense of connection in the communities of Addison’s Hollow. However, the pressures of life at sea and the beginnings of a highly industrialized economy, coupled with the lack of stake these more transient visitors had in the communities that nourished them led to violence and abuse, often directed at women; specifically sex workers, and the places where they worked, like the “dance hall” that was the first place attacked in the riot. Residents of Hardscrabble often dealt with these disturbances on their own, as a community; defending themselves when needed. When the city government and the public at large responded to the riot, these forms of exchange were not considered, or were labeled as disruptive. The rioters were praised for uprooting them. Many in Providence’s citizenry demanded an increase in policing and more intrusive and aggressive forms of government to insure similar incidents would not occur in the future. Providence’s charter as a city arose from a demand by the white citizenry to create a more centralized form of power that would eradicate these unsupervised zones. Rather than address the root causes of the issue, or the people who had lost their homes and communities, both the government and the citizenry at large relied on the economic promises of industrialization and the consolidation of power within the structures of the settler colonial entity to provide a solution. This left much unresolved and unaddressed. Neither centralized settler colonial power nor its extractive economic processes could deal with what was happening; in fact they had more to do with setting it in motion and propelling the disorientation and conflict forward. Illusions of progress suppressed and muted what contemporary activists and organizers call “bottom-up” forms of power and social organization and, unable to fully eradicate them, began a relentless and unending process of displacement. While the “new” over and over again redrew maps and visual landscapes, layers of unresolved energy began to accumulate in what had formerly been unsupervised zones of human connection.
Although there is some discussion about the exact location of Addison’s Hollow/Hardscrabble, most researchers place it somewhere between the intersection of Charles and Orms St and Olney St. (formerly Olney’s Lane), with one extensively researched account placing it almost exactly where the Providence Marriott stands today. Regardless of its precise locations, it was close in proximity to the place where the West Portal of the East Side Rail Tunnel would open in 1908, 84 years after the Hardscrabble riot.
I made and released Secret Passage as a way of celebrating the places in my experience that were free of surveillance, policing and the enforcement of rhythmic codes of consumption. It was a way of visioning and opening consciousness around the possibilities of a world without capitalism, police and prisons. The original tape and digital album came out on March 10th, 2020 and I had little idea of what would begin to happen around me just two days later as the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 virus a global pandemic. I also had little idea how forcefully the power, presence and mythology of the unsupervised “Temporary Autonomous Zone” would foist itself upon the mainstream public consciousness in the ensuing months, as Covid continued to lay bare the horrifying inequalities of life in the United States and resistance movements created new tools to address it under the conditions of the pandemic. As the different stories of these zones, some more temporary than others, began to unfold, I began to think on a deeper level about why spaces like the Tunnel, “illegal” and DIY clubs and art spaces and the unused architectures they often existed in were so compelling and important for me. I began to connect the dots around the ways in which these spaces created potential access points to ancestral energy and the dead that can often be obscured by Eurocentrist narratives of progress and consumption based models of time, which had been something I was exploring on a parallel register. While historical research has been a helpful tool in this process, my interest isn’t really historical. History makes use of and often takes for granted a linear timeline and attempts to chart along that linear timeline how people got from where they were at a certain time to where they are now. History speaks about events in the past as things that no longer exist. My interest is not so much in how things became the way they are today as what lies beneath the surface of what we perceive as the present. This requires thinking about time differently, and also understanding that the body is a finely tuned divining rod and amplifier that connects to time in a way that exceeds linear temporality. As a child, teenager and young adult, I often experienced time as simultaneous; all the things that had ever happened, are happening and will happen all happening at the same time. These were experiences where I could feel, in my body, and sometimes see and hear the ways in which a place was permeated by all the events that had ever occurred there. For a long time I didn’t understand what was happening to me in the moments when time would open up like this. I found these moments frightening and disorienting and attempted to distract myself from them; often with drugs, alcohol, codependent relationships and other compulsions. When I saw Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining for the first, and then many subsequent times, I had a fairly intense sense of identification with Danny Torrance and his own moments of time-in-space becoming simultaneous which Dick Halloran describes as “shining”. In general, I was always both terrified of and drawn to horror movies that accurately captured, albeit in heavily stage-managed ways, these sudden unveilings. About 15 years ago my sensitivity to this simultaneity, as well as the cumulative effects of the compulsions I was using to avoid it reached a crisis point and I experienced a flooding of time overlaps during a three day period which clinicians would later describe as a psychotic break. The experiences I had over those days set me on a new path, one in which my own healing process was central and critical. As I began to seek and find support I was encouraged to “strengthen the vessel” that these haunting energies seemed to urgently want to pour into: my body. It was suggested to me that I begin this process by caring for myself so that I could slowly move away from the compulsion to avoid these energies and instead move towards embracing them as a special way to be of service. I began to do this; taking simple steps to care for my body and spirit, and began to experience healing. Along with that healing came a desire to more deeply understand the world around me.
I came across the histories of Addison’s Hollow and the Hardscrabble riot while researching the neighborhoods I grew up in on Providence’s East Side in the 1970’s and 80’s. As part of the healing process described above I was beginning to uncover memories of the intense racial tensions present in my childhood neighborhood and schools, and the violence that often erupted around them. I wanted to understand these experiences in ways that I hadn’t been capable of as a child. Additionally, I needed to find context for the incredibly intense experiences that I’d had in my childhood home and in nearby liminal zones such as junk yards, abandoned houses, vacant lots, train yards and cemeteries. I began to gain support and information that helped me contextualize these experiences, during which I would seemingly fall through a hole in the linear timeline into an accumulation of energies gathered in a place, as mediumship aka “talking to dead people”. My mediumship experiences seemed to be constantly haunted by the unresolved temporal scars of land theft, racism and attempted genocide that had established the social and economic circumstances present in my daily life, and as such made a deep emotional impact on my childhood psyche. Reading about Addison’s Hollow I was immediately struck by its proximity to the East Side Rail Tunnel. During and after my experiences in and around the Tunnel, I had often wondered who exactly were the ghosts that were wailing in us there, because it was surely one of the most haunted places I’ve ever spent time. Connecting the dots of the stories of the Hardscrabble riot with my own experiences and understanding of how the dead continue to animate the waking present gave direction and motivation to that casual wonder, and inspired me to give some depth to the ideas and evocations of Secret Passage on the occasion of its one year anniversary and its recent vinyl reissue by West 25th. Although no one was killed in the Hardscrabble riot; a way of life for the people who had called the neighborhood home was ended through violence, which left a crimp in time there to which I am sure many of their ghosts eventually returned. And as I began to learn more and more about the events that took place on the land in and around the East Side Rail Tunnel, more and more of these crimps in time began to add up. So much so, in fact, that I’ve needed to leave many of them out of this account. My hope here is to present a different perspective on the way events unfold over time in a specific place, and an idea about how the creative arts, especially music, can create access points to this unfolding. Critical to this perspective is an understanding that traumatic events don’t simply go away because they happened “in the past”.
One aspect of mediumship that I’ve spent the balance of my life bringing into focus is the way in which it troubles and complicates linear ideas of time and, by extension, progress. I’m deeply indebted to two scholars in particular; Rasheedah Phillips and Todd Ramon Ochoa, for the ways in which their work has given shape, context and, perhaps most importantly linguistic form, to my experiences of talking to dead people. Phillips’ work locates linear understandings of clock and calendar time within a larger framework of colonization, identifying ways in which they have been deliberately mobilized during the settler colonial process in persistent attempts to shatter ancestral memory and more expansive experiences of temporality held within Black individual and collective experience. In her remarkable text Dismantling the Master(s) Clock(work Universe) she explains:
“In general, an indigenous African space-time cultural traditions time consciousness has been described as having a backwards linearity, in that when events occur they immediately move backward towards what John Mbiti described as Zamani, or macrotime. In many Indigenous African cultures and spiritual traditions, time can be created, is independent of events, is not real until experienced and is often intimately connected to genealogical, astrological and ecological cycles… Future events are situated in a potential time, until experienced or actualized. Those events do not depend on some specific clock time or calendar date for their manifestation. Instead time depends on the quality of the event and the person experiencing it. Once the future event is experienced, it instantaneously moves backward into the present and past dimensions. Those two dimensions bear the most ontological significance, where ‘a person experiences time partly in his own individual life, and partly through the society which goes back many generations before his own birth’ according to Dr. Mbiti.”
“Modern-day mechanical clock time and its ancillary linear temporal rhythms were encoded into the enslaved Black African by means of the whip, and other forms of torture and physical violence, and enslaved Africans, through this violence, force and torture came to internalize some form of a linear time construct.
Simultaneously they were forbidden any access to the future in much the same way they were denied access to full humanity...
...Slavery was where time was inculcated into our very skin, where the ring of the bell or the tick of the clock regulated our fate, labor, birth and death, taking over the natural rhythms and spirits, spatio-temporal orientation and consciousness”.
Todd Rmon Ochoa investigates and archives Black trans-Atlantic healing modalities, particularly those developed and innovated in Cuba. In his 2010 study, Society of the Dead, he examines Cuban Palo; a set of what practitioners call “reglas” or rules that form a cogent spiritual/technological system which takes its central trunk of inspiration from the Bantu people of Central Africa. Palo exceeds what Europeans might classify as a religion, although it does carry within its practices and traditions a complex cosmology and an array of beliefs about existence, as well as guidelines about morality and conduct based on these beliefs. It is a practical system for engaging with the ideas about existence that it proposes. One of Palo’s central propositions is the concept of Kalunga. This term is both mutable and highly specific. It can be understood to mean the sea, but in a very particular context; as not only the expanse of water from which life emerges and flourishes but also the dwelling place of the dead en masse as a collective force. To give shape to this concept for those who do not practice Palo themselves, Ochoa begins by enumerating many terms Cubans use to talk about, or more accurately around Kalunga, which are drawn from West African and Spanish lexicons to attempt to define it, and then extends this practice into his own lexicon:
“Kalunga, el muerto, iku - others in Palo will talk of lango- to this proliferating language of the dead I would like to add my own term. To better communicate Kalunga as a place of immanence, I would like to speak of 'the ambient dead.' I do this because at times Kalunga, in its saturating yet barely discernable influence, was like an ‘atmosphere’ or a ‘climate.’ I borrow from the vocabulary of meteorology and speak of a climate of the dead with zones of high or low pressure. Promise or dread are felt in these zones as lingering potentials. When the ambient dead is felt, which is not always (climate is so often in the background), it is felt as a pocket of high or low pressure, a tension inside one’s gut that runs up the nape of the neck, becoming a moment of anticipation or fear.
Kalunga, the ambient dead, is the immediacy, or plane of immanence, of Palo inspiration. From it emerge objects and subjects, like clients and healers. The ambient dead is a climate of transformation, complete with zones of woe and marvel, flashes of inspired intuition, and thunderclaps of astonishment that echo in the cavities of our bodies to wake us from our petrified thoughts.”
Kalunga or the ambient dead, proposes a framework of embodied and experienced time which allows all things that have happened, are happening and will ever happen to exist, and to be accessed, simultaneously through the methods of conversational interchange with the “fluid immanence of the dead'' made available by this particular form of ontological cartography. The scholarly approaches of both Ochoa and Phillips undermine the belief so critical to colonialism that Eurocentric narratives of technological progress can actually edit time; making that which is unpleasant, shameful or unresolved vanish into the past.
The residues of knowing and understanding that have accumulated through the conversations between my experiences of mediumship and the work of these scholars have sharply inflected my perspective on what is conventionally labeled as “historical.” While I opened this piece by citing dates and events that, through a linear framework of clock and calendar time appear historical, my orientation here is away from historicization and towards a view of time that is cumulative and cyclical. From this view, in the case of the “historical event” that I began by discussing; the Hardscrabble riot is still occurring right now, as are the events that set it in motion and the events that occurred in reaction and response to it. Events such as these are particularly prone to becoming stuck in the fluid and cyclical movement of time, accumulating intensity as they continue to remain unresolved. Ancestral temporality is like that. Injustice, harm, cruelty and ignorance; all forms of trauma, pause and pull at its need to flow, revisit and remake itself. In recent years, discussions about individual trauma and its effects on the body and perception have become more accepted and widespread as the irrefutable evidence piles up. As the conversation expands and becomes more imperative it has grown to also include trauma as an inter-generational phenomenon, passed down through families of origin and environments. A central component of the experience of trauma is the way in which it distorts time. In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel Van Der Kolk describes some of the ways in which trauma causes a collapse of past and present experiences:
“Dissociation is the essence of trauma. The overwhelming experience is split off and fragmented, so that the emotions, sounds, images, thoughts, and physical sensations related to the trauma take on a life of their own. The sensory fragments of memory intrude into the present, where they are literally relived. As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed”
What I am proposing is that this phenomenon occurs not only in bodies, but in the land, in the earth. This is something I have consistently explored through mediumship, the creative arts and the places in which they overlap, most formally during my 2019 residency performances at National Sawdust called “Physicality.” The persistence of this energetic imprinting; the way it blocks nourishing ebbs and flows, and the responsibilities it entails is more perceptible in some places than in others. It can often be obscured by illusions of newness, rituals of consumption and spaces of highly programmed activity through the use of hypnotic aesthetics, constant supervision, hijacking of adrenaline glands and misdirection.
The Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s West Side, billed as a “triumph of culture, commerce and cuisine” and a “template for the future of cities” is a great example of this phenomenon. Surrounded by highly controlled “art” experiences, consumption stations and the urgent movements of bodies goaded into “taking it all in,” it can be difficult to tune into the undulating waves of ancestral energy that permeate a spot so terrifyingly located within a nexus of unresolved and contested interrelationships. Recently, Hudson Yards’ central artistic attraction “The Vessel '' was closed indefinitely because of the frequency with which suicides were occuring there. Having experienced decades of suicidal ideation myself, I have no wish to celebrate these deaths, they are in fact extremely tragic. The deaths do, however, highlight the ways in which unresolved issues with the dead persist and linger even in a space which has been engineered to obscure them. Despite the glossy surfaces and distractions that are often used to train our attention away from what the dead are saying, reminders can sometimes push through in shocking ways. The Hudson Yards is a former train yard that has been “developed” into a zone of consumption. The East Side Rail Tunnel was a former train tunnel that had simply remained still after its use in networks of consumption had moved on to other zones. One thing that made it so valuable as a site of multiple forms of inner exploration for me as a teen was the absence of programming, consumption rituals, supervision and the particular types of hypnotic aesthetics that tend to accompany them. Without the heavy mechanics of misdirection that these elements of market-framework-time and adrenaline-hijacking such as advertising rely on, it was relatively easy for me to be with the energies present in the cyclical and cumulative time held there. Each time I approached the Tunnel my body would tense, my awareness would heighten. The air would seem to thicken and tremble as I would cross the threshold of its gaping mouth. I would become stiller, more careful and my stomach would begin to behave more like an ear, absorbing information in waves of felt sound. I’ve experienced similar things at drumming ceremonies designed to induce trance and communication with the ancestral and divine. I experience them when I read cards or walk in a cemetery. In the Tunnel these sensations were overwhelmingly intense and often terrifying.
Addison’s Hollow had been very close to where the Tunnel’s west portal opened, about midway between it and the house I grew up in. My entire life until 5th grade more or less took place in a circle bisected by the Tunnel. Peeling back layers through traditional research methods and through unpacking my own childhood experiences in the context of mediumship and unresolved ancestral energies many dots connected and many avenues opened up, all of which gave depth and shape to my memories.
The East Side Rail Tunnel lies along a vector of contested land and displacement. Hiding in plain sight (site) among these multiple displacements is its very existence as a forced opening into the earth, one that was envisioned, begun, completed, used and discarded without consulting or asking the permission of that earth; the technologies once available to people of European descent to accomplish this having been long lost and forgotten, as well as no longer of interest (at least on a wide scale) by the time the Tunnel’s initial plan was begun in 1903.
Early European colonists relied on the people of the Narragansett, Wampanoag, Pequot and other Indigenous nations for basic survival in the first years after their arrival. Despite this, as a community, they immediately re-framed the land’s identity as a settler colonial entity and a commercial site of resource extraction upon their arrival. Naming it Providence, an English name related to Christian cosmologies, foreshadowed the ways in which they would increasingly take possession of that land through violence, deception and theft. The land which they called Providence had multiple identities, connected to specific features of the landscape, within the interdependent frameworks of Indigenous people who lived on and with it. Some of the European settlers who came to this place may have been carrying their own ancestral traditions of how to engage with the land that their own ancestors had lived on. The laws passed by Britain’s Parliament known as the Enclosure Acts of the Industrial Revolution had been consistently pushing English peasants off of collectively shared lands called “commons” so that those lands could be used for commercial production in an early capitalist framework. The peak of the enclosure occurred between 1550 - 1650, the same period during which those people who retained connections to folk and land based healing traditions in Europe, mostly women, were being killed as the result of “witch trials” In his article Roots Deeper than Whiteness, David Dean charts his own family’s beginnings as settlers in the early British colony at Virginia and how they, along with the waves of settlers that preceded, came with and followed them went from being associated with the land they had come from to being white. He says of his lineage:
“My ancestors came to Virginia as indentured laborers in the 1600’s. Yet prior to their arrival they did not call themselves white. They were English commoners who resided in rural villages and held cultural practices and forms of folk Christianity that were distinct from those of the aristocracy. Celebration was central to their culture and their calendar was filled with saints’ days. Many were regional and involved particular festivities and ceremonies to honor local sites in nature that had been held sacred since time immemorial.”
Some early settlers in the colony of Rhode Island may have had similar connections to land based British Isles traditions. The Puritan colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were certainly paranoid enough about witches that there may have in fact been some living practices of folk magic and healing happening in the communities around them. However, even those Europeans that arrived as settlers carrying traditions of how to live with and care for the land that their ancestors had lived on for generations, did not know how to work with the ancestral energy of this new land. Some individuals did attempt to learn, fleeing the oppressive and ignorant colonial power elites; often starving and cold and attempting to join, live with and learn from Indigenous groups. With them, though, they brought diseases, often lethal to their gracious hosts. As well, severe punishments were meted out by the colonial power structure upon both the fugitive Europeans and the Indigenous people that took them in. The punishments of the Indigenous people usually far exceeded those of the Europeans. This early form of resistance on the part of a few European settlers was eventually eroded, along with their practices of connection to the sites in nature sacred to their ancestors, by a desire to remove and eradicate the native population and use the tools of industrialization to eliminate the need for a substantive connection to the land.
This industrialization process included the construction of railroads, highways and other disruptions to local sites of significance. The Tunnel is one such disruption, penetrating land held sacred to the Indigenous people who lived on, around and above it for tens of thousands of years before Europeans began to arrive in search of resources to extract in the 1500’s. Anthropologists using geological and archaeological evidence often date the first Indigenous settlements in what would become called Rhode Island to around 10,000 years ago. However the Narragansett nation’s website indicates:
“The Narragansett Indians are the descendants of the aboriginal people of the State of Rhode Island. Archaeological evidence and the oral history of the Narragansett People establish their existence in this region more than 30,000 years ago. This history transcends all written documentaries and is present upon the faces of rock formations and through oral history. The first documented contact with the Indians of Rhode Island took place in 1524 when Giovanni de Verrazano visited Narragansett Bay and described a large Indian population, living by agriculture and hunting, and organized under powerful ‘kings.’”
Going by either estimate (and I’m inclined to take Indigenous people at their word in terms of how they quantify their own story) there were multiple Indigenous nations living on and caring for that land for a very, very long time before the colonial process began. Over that time, sophisticated methods of understanding and working with the land, and of relating to people of other nations, were woven from experience. In 1524 the hill through which the Tunnel now runs was already permeated with meaning and energy. One side of this hill was an area the Narragansett nation called Tuncowoden. In Native Providence: Memory, Community and Survivance in the Northeast, Patricia E. Rubertone glosses Tuncowoden as “the indigenous name for a steep hill ‘shaped like a pounding mortar’.” When I was growing up in Providence I knew the area under a colonial name, Fox Point. By that time, the word Tuncowoden had become “Tockwotton'' and several places in the area, including the field where I played Little League baseball, were called by it. The East portal of the East Side Rail Tunnel opens in Fox Point, near the Crook Point Bascule Bridge. Rubertone illuminates some of this land’s identity from an Indigenous perspective, interrogating the settler colonial mythology of Roger Williams’ “discovery” of it:
“Neither an uninhabited wilderness nor a recently emptied-out space, this indigenous landscape was a place-world mapped precisely with knowledge about the specificity of indigenous traditions of past events and current practices. Far from being an unoccupied and undifferentiated territory, particular locations would have been filled with Native people’s stories about historical incidents and their present circumstances in an increasingly colonialized world. What the colonizers comprehended and what their settler creation story implies without revealing salient details is that the Narragansetts, on the advice of their chief sachems, Canonicus and Miantonomo, directed Williams and his party to venture beyond Tuncowoden to find a place to stay. They interpreted these instructions as verbally conveying to them rights to the lands of Providence that they later formally secured with a deed. The area that became known as Fox Point was not just a stopping-over place for Native people. It lies between the headwaters of two rivers, and its once numerous streams frequented by runs of trout and salmon, a thick mantle of trees and dense underbrush, and swamps filled with diverse fauna and flora made it an attractive settlement place. It was also a gateway where Natives traveling from nearby and distant homelands came to trade, lingered, and sometimes stayed, temporarily or permanently. Archaeological evidence of Native occupation from before and around the time of European arrival provides tantalizing clues of 'taskscapes'— places where Native people lived, hunted, fished, collected plants and raw materials, and interred and remembered the dead. A fragment of a pestle, bifacial tools, an arrowhead, and deer bones excavated in the early 1890s on Pitman Street, not far from the Seekonk River, are cases.”
The founding myths of the colony of Rhode Island and the city of Providence contain a re-telling of the interactions between Roger Williams, an English exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Narragansett people who he encountered at Tuncowoden in 1636, on what would later be memorialized as a site similar to Plymouth Rock called Slate Rock. A memorial currently exists to mark the site of this event in Providence’s founding mythology and it is located in Gano St. park, a 4 minute walk from the East portal of the Tunnel.
“Right here in the heart of the city lies a trace of an ancient trailway used by the Indigenous Peoples who inhabited this region for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. This stop is located on a ridge of land looking east over the floodplain of a tidal marsh--today’s downtown Providence. Much of downtown was an estuary, flooded at high tide except for a finger of land that pointed toward the east side about where the College Street bridge is today.
The Pequot Trail, leading from the tribal lands of the Pequots and Niantics in today’s Connecticut, then through Narragansett lands, followed the high ground here into the marsh to that easterly pointing finger where you could wade across the river at low tide to reach the Wampanoag lands on the other side. The trail continued north to the lands of the Massachusetts, Nipmucs, and other tribes.
Weybosset… is a Narragansett word meaning the crossing or half-way point.”
The College Street Bridge roughly matches the location where railroad tracks previously led into the West Portal of the East Side Rail Tunnel, which puts it less than a quarter mile from Wapauysett/Weybosset.
In an essay about Rhode Island’s founding that similarly upholds colonial founding myths while providing perhaps unintended insights on the importance of Wapauysett/Weybosset to Indigenous people, the National Parks Service says:
“From Slate Rock, Roger and his companions rowed south along the Seekonk River, around the point of land now called Fox Point and continued up the Great Salt River. Where the Great Salt River split into the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers, it opened up into a large Salt water cove. A Native trail, which stretched from the Massachusetts Bay along the coast to New York, ran around the eastern edge of this cove. The English called this trail Towne Street. Emptying into the cove on the west side of the trail was a fresh water spring. East across the trail from this spring Roger built his house, on the lower slope of a great hill.
West of the spring lies the Great Salt Cove. The Cove was a resource gathering spot. At a choke point where the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket rivers came together, the salmon ran so thick that the English said they could walk across the river on the backs of the salmon without getting their feet wet. Along with the salmon, thousands of ducks and geese stopped there when they migrated for the winter. There were also eels, lobsters, crabs, clams, quahogs, and oysters.
This area was a resource used by Native Americans for as much as 5000 years. When the salmon were running, members of the Massachusett, Nipmuc, Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes would gather around the cove. While there they would catch salmon, participate in large games between members of the different tribes, and settle disputes before returning to their homelands.”
The Great Salt Cove was filled in to construct train tracks in 1892, following almost two centuries of settlers using it as a dumping place for industrial byproducts and human excrement, and in 1908 the East Side Rail Tunnel linked these tracks to the ports of Fox Point near Tuncowoden. Essentially the trajectory of the East Side Rail Tunnel re-mapped Roger Williams’ initial forays into the land of the Narragansett and other indigenous peoples through an underground route rather than a riverine one. One entrance to the Tunnel opens at Tuncowoden/Tockwotton, the other at Wapauysett/Weybosset, with almost uncanny precision.
In 1786 at the foot of Bowen St. where it meets North Main St., a 4 minute walk from the West Portal of the Tunnel; several Indigenous burial sites were discovered during a “public improvement project”. They were removed, along with the dirt that held them to provide an easier ascent up College Hill from North Main St. for the wealthy colonists that had homes there. They were then used to fill the wharf built by the colonist, textile manufacturer and early Brown University graduate Zachariah Allen’s wharf in North Providence, adjacent to the Allendale Mill which opened in 1822.
“The site’s tools, cooking hearths, storage pits and dense refuse, dating from around 900 to 1300 AD, attest to its importance as a place of habitation in Providence’s long-term indigenous history. The pond, which English settler colonists called the 'Great Salt Cove' and later simply 'The Cove,' had natural and cultural qualities that were highly valued by Native people. By the late eighteenth century, wharves and factories had been constructed around its edges; and a century later, this watery landscape which Thomas Doyle, Providence’s long-term mayor, called ‘holy water,’ was completely filled to create additional space for railroads leading into the city.”
The East Side Rail Tunnel is an underground interior space that penetrated directly through the precisely mapped “place-world” that Rubetone describes as existing in both Indigenous consciousness and tangible reality before European colonists invaded. The Life of William J. Brown contains a remarkable description of a mine known amongst his grandmother’s family that sheds light on Indigenous protocols of entering the earth among the Narragansett who gathered and lived in the areas around Tuncowoden and Wapauysett/Weybosset. William J. Brown’s grandfather Cudge Brown was born in Africa and later kidnapped and enslaved by Providence’s Brown brothers (Joseph, John, Nicholas and Moses) who held him, along with other enslaved people, as property of their company. William J. Brown’s grandmother Chloe Prophet was Narragansett and had purchased his grandfather out of slavery so that she could marry him. Her father, who William J. Brown refers to as Grandfather Jeffrey, was “a man of note and one of the chiefs”. His retelling of the story his grandmother told him about the mine is compelling:
“My grandmother said her father had a place where he dug money. It belonged to the tribe and was called Old Blood’s mine. No one except the tribe knew where it was located, and could get none of the money. By the request of my grandmother, her father took grandfather, who was then living about nine miles from Providence, with him to the mine....
… After riding for some four hours, they arrived at a huge rock, and without saying a word, dismounted, and walked around the side of the rock until they came to an opening sufficient to admit a single person…
They found themselves in a large place under the rocks, and everything around them glittered with brightness. There were picks and shovels in the place, and other tools to work with, and Jeffrey commenced digging and continued till he filled his bag, but grandfather, being frightened, did nothing. He said he saw a large Indian with his head cut and the blood streaming from his wounds, and the ground seemed to shake under him. When Jeffrey had filled his bag they returned by the way they came. When grandfather came home it was daybreak, and he said he would never go again for all the silver in the world, and he kept his word. Jeffrey said he neither saw or heard anything. The reason grandfather saw it was because he did not belong to the tribe. He gave a part of the silver to grandmother. She said the white people knew there was a mine, and had searched but could never find it. At one time they got him intoxicated, then hired him to show them where it was. He carried them within a few rods of the place, and said ‘it was somewhere around here; it is enchanted ground and you cannot get it if you try’.”
While it doesn’t refer directly to the Tunnel, encoded in this family story is a description of three different approaches to the process of entering a space beneath the earth; Indigenous, African and European. The fact that the underground space described is a silver mine certainly adds to the particulars of its occlusion, enchantment and desirability to white colonists, whose approach to the land was based on resource extraction; but as a part of the settler colonial process, the construction of the Tunnel as a commercial venture also grows from the European approach, which involves, in Brown’s account, ignoring Indigenous protocols in relation to the land, rather than respecting them as Brown’s grandfather did after his vision. Patricia E. Rubertone says of Brown’s story quoted above, “The story was about the possession of cultural knowledge, rather than wealth, and about which individuals had the right to acquire this wisdom.”
The excavation of the hill separating Tuncowoden from Wapauysett during the Tunnel’s construction in 1907-8 must have disturbed not only the meanings and memories of that land held by Indiegous people, but also the imprinted traumas of subsequent events such as the Hardscrabble riot. Among these must also have been the energies that were embedded in the land when Indigenous resistance movements coalesced into a powerful force through the oratory and leadership of Metacom; a Wampanoag man and the son of Massasoit, the sachem who had sheltered and fed Roger Williams during the winter of 1635-6. During what has become historicized as Metacom’s or “King Phillip’s” war, the early colony of Providence was burned to the ground in an attempt to put an end to the destructive progression of the settler colonial process. The settler colonial entity of Providence did, however, resurrect itself and in terror that Indigenous people might again mount a resistance movement, the colonial government and the militias that fought on its behalf attempted to kill or sell into slavery the entire remaining Native population of the colony. Native children were allowed to be held as enslaved captives by settlers in the colony, but at 12 years old the colony required that they be removed and continue their enslavement elsewhere. Spain, North Africa and Bermuda were the most common places that they were sent.
Despite this attempt at a complete genocide, resistance to colonization has continued to exist in Providence through the presences and lives of Indigenous individuals and community groups throughout the years that bridge today to the first moments of their contact with Europeans. People, families and communities have continued to find ways to engage with and innovate traditions connected to land and ancestry that draw on the distant past and weave it together with the present. This is part of what reverberated in spaces like the Tunnel; artifacts of the settler colonial process that, having outlived their usefulness to the market, became witnesses to its inability to truly cover its tracks. Within the neglected corners of the small city I could feel the gathered force of all that remained unresolved, and the accumulations of the dead set in motion by the beginnings of the settler colonial process.
This idea of energetic imprinting onto land, earth and dirt can be difficult to grasp, and even harder to accept, especially from a settler colonial mindset. The technologies of Cuban Palo, described by Todd Ramon Ochoa in Society of the Dead, provide helpful insights. Their Kongo inspired cosmologies and methodologies supply practical data about the potential of land, in the form of the dirt that composes it; as a medium of energetic memory storage. Dirt, contextualized in this way, functions as a kind of cumulative backup drive of charged events, particularly those connected to death, trauma and other forms of intensity. This property of dirt is most often accessed in the construction and use of a Palo practitioner’s “prenda”. Ramon Ochoa delves deeply into this concept and the processes that arise from it. He identifies prendas as, “collections of healing-harming substances cared for at the heart of Palo practice… they take the shape of cauldrons or urns packed with soil, sticks and entities called nfumbe.” Nfumbe, a Palo Ki-Kongo word roughly translates to “Dead One”. In Spanish, both the words “El Muerto” (the dead one) and “Fundamento” (foundation) are used to describe this complex entity, materially present as a human skull placed among the other objects Ochoa describes, including dirt. Prendas are objects connected to multiple Central African lineages that took on a specific creole form amongst Black people of African descent in Cuba. Prendas draw inspiration from Kongo minkisi, the wooden figures pierced by nails and other objects that are often mistakenly described by outsiders as “voodoo dolls” as well as from the Lemba society, which anthropologist John M. Janzen calls a “15th century cure for capitalism”. Of the central role and rich potentialities of dirt in the prenda, Ramon Ochoa says:
“Earth is prenda material par excellence. Other than bones and blood, it is the privileged matter of the dead. In Palo’s vision of powerful substances, earth is the basic element, the common denominator of all Palo craft… It is porous, plastic and generic. Each anonymous grain lends itself to transformation, as it has throughout the history of human kind. Dirt underwrites the contagious in unique ways, being a workable, receptive surface, permeable and penetrable”.
I’ve visited and spoken to many practitioners of Palo and their prendas as part of my research into liminality as a healing agent. Among the prendas I’ve been in the presence of is a quite old and revered one in central Cuba. The potency of these objects and the entities they house is palpable in their presence. Through conversations with those that have constructed and maintained them, I’ve understood that Palo craft often involves the use of soil gathered from specific locations, such as cemeteries, jails, mental hospitals or train tracks because this soil holds and transmits the energy of what has happened in its proximity. A similar and certainly related set of practices exists in African American conjure or Hoodoo where the use of “Goofer Dust,” dirt collected from a cemetery, holds and transmits the ability to gain agency over the boundary between the living and the dead to someone who knows how to use it. In a 1939 blues song called “I Don’t Know,” Cripple Clarence Lofton describes, and simultaneously archives, the use of this agency to dispatch a lover who he’s feeling wronged by:
“Guess I'm -- gettin' sick and tired the way you do, Kind mama, gonna poison you; Sprinkle goofer dust around your bed, Wake some mornin', find your own self dead”
This potentiality of earth, of dirt as a repository of vital energies that can be accessed by proximity sheds significant light on the specific qualities of experience that characterize my memories of the Tunnel. The earth there holds layers of sedimentary temporal information and the combination of being submerged within this accumulation of time; given access to its data by ultra-close proximity, and the absence of rhythmic codes of consumption mobilized through misdirection and clock and calendar time created a bridge to temporalities not regimented by the linear. Within these temporalities the highly contested constructs of ownership; city and state government, commerce, land ownership that I was taught to think of as a baseline of my own geo-location, were shattered. Although I was unable to specifically identify this at the time; beyond the broken mirror of the settler colonial illusions of ownership and progress was a wide expanse of unresolved relationships with the dead and the land. The reverberations I felt among Providence’s leftover industrial buildings and spaces was and is familiar to me from my untrained mediumship experiences of temporal simultaneity as well as from the time I’ve spent in the presence of Prendas.
I was almost certainly an uninvited guest in the interior space carved out by the Tunnel, despite internally dictated imperatives to be respectful and honor the dead and their energetic imprints present there. I was however flooded with data, and sometimes visions, that shaped my consciousness and concerns (writing this text is part of the process of unearthing those). One element of that data is the heavily contested nature of the city I was born in. It’s hard to describe to someone who wasn’t there what downtown Providence was like in the 1970’s and 80’s, before the “Providence Renaissance.” My mother would take me to the few open stores amongst overgrown unused lots and shuttered businesses to buy penny candy, sheet music or school supplies. There were stores that still had merchandise on the shelves left over from the 1940’s. In the early 1980’s my grandmother moved from DC to Providence and had an apartment at the Regency on Washington St. I would visit her often, both alone and with my mom and sister. Coming from the East Side we would move through the site of the Hardscrabble riot, cross over the Moshassuck river on what was called at the time the “widest bridge in America,” a massive lot of fill covering up the river. We would drive past Wapauysett, the Native site of significance, and the street named Weybosset after it which I knew as one of the three “W” named streets that charted downtown; Washington, Westminster and Weybosset. We would drive over the buried Great Salt Cove.
In 1968 as part of a survey for their Historic American Engineering Record, the U.S. department of the Interior photographed the demolition of the viaduct that had connected the slightly elevated East Side Rail Tunnel to Providence’s second Union Station, which was built in 1898 and operated until 1986. These photos not only show the Tunnel and viaduct as they sat in the landscape of both downtown and College Hill, but also the expanses of pavement covering the area that had once been the Cove.
Photo from Survey HAER RI-29 LOOKING EAST, TOWARD WEST PORTAL DURING VIADUCT DEMOLITION
Photo from Survey HAER RI-29 LOOKING SOUTH OF VIADUCT REMAINS OVER CANAL STREET
Photo from Survey HAER RI-29 LOOKING EAST OF VIADUCT REMAINS, CONCRETE EMBANKMENT LEADS TO TUNNEL PORTAL
Photo from Survey HAER RI-29 LOOKING EAST, DURING DEMOLITION
Photo from Survey HAER RI-29 LOOKING WEST FROM CANAL STREET
Photo from Survey HAER RI-29 VIEW FROM WEST PORTAL TOWARD UNION STATION
Photo from Survey HEAER RI-29 WEST PORTAL
The route between the West Portal and Old Union Station
My father traveled by train sometimes for academic conferences and we would drop him off at Union Station. The air in that place was thick with spiritual energy, as well as tons of birds. I remember it being extremely dark and hulking, its size engineered for an era of capitalist expansion that only affirmed its emptiness all the more in an era of steep decline in rail travel. When I was 11 my father started taking me to a bar on Washington St. to hear traditional Irish music. We would walk out of the place into a late night landscape where cruising and sex work made up most of the activity, him drunk and me in ecstasy at feeling a part of so many “grown up” things. In all of my experiences downtown there was a consistent thread that I simply took for granted until I moved away from Providence in 1990. The absence of bustling commerce and the lack of supervision meant that I was more attuned to what was surging beneath the pavement of the city and in every molecule of its air; the layers of time that had accumulated in its earth.
Experiences that I had playing music, especially improvisationally and/or without a fixed genre framework as a guide for the creative direction were central to my embodied understanding of time as simultaneous, cumulative and cyclical. In the late 80’s the Tunnel had mostly been a place to hang out in, walk through and simply be. Friends who I hung out with in Providence, some of whom I played in punk and hardcore bands with like Brian Tracy would gather there or at the Crook Point Bridge.
The Hardscrabble riot and the culture of white supremacy that enabled and encouraged it are no surprise considering Rhode Island’s deep relationship with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In Dark Work, Christy Clark-Pujara illuminates the depths at which 18th century Rhode Island was built upon an enthusiastic engagement with every aspect of the slave trade that far exceeded that of any other colony at the time. She writes:
“During the colonial period in total, Rhode Islanders sent 514 ships to the coast of West Africa, while the rest of the colonists sent just 189. As historian Jay Coughtry has argued, the North American trade in slaves was essentially the Rhode Island slave trade.”
Rhode Islanders’ involvement in the slave trade was also not limited to the purchase, transport and sale of kidnapped African human beings. Clark-Pujara explains:
“By 1730, most trades and professions in Rhode Island were tied in one way or another to slave holding and slave trading. Slave traders employed shipbuilders, sailors, caulkers, sailmakers, carpenters, rope-makers and stevedores (those who loaded and unloaded ships). Coopers made the barrels that stored the rum, which was exchanged for slaves who were sold throughout the Americas. Clerks, scribes, and warehouse overseers conducted the business of the trade… Merchants, many of whom were slave traders, paid significant taxes to the city of Newport, and the duties collected on the purchase and sale of enslaved people provided funds for public works. The streets of Newport were paved and its bridges and country roads mended through the use of duties collected on slave imports. In many ways, the business of slavery literally built Rhode Island”.
In addition to building an economic base through the slave trade, Rhode Island’s mercantile and industrial classes used slave labor to produce goods for the slave trade. In the 1800’s they began to build a profitable textile industry on the sale of what Clark Pujara describes as “… a coarse cotton-wool material made especially to minimize the cost of clothing enslaved people.” She goes on to clarify, “These economic commitments to the business of slavery dictated the texture and rhythms of slave life, stalled the emancipation process and circumscribed Black freedom.”
One can quickly chart a line of Eurocentrist linear progress of the type Rasheedah Phillips so skillfully interrogates, from the business of slavery in Providence to the East Side Rail Tunnel. Trade in enslaved people and goods for the slave trade created an economic base and a wealth of capital that allowed Rhode Island’s mercantile industries to grow; creating both demand and opportunity for more ports and more efficient ways to transport goods. Trade centered in Newport expanded to Providence, with an initial set of wharves around South Water St.
“Preparing and equipping a slave ship for the long trip to Africa took weeks and consumed the energies of an entire community. Local sail lofts and ropewalks prepared canvas and rigging. Caulkers and smiths sealed and sheathed hulls. Distilleries churned out the high-proof New England rum for which Rhode Island ships were famous on the African coast. Farmers supplied flour, beef, tobacco, and onions. Bakers supplied bread. Even the local apothecary contributed, supplying a variety of ointments and elixirs for the ship's medicine chest.”
On board the Sally, the African prisoners revolted and many were killed. Others committed suicide, and some died in response to the harsh conditions of their imprisonment. After leaving the coast of Africa, the Sally proceeded to the islands of the Carribean where, as was common practice in Rhode Island’s particular version of the triangular trade, described succinctly in Ned And Constance Sublette’s The American Slave Coast, the Brown brothers planned to sell the majority of them in exchange for molasses:
“The unusually well-documented voyage of the Providence slaver Sally was probably typical; it went loaded with more than seventeen thousand gallons of rum, along with tobacco and onions, to be introduced into the African market in exchange for people…
...Rhode Island ran a clockwise loop trade that carried New England rum to Africa in exchange for Africans, who were in turn taken to the West Indies (or sometimes North America) and exchanged for molasses, which was then brought to Rhode Island for distilling into rum and so on recursively, in theory with a profit taken at every stop.”
Brown University’s online access point provides additional details:
“The Sally reached the West Indies in early October 1765, after a seven-week passage across the Atlantic. Sixty-eight enslaved Africans perished during the passage, joining the twenty who had died before the ship left the coast. Another twenty would die in the days after the ship's arrival.
The Sally's first port of call was Barbados, the easternmost of the Windward Islands of the West Indies. Captain Hopkins expected to find letters of instructions from the Browns awaiting him, advising him on where to sell his cargo and what to acquire in exchange. Over the course of the previous months, the Browns had posted at least half a dozen such letters to the island, some touting the high prices slaves were reportedly fetching in Jamaica, others suggesting that Hopkins forego the Caribbean altogether and sell his slaves in Virginia or the Carolinas. But none of the letters seems to have reached Hopkins.
Finding no instruction in Barbados, Hopkins proceeded northwest to the island of Antigua, another British sugar-producing colony. There he sold all the surviving captives on the boat, save for a few he had been instructed to bring back to Providence. As he later explained to the Browns, at the rate that captives on the ship were dying, he could not risk putting out to sea with them again.”
Of the 196 kidnapped African people aboard, 109 had died by the time the ship returned to the ports of Providence. Brown University’s online access point summarizes the Brown brothers’ response:
“In the wake of the Sally's voyage, three of the four Brown brothers—Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses—never again directly participated in the transatlantic slave trade. Their decision appears to have been motivated less by moral qualms than by simple financial calculation.”
John Brown built on the wealth he acquired in the slave trade to construct Providence’s new port at India Point. He used those financial resources to expand his trade routes, increasing his personal wealth and also helping to establish the new colony; built on highly contested land, as a critical site of resource and labor extraction for the purpose of commodities exchange. After 50 years of sea-based trade built on this economic foundation, trains began to replace ships as an efficient way of transporting trade goods and in 1835 a train station was opened at India Point, eliminating the need for using ships to reach areas that could be accessed via land routes. The India point rail station was a critical hub for Rhode Island’s manufacturing and mercantile trades until the 1908 construction of the East Side Rail Tunnel made it no longer necessary and it closed. This progression of events, when viewed from the perspective of clock and calendar time, forms an analog of the wider mythology of the United States’ economic growth and prosperity. When viewed from a time perspective that is cyclical and cumulative, it is an accumulation of unresolved relationships with the dead, continually amassing problems as attempts are made to outrun the consequences and origins of the wealth used to continue moving sites of extractive and exploitative commerce across physical space.
Brown University provided both my parents with the jobs that allowed them to relocate to Providence and, 6 years later, put a down payment on a home where my sister and I were raised. Brown University was originally named the College of Rhode Island and had been established by the Brown brothers and others in 1764, the same year they collectively engineered the voyage of the Sally, becoming the first college in Rhode Island. It was renamed Brown in 1804 after Nicholas Brown Jr, the son of one of the Brown brothers who had made a generous financial gift to the school. When my father secured a job there, Brown was celebrating itself as being founded by abolitionists and firmly on the side of justice and equality; in 2003 a report illuminated the reality that, as Christy Clark-Pujara describes it in the introduction to Dark Work, “…slavery had played an essential role in establishing Rhode Island’s first college. Enslaved people were among the multiracial workforce that constructed the first buildings, which were built with wood donated by a local slave-trading firm. Furthermore, slaveholders and slave trades dominated the Board of Fellows and trustees.” While narratives of progress along a linear timeline attempt to obscure and eventually erase these relationships of cause and effect, they remain energetically imprinted on time as it ebbs and flows over itself. For me as a child they were palpably present in a persistent haunted feeling, a sense that something was wrong and that nothing was as it appeared. Capitalism inevitably creates these kinds of temporal scars because it is concerned only with the accumulation and consolidation of wealth. For this wealth to be accumulated and consolidated it must be extracted from human bodies, other than human living creatures and the earth. In exact proportion to the wealth accumulated on the side of capitalism, a debt has been accruing in accumulated unresolved relationships with the dead. As I researched and wrote this piece more and more details emerged about Providence, about downtown and the East Side, about the rail tunnel and railroads... and about the complexity and nuance involved in the Hardscrabble riot and the neighborhood of Addison’s Hollow, which was not only very close to the West Portal of the Tunnel but also very close to where I grew up. The mesh of interwoven energies became very intense, and the guidance towards more complex understandings of the place I grew up in was clear. This is often how I experience the dead; in what reveals itself when I’m willing to pay attention.
As a child India Point Park was one of my favorite places. My mother took me there as a “special treat” because it was farther from our house than several other places I was also happy to play. But India Point was special. I know I loved the boats that were still there and the giant winches left over from the peak of maritime trade that were scattered around the grass. At the beginning of this piece there is a picture of me playing by one as a 3 year old. Something drew me there and, knowing what I know now, I think it was the dead. The brutality of what had happened there, and how it had been so directly connected to my own birth in Providence through the Brown brothers and Brown University, through Roger Williams and the theft of the land, these things needed to be reckoned with and the way the dead talked to me as a child in places like India Point Park set in motion a lifelong trajectory of attempting to deal with them and resisting the allure of the linear timeline as a way to erase these difficult truths about whiteness. I have no idea how well I’ve done and I hope I’ll be able to continue for many years. Using these experiences as a guide has put me on a different trajectory in terms of my creative career than what is usually prescribed by the frameworks of marketing and “branding.” Perhaps it has meant that I’ve been less “successful” in capitalist terms than I might have been if I’d built my career in a more traditional way; for example by focussing on being accessible and legible to consumers of entertainment by fitting into a genre. But something did happen to me because of the combination of my sensitivity to the presences of the dead and the facts of where and how I grew up, and it’s exerted a firmer hold on me than capitalism has ever been able to, for better or for worse.
At both ends of the Tunnel, urban redevelopment projects displaced several waves of long-time residents. Its initial construction meant the razing of tenement buildings in Fox Point. Although a December 31st 1905 Boston Globe article celebrates the displacement as a victory and assures that “tenement houses were bought in at fair prices and the owners quickly received all they asked for them without any delay,” it also describes issues that arose specifically relating to the dead:
“Mrs O’Neil who had prayed the Lord that she might always live and die in the same house, owned her dwelling on the site of the tunnel mouth, and she was strongly sentimental, for her family had lived and died there before her.”
Mrs O’Neil was “encouraged with an offer of $1000 extra” which I suspect did not resolve those broken relationships with the dead and the land she clearly hoped to maintain, nor do I think she was alone in her “sentimentality.” As industry grew in Fox Point through the 18 and 1900’s, Cape Verdean immigrants drawn there by financial opportunities in manufacturing and maritime trades created nourishing community networks in the neighborhood, which were then eroded in the 1930’s by real estate development driven by the proximity and intervention of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving further unresolved relationships with the dead held in the land. As Miguel Youngs puts it in his essay From Port to Port: The Cape Verdean Connection:
“What we must then ask ourselves is at what expense are we willing to achieve these goals of “progress”? And in this context, when we use the word “progress”, do we really mean progress for all? The displaced Cape Verdean community would certainly offer a different perspective to these questions. It was their perspective that was not taken into consideration when these changes to their neighborhood began.”
Fox Point was a zone of both residential stability and flux because of its proximity to the ports at Tuncowoden and Moshassuck or India Point. Patricia E. Rubertone describes it as a Native Homeland, not only in terms of its significance to Indigenous people before the arrival of Roger Williams and the settler colonists, but in ways that continue into the present, despite multiple forms of attempted erasure. The stories she collects in Native Providence illuminate a neighborhood where Native people created homes for themselves, their families and kin. One of the ways she creates this illumination is through the documentation of oral histories. In her chapter on Fox Point she quotes Yvone Smart, who she describes as “a woman of Cape Verdean and European ancestry who was raised on Brook Street from 1941 to 1952 and maintained ties with Fox Point after she moved away”:
“Fox Point had Native Americans there too. There was a lot of intermarriage between Cape Verdeans and Native Americans and African Americans. People don’t often talk about that… [W]e always knew people who… were Native American… [W]e didn’t call them Native Americans, we always called them Narragansetts. Now we find out they weren’t all Narragansetts… We always knew the Indians.”
Among the Native histories Rubertone records that illuminate Fox Point’s importance as a Native homeland are those connected to two homes on John St. In the late 19th century Edward Cone lived at 70 John St and Amos Brewster lived at 72 John St. (During the period I mentioned earlier, when I moved back to Providence in May of 1993, I lived at 47 John St; the photo on the cover of Secret Passage was taken there). Both Cone and Brewster were Narragansetts:
“The John Street address was apparently known among some Native people as a spot on the urban landscape where the tenants could help them secure leases and find jobs, as well as give them a sense of being at least tenuously rooted to the neighborhood”
Beginning in 1959, near the West portal of the Tunnel, another urban redevelopment plan was set in motion that would displace a portion of Providence’s largest and oldest Black neighborhood. Residents simply called their neighborhood “East Side.”
It had formed as a result of several factors; including Providence’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Hardscrabble riot and the operations of the Brown brothers. When the city began plans to repossess the land in the late 1950’s, official documents began to refer to the neighborhood as Lippitt Hill. When William J. Brown’s grandfather Cudge Brown finally achieved emancipation from the Brown brothers, he was given a piece of land on Lippitt Hill. He passed the land to his son Noah Brown whose lineage was both African American through his father and Narragansett through his mother, but by that point Moses Brown had had another change of heart and denied giving him most of the land (which had become more valuable as Providence had grown) and only extended him a written legal deed for a small portion of it. William J Brown was born in Fox Point and later in life moved to this property on Lippitt Hill, establishing in a single life the important connection between these two communities.
“James ‘Uncle Jimmie’ Axom, another black Providence sailor, retired from the sea in 1820 and opened a sailor’s boardinghouse on Transit Street in Fox Point. With his Narragansett wife, Hannah, Uncle Jimmie oversaw the affairs of his boarders, holding their money for ‘safekeeping’, furnishing them with grog, and otherwise providing prostitutes and other entertainments, for which he deducted a large sum… According to a contemporary witness, William J. Brown, boardinghouse masters like Jimmie Axom regularly steered their guests to the centers of Providence’s ‘red-light’ entertainment. One of these centers was the neighborhood of Olney’s Lane, a mixed community of native whites and prosperous Afro-Narragansetts.”
As Sullivan carefully elaborates in his essay, the motivations behind the Olney’s Lane riot were more complex than those related to the Hardscrabble riot (although there is certainly some overlap and racial tensions were a significant factor). Examining Olney’s Lane and the events leading up to the second riot makes it difficult to see it simply as a conflict between Black and white Providence residents in a similar way to that in which Patricia E. Rubertone’s Native Providence makes it difficult to reduce Hardscrabble, Olney’s Lane and Lippitt Hill to categorization as “Black” neighborhoods, which is how they have often been historicized. It is critically important to identify and celebrate the ways in which Black individuals established homes, families and community networks in these places, and the ways in which the riots and the subsequent increase in centralized power and policing that followed in their aftermath were directed at destabilizing these resources specifically for African Americans. The records of Native households in these areas, which Rubertone’s book so amply supplies, as well as records and oral histories of both mixed race and white residents there bring additional dimensions of class and gender tensions into the wider picture of the riot’s origins.
The respectability politics of most of what has been written about the Olney’s Lane riot, which sometimes seep into Sullivan’s meticulously researched “Reconstruction,” can often obscure these class dimensions by drawing lines between illegal and licensed forms of employment and exchange, places of exchange which were policed and those that were not and social situations in which violence was frequent and those in which it was not while placing value judgements on what is considered “good behavior.” This is most visible in the way the business of sex work formed a focal point for the riot’s destruction. Unlike in Addison’s Hollow where the destruction was focused on the homes of Black residents, during the Olney’s Lane riot, only buildings which were “known” as locations for the exchange of sex for money were targeted for destruction; something which the rioters used in their defense as a way to align themselves with the moral conscience of the centralzied power structure and the wealthy elites who turned up their noses at sex workers (while sometimes also patronizing them in secret).
The riot itself snowballed after a fight began at a “cooky stand,” a snack bar that was independently owned and operated by a Black man named Richard Johnson in the basement of the “Red House,” a two story brothel on Olney’s Lane. Sullivan describes it:
“The Red House was a busy place. Mahala Halsey, the wife of Samuel Greene, lived there with her other 'husband,' sailor William Jordan. When Jordan was away at sea, Halsey became the 'wife' of whoever occupied the room in Jordan’s absence. Her close friend, Elizabeth Richmond, had a similar arrangement in another room with Providence laborer Cato Coggeshall and sailor Augustus Williams. Jordan, Coggeshall, and Williams were black. On the evening of the 19th, Nancy Bradford and Fanny Lippitt who also lived in the Red House, were entertaining two white sailors, John Stafford and a seventeen-year-old Englishman named Reese. Both the interracial nature of the clientele and the frequency of violence at the establishment were made clear in Johnson’s post-riot deposition: ‘the upper part of the house was occupied by black and white prostitutes… and sailors used to resort there. There were frequent fights and riots in the house it would frequently end in the street where they would be dispersed by the Watch’.”
Halsey and Richmond were likely far from the passive “wives” Sullivan portrays them as in his description. As Black women whose intersectional oppressions limited their access to most forms of employment, they mobilized their sexuality, through sex work, as a form of self determination and a source of income. Also, like many contemporary sex workers, they may have simply enjoyed the work, despite its liabilities such as dealing with drunk, misogynist and/or racist clients. In his essay, Sullivan relates many instances in which male patrons of sex work establishments would cause problems and start fights, which sometimes led to riots similar to the Olney’s Lane riot. He categorizes these as “Brothel Riots” and makes an effort to distinguish them from “Race Riots.” One example is the destruction of the establishment opened in 1777 in Providence’s former jail by Margaret Bowler, who was Narragansett. Still called the “Old Jail” at the time during which she rented rooms to sex workers who provided services to soldiers and sailors during the Revolutionary war, it was destroyed by a rioting mob in 1782.
A detailed treatment of the complex factors that led to the Olney’s Lane riot is beyond the scope of this essay, however looking at the many threads interwoven in the neighborhood that coalesced into mob violence provides a sense of what it was like. The intermingling of people of different races and classes, in a context of Black and Indigenous home and business ownership is an important feature of both the neighborhood and the riot, as is the way in which this was demonized by early respectability politics in relation to both racial mixing and sex work. Following the riot Providence acquired a charter as a city and, as in the aftermath of the Hardscrabble riot, the wider citizenry demanded more aggressive forms of policing. However, different from Addison’s Hollow, Olney’s Lane continued to be a place where Black and Indigenous individuals, families and communities owned and rented homes and ran businesses in what was becoming an increasingly gentrified and whitened East side. These homes and businesses were again threatened in the 1950s as the city began to mobilize a very similar form of respectability politics to those that surrounded the Olney’s Lane riot. This threat came in a twentieth century form, rather than a 19th century form; urban redevelopment.
During the Lippitt Hill redevelopment project, long standing Black owned homes and businesses were transferred to the city and then razed to build a shopping center, where my family bought groceries, a school; Martin Luther King Jr. where I went to elementary school; and a “middle income” condominium complex called “University Heights.”
“Despite what appears to have been due consideration for the displaced community, the results of the project tell a much different story. A total of 650 dwelling units were demolished and of that amount, 450 of them were occupied by non-white tenants. Many of these former tenants would go on to face extreme discrimination when they tried to rent new housing because many landlords would not rent to African Americans. This form of racism was the status quo in a 1960 housing market that was legally discriminatory.”
Patricia E. Rubertone cites Lippitt Hill as another important Native homeland. One of the remarkable features of Rubertone’s work in Native Providence is the way in which she shares narratives; she draws from research at the margins of official documents and oral tradition that place Indigenous people within the landscape of Providence as it developed through the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. This form of truth-telling challenges and disturbs settler colonial narratives and origin myths that relegate Indigenous people to Providence’s past; even in those rare instances when they are recognized and memorialized. Native people, both from nations Indigenous to the Providence area and from nations throughout the U.S. lived and continue to live there, forming networks and individual practices that maintain connections to their ancestry while simultaneously contending with contemporary life within a settler colonial occupation. Native people lived in Addison’s Hollow and Olney’s Lane, and their homes were also destroyed during the racist riots. She says:
“Similar to the episode at Addison’s Hollow, the Olney’s Lane riot was not just the kind of street brawl common in seaport towns, but an incident of racial and class unrest that eliminated many homes of Native Americans and African Amercians. As a tactic of spatial and ethnic cleansing, it contributed to the erasure of the tangible presence of Native people from the urban landscape and from the pages of the city’s history.”
Native people also lived in Lippitt Hill and lost their homes when the redevelopment project shifted the landscape. Among others, Rubertone tells the story of Sarah Baxter, who was “variously labeled Indian, mulatto, Black and colored,” who lived in Addison’s Hollow, which was part of Lippitt Hil, from 1840 to her death in 1882. Baxter worked as a self determined and self employed “Indian Doctress” out of her home on Bark St. She, and the remedies she produced and sold, were both sought after as known sources of powerful healing.
“The transformed landscape of the Lippitt Hill homeland is a harsh reminder of the politics of inequality that have continuously altered its pre-urban and recent urban past almost beyond recognition. There is virtually nothing left to see of its many houses and streets, and the possibilities of uncovering archeological evidence of its complicated histories of indiegnous survivance are largely fortuitous. Yet Lippitt Hill was a place where Native people had substantial presence and significance, rather than being apparitions or disreputable characters. It was where a diversity of Native people established and maintained footholds in Providence while sustaining strong ties to their ancestral communities.”
In June of 2017, historian Ray Rickman gathered former Lippitt Hill residents to share their memories of the neighborhood as it was before the redevelopment project. These oral histories are remarkable and bear deep engagement. Here is a short excerpt:
“Sylvia: Good afternoon, I’m Sylvia Ann Soares. When I was about four years old, I lived on Bates St. Bates St. is hard to describe because it’s not there now. But if you’re standing in front of Staples in the University Heights, and you look over behind it sort of to the right, it came down from Camp St. and came down right about there, and then it took a left turn and came down Lippitt St. I then moved down there to 17 Lippitt St., Lippitt St. was located right where the entrance to University Heights plaza off North Main St. is, except that they cut out the land to put University Heights Plaza in. So if you will also look over past Santander Bank, you will see that their land is higher, and that land actually came sloping down. Our house was near the bottom and it would’ve been where today the Starbucks is--who knows what’s going to be there later? There’s a driveway on that side. The few houses down there, you had to go up the cement steps to get to the house. So our house would’ve been up in the air over that driveway if it was still here now.
Lippitt St. went all the way up to Camp. Billy Osborne lived on Lippitt St. before they went to Olney St. Georgana Park, who is our friend, also lived about a block or so up from what is North Main St. Her father had a massive garden. His three-decker was pushed back a lot and on Sunday mornings he would get flowers and put them on the picket fence so that people going to church could take flowers to church. And they could also work with him about getting the vegetables in the garden.
Ray: Tell us the decades.
Sylvia: So I was born in 1941. I’m 75. But now what happened with me was that I went to Doyle Avenue School. Doyle Avenue School is not there anymore, but it was standing exactly where the East Side Apartments are on Doyle Ave. I was there only until the third grade. For the fourth grade, I ended up somewhere else, at a boarding school in Woonsocket. So I never came back until high school, when I came back to Carrington Avenue just above Camp St.
Ray: Last question Sylvia. Did you have a sense of community as a child there?
Sylvia: Yeah. It was a very strong community. Some of those houses—if you went to visit people, you walked up the back steps—you could eat off the stairs because people’s homes were immaculate. Of course everyone knew everyone else and if you did something, at home they knew about it. When I was there I remembered the fish men coming round and ringing the bell and the cart. And the ice cream man. [East Siders: “Rag man”]. I want to let somebody else talk, and maybe talk about Bates St.
North Main St., Kirk St., Grand View St.
Virginia: My name is Virginia Veiga and I’m 74 years old and I lived on the East Side all my life. I started off on North Main St. I went to Benefit Street School before I went to Doyle Avenue, then Nathan Bishop, graduated from Hope High School. I lived on Kirk St. where University Heights is. My father owned a three-decker house there, which we had to sell because they needed the property. We moved to Grand View St., which is still there and my brother still lives there.
Growing up on the East Side, we had a lot. More than what we got now for these kids. We had the Benefit Street Recreation Center. Mr. Thomas. We had Halloween parties with Hope High School. Get the children bicycles and gifts every year.
We grew up with everybody. [Panel: “Right!”]. The Jewish people, us--East Side. Raymond Patriarca Jr. was one of my best friends. I went to his house when I went to school. We all got along. It was peaceful, nice. You could go into the stores. Ruthie Cory owned the store next to the Osbornes. My house was facing them. I used to go there and pump oil.”
Many of the families displaced by the Lippitt Hill redevelopment project moved onto adjacent streets, and in 1978 when my parents bought the house I grew up in there was, and still is, a sizeable community of Black homeowners and residents in a neighborhood that’s now called Mount Hope, which begins about a block from where I lived from ages 4-15. I had friends who grew up there and lived there. I went to elementary school there, at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, which opened in 1967 as part of the Lippitt Hill redevelopment project. While I have many fond memories of life in the neighborhood, my childhood friends and events at and after school; the energy in all of these places, as I’ve described throughout this text, was also intense and painful in a way that persisted just at the level of consciousness. The house I grew up in was haunted. There was almost constant violence in my school and in my neighborhood. How could there not be based on the events that had happened there, their traumatic nature and the unresolved relationships with the dead that they created?
The Tunnel was like this as well, and the proximity of these zones of displacement at either end made it a space that was deeply charged with the unresolved energies that had temporally sedimented beneath them. While whitening and gentrification continued to change the surface appearance of Fox Point and Mount Hope; rewriting the map and displacing long time residents, the ambient energies of the dead collected and accumulated in the Tunnel’s neglected, dirt filled, echoing darkness. The constant and relentless attacks on the self determination of Black and Indigenous folks, as well as on unsupervised community zones of self determination that I’ve been discussing are some of the most intense of these energies, and some of the most vital to work towards resolving in the present. As a white woman seeking healing around race, they feel particularly important to focus on when I talk about where and how I grew up. Many of the surviving Narragansett and Wampanoag people who joined Metacom’s resistance movement and were not murdered as punishment were enslaved and sent to Bermuda, Spain or North Africa. Many of those who lost their homes in the Hardscrabble riot relocated to Haiti (then Saint Domingue) and others returned to Africa through Liberia. Some simply moved a few blocks to the North or to other parts of Providence. George Erickson, one of the participants in the Olney’s Lane riot, who was killed by Augustus Williams while attempting to protect the Red House, had recently arrived in Providence on a boat from Gothenburg, Sweden. I think about the way that these vectors across physical space are bound in a node of time that is located, both temporally and physically in the place that I was born, where I grew up and began to develop my concerns and perspective on the world. The historical traumas I’ve discussed here have barely been addressed in a substantive way by those who perpetrated them and have certainly not moved towards resolution since they happened. Many of the moments of beauty and perseverance have been rarely spoken of, shared or celebrated. The Tunnel was and is a special place for its many unique properties. When I was young and spent time there it was particularly special because it was where, as I wrote in the press release for Secret Passage, “I tasted the possibilities of a world without surveillance.” As I’ve reflected more on it over the past year, one of the most critical of these possibilities was the opportunity to listen to the dead and the land, both inside me and around me. And from that listening, I acknowledge, amend and heal. I began writing this piece on January 6th. I woke up and as I often do, kept my phone off for a while as I wrote. I began writing about the Hardscrabble riot and my mind was filled with the faces of rage and resentment filled white settlers bent on destruction of Black and Indigenous self determination and domination of a land in which they were uninvited guests. I wrote about cumulative time and how injustice and trauma create crimps in its ebbs and flows. I wondered if any of it would resonate with others. I took a break and looked at Instagram. On Sermon 3’s feed I saw some of the first images and news about the events at the U.S. capitol that day. And then I went back to writing this, because it felt like the most significant thing I could do based on who I am and the gifts I was given; mediumship, an ability to write, a sensitivity to connections between things that others often miss and a passionate love for the creative arts, especially music, as a pathway to healing. Secret Passage was a way to condense something impossible to say into sounds. And yet it’s the piece of music I’ve ended up writing the most about. I love music because it reminds me that nothing is the way I was told it was by advertisers, the government and a whole host of other agents of capitalism. In the fluidity of sound and time, encircling one another, there is not only the possibility to listen to the dead, but also to imagine something truly new. Not the newness of the market, of trends or of “progress” but new in that it might create a passageway across time, towards a reckoning with the impossibly haunted past and the heartbreaking present that it has wrought as well as towards a future which is truly free, and within that struggle, joy