Arts & Culture

Exhibit spotlights voices of Olneyville

Portraits and oral histories at City Hall provide testimonial to a neighborhood in flux

Contributing Writer
Friday, February 28, 2014

Stefan Dabroski ’14.5 views portraits of Olneyville residents, part of an exhibit celebrating the Olneyville Housing Corporation’s 25th year.

The photos decorate a rowdy second floor — it is easy to walk past many of the inconspicuous portraits in pursuit of a more traditional showroom. The Gallery at Providence City Hall isn’t a whitewashed minimalist space. It’s the open exterior of offices at the top of the grand staircase. The photos have a quiet presence, but their subjects, stories and adjoining placards speak loudly.

“Community in Focus: Photographs and Stories of Olneyville,” on view at City Hall through March 24, is an early release of a grand project celebrating the Olneyville Housing Corporation’s 25th anniversary. With the exhibit, the Housing Corporation seeks to commemorate the advancement of the historically rich neighborhood, culminating in a gala at Paragon Mills May 1.

The Olneyville Housing Corporation, established in 1988, has worked to preserve and provide affordable housing, spur economic growth and foster community-building, according to its website. OHC has since developed 45 homes and 118 units of rental housing for low-income residents, in addition to providing 11,000 square feet of office and retail space.

Each of the portraits at City Hall reveals a current or former Olneyville resident and active participant in the neighborhood. Below each picture is a large placard that displays an excerpt from an interview conducted by the exhibit’s curators, Vera Carothers ’14 and another intern from Clark University.

Many of the quotes comment on Olneyville’s history and evolution, but most speak to its enduring sense of community. Olneyville was a hub of the textile industry for centuries before World War II. But the area experienced grave economic trouble and population decline in the postwar era. The region remains grounded in traditional ideas of community that persist today — residents help each other and work to give back through various means.

“My father continued this tradition (of giving back) when he opened the pharmacy, and I strive for that” said Michael Solomon, City Council president and owner of Olneyville’s Wes’ Rib House, in his interview for the exhibit. “Community is everything.”

The core of the Housing Corporation’s anniversary project focuses on residents’ everyday lives and their supportive community environment. Jennifer Hawkins, associate executive director of OHC and the interns’ supervisor, first conceived the idea.

“I’m personally interested in the idea of oral history and wanted to figure out how we could celebrate all of the diverse people and stakeholders that make this neighborhood so wonderful,” Hawkins said.

Carothers joined OHC as a summer intern through Impact Providence and, after Hawkins apprised her of the idea, she and her colleague took charge of the project.

Carothers then added the photography component to the interviews. “I’m particularly interested in the intersection of writing and photography with community history,” she said. The photos and interviews enhance the exhibit’s accessibility to community members, she added. “Oral history is something that many people can access.”

All of the portrait placards display interview excerpts in both Spanish and English, many with quotes presented in Spanish before the English translation. The bilingual project exemplifies Olneyville’s cultural diversity. In the exhibit, a local postal worker who grew up in the area recalls serving individuals from Guatemala, Nigeria and Liberia in recent years after seeing primarily working-class white residents just a few decades ago.

According to a neighborhood profile from the Providence Plan, Olneyville’s overall population is now 57.4 percent Hispanic. Sixty-three percent of Olneyville’s public school children speak a language other than English.

Father Raymond Tetreault, a resident and the former pastor of St. Teresa’s Church, has a strong connection to the large immigrant population. Many people now mistake him for a Dominican or Mexican, Tetreault admits on his exhibit placard.

“I’ve participated with people in their sorrows and in their joys: their weddings, their baptisms, trials, all kinds of problems that happen in any immigrant family that is unsettled,” he said. “I feel very close.”

Solomon and Tetreault are just two of the residents who attempt to contribute to improving the Olneyville community. During the postwar recession, the crime rate in Olneyville soared. When Olneyville appeared in the news, “you would hear about arson and murder,” Carothers said. But community organizations and the Providence Police Department have worked hard to quell crime, encouraging undocumented residents in particular to report crime without fear of repurcussions from law enforcement officials.

The Olneyville Housing Corporation has also played a large role in reducing violent crime in the neighborhood. On Sept. 19, the Providence Journal announced the OHC was one of 14 recipients in the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program. OHC, in conjunction with the Providence Police, Roger Williams University’s School of Justice Studies and other community organizations, will put the nearly $600,000 grant toward patrolling “hot spots” and further developing abandoned properties, which tend to attract crime.

Olneyville has become “a much safer neighborhood” due to OHC efforts, Hawkins said. “It’s become a neighborhood where residents can lean on one another and trust one another.”

Many hope the exhibit will boost Olneyville’s negative image in the long run. “It’s not right,” said Jane Sherman, resident and Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council founder, according to the exhibit. “And hopefully it will change, because Olneyville has done a good job.”

After March 24, the exhibit will relocate to Unit #108 of the Plant, a historic development now owned and renovated by the Armory Revival Company, before it relocates to its final destination at Paragon Mills May 1, in time for the anniversary event. The celebration, which will also incorporate recorded audio into the existing exhibit, will act as an emblem all of Olneyville’s accomplishments.