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Historic mill houses art community

Gangly weeds and graffiti have long ago overrun parts of the enormous brick complex. Tattered tarp flutters from the dozens of boarded-up windows of the former Hope Webbing Company, once one of the largest mills of its kind.

From a distance, the building, tucked into historic Pawtucket, gives off a vague air of abandonment — the drone of highway traffic occasionally punctuated by the scream of the commuter rail.

But step inside the chain-link fence ringing Hope Artiste Village, and an eclectic community of painters, writers, designers and even accountants is steadily humming along. The complex, built in pieces from 1889 to 1914, is home to live-in tenants, artist studios, a bi-weekly farmers' market and retail shops including a restaurant and cafe.

Art in ruins

Eighty-one tenants and over 250 employees occupy the complex, said Susana Cullina, property manager of Hope Artiste Village, a 10-minute bus ride from Kennedy Plaza. Eleven live-work apartments are available, though the group plans to expand to 135 residential units.

Besides housing tenants, the village also has two large high-ceilinged rooms for events. A Lollipop-Palooza held to benefit a family bereavement group recently took over the light-filled Solarium. Neon lollipops festooned cement walls and gleeful screams quickly gave way to chocolate-smeared contentment as children sampled lollipops with apple pie and Oreo fillings.

The event was particularly apt — the complex was once home to a candy company.

The student-organized sustainability conference A Better World by Design also chose to hold their 2011 gala in the space. The village's conversion of a site that previously would have been unused or destroyed played a decisive role in the choice to host the event there, said Joanna Zhang '13, a representative of the Better World group.

"All this life has started up again," Zhang said of the mill's renaissance. "It's almost like a decomposing animal where all of these new art forms are like different biospheres."

Urban Smart Growth, a Los Angeles-based development company, acquired the property, which occupies an area of about four city blocks, in 2005. The $1 million renovation project was made feasible by a historic site tax credit offered by the state, said Michael Gazdacko, a representative of the company.

The company was attracted to Rhode Island by the ongoing art movement and strong educational presence, Gazdacko said. Seven Stars Bakery, which currently does all of its baking in the village, was the first tenant.

But the fate of the historic mill was not always so certain — another group, with a slightly different goal, sought to purchase the property in 2005, Gazdacko said. Had that group won, the mill and its 100-plus years of history would have been razed to the ground, and a Lowe's Hardware store put in its place.  

Strings and things

Dennis McCarten is the owner of the village's much-lauded violin repair shop, filled with gleaming instruments and smelling faintly of wood-shavings. One of only several in Rhode Island, the shop is a point of pride for Urban Smart Growth.   

Initially self-taught out of a love for fiddle music, McCarten attended an intensive three-year training at one of the three violin-making and repair programs in the country. For McCarten, violin-making is a second hobby—he used to be a trial lawyer.

His current patrons include string-instrument aficionados of all ages. A Brown student recently brought in a $10,000 cello damaged from shipping and "smashed into about 20 pieces," McCarten said. But after a month's hard labor, it is almost as good as new, he said. Hairline cracks are now the only signs of disrepair.

McCarten said he helps clients restore and sell family heirlooms. One violin currently in his shop, dating from 1925, is priced at $16,000. He also provides pro bono labor for Community MusicWorks — a group found by Sebastian Ruth '97 to provide free musical education to West Side children.

McCarten, who opened his doors in 2006, is one of the longer-standing tenants — he said he has seen most retail business here open only to fail months later.

Retail businesses must occupy a specific niche to survive in the village, Cullina said. "This isn't a heavy retail corridor. The businesses here are the business that have their own clientele."

Past businesses included painters and craft shops, but stores now often cater to a more specific audience.

"I was forced to come here," said Erin Whalen, author of three children's books and owner of the newly opened Story Emporium. Her business is not even a month old, but she is already gaining critical exposure for her writing through school visits, a planned television series and the many children running through the farmers' market.

A friend handed her a $1,200 check and told her to rent a space in the village, Whalen said. Most of the shop's whimsical decorations were either donated or left behind by previous tenants, adding to the shop's grisly circus decor. "Everything just fell into place," she said.  

The store's offerings are fairly limited. Whalen only plans to sell books whose authors agree to come in for a signing. "This is an author-run bookstore," she said.

Her dream guest? Chris Van Allsburg — author of "The Polar Express" and longtime Providence resident.  Though Van Allsburg is a known recluse, Whalen said, she plans to keep pestering him until he becomes part of her "author's clubhouse." His picture is posted prominently near the cash register to remind her of her goal.

So fresh so clean

For most of the week, the village's winding halls are devoid of outsiders. But on late fall and winter Wednesdays and Saturdays, the old mill comes to life once more with Farm Fresh Rhode Island's wintertime market, an enormous event that makes its Wriston Quadrangle equivalent look like a mere roadside stand.

On a recent Saturday, a gourmet sausage truck run by Chez Pascal chef Matthew Gennuso idled outside the building, surrounded by happy clientele and several lucky canines. Inside, fresh chickens laid in neat rows next to tables piled with autumnal gourds and shining peppers. At a stand across the way, a lobster waved its claws sluggishly from a bed of ice. All of the dozens of vendors sell locally grown or made food.

And for the budget-savvy shopper, free samples abound. It is nearly impossible to pass by tables without friendly encouragement to taste fresh cranberry crumble, locally made granola or bites of artisanal cheese.

For the most part, young professionals and their families populate the market — babies and dogs seem to be t
he accessories of choice. But even at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Brown students are not entirely missing from the equation: Molly Bledsoe '12 works at the market and is Healthy Seniors coordinator for Farm Fresh Rhode Island.

The market brings much-needed traffic to the building during a New England winter, Gazdacko said, and it is beneficial both for the village and for Farm Fresh, which pays a "nominal fee" to use the space. "It's a win-win situation," he said.

Over 2,000 visitors to the market pack into a hall approximately the length of a city block over the course of four hours, McCarten said. The Village's usual Fed-Ex man cannot stand it — he said it makes delivering packages a nightmare. But McCarten, who spends most of his Saturdays talking to potential customers and explaining violin repairs, loves it.

"It's the spirit of this place," he said.



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