The Valley of Providence: an Artist’s Perspective Howie Sneider: The Steel Yard's Executive Director on a Burgeoning Creative District

Photo courtesy of the Steel Yard


The Steel Yard was formed by, and can trace its roots to, world-class underground artists living and working in the Valley and Olneyville neighborhoods of Providence, but it’s inception was also an unlikely side effect connected to systematic displacement of small businesses and working artists in the early 2000’s. The neighborhood that once housed hundreds of independent art studios, fabrication, woodworking, jewelry and other small businesses, an entire micro-economy, was being gutted by speculating developers. The emptying out of Fort Thunder, Eagle Square, the mills along Valley Street, and the Eastern Butcher Block complex, along with the fire at Ajay Land Co. nearly wiped out the thriving creative ecosystem and threatened the homes and livelihoods hundreds of workers. A group of creatives, some from the neighborhood and others recent transplants, purchased and renovated the historic Monohassett Mill, a building that at the time was full of artists and jewelry businesses, turning it into artist live/work condos. A number of these residencies remain subsidized by the City of Providence to maintain income diversity in the project.

It was a big step for artists to invest in, own, and manage a piece of property in the neighborhood and they did it in their own way, seeing value in a space that others did not. Critically, they maintained the right to live and work in the renovated property, thus preserving some of the industrial character of the neighborhood that attracted them in the first place. Around the same time, the abutting property, Providence Steel and Iron (PSI), was going through a typical industrial transition. A family owned business, it faced an uncertain leadership transition and a changing economy in which much of work in the metal industry was being automated. The Steel Yard’s founders, Nick Bauta and Clay Rockefeller, saw an opportunity to provide more resources for artists, and the neighborhood. Using their development experience, access to capital, and capacity to partner with a broad range of engaged stakeholders across the City, and State, they put forward a plan to purchase and renovate this second property. Bauta and Rockefeller presented their vision to PSI owner Bill King as an opportunity to create a legacy by supporting a new scale and economy for the industrial arts. The PSI site would be divided and developed into a for-profit small business incubator, 1 Sims Ave., with space that could be rented at below or market-value, and a non-profit, the Steel Yard, dedicated to providing resources for creative professionals, shared studio spaces, and education in the industrial arts. A significant number of Steel Yard students and event attendees travel from as far as fifty miles away, but the organization’s teachers, resident artists, and commissioned public artists overwhelmingly come from within a 10-mile radius. Thus Providence, as the Creative Capital literally provides the creative working ‘capital’ that is at the core of the Steel Yard community.

Although subsidized rents allowed for artist tenants to set-up shop and begin commercializing their work, many understood that they were still living in a period of recurring development and displacement. Some feared that the the Steel Yard and 1 Sims would not live up to their promises of continued restoration and renewal. The community that had formed to challenge the Feldco Eagle Square project remained actively engaged and critical of all new development plans, including those of Rockefeller and Bauta. These activists raised their voices in response to new investment at Alco, Rising Sun Mills, the Foundry and the Plant, eventually partnering with the Olneyville Housing CDC (now One Neighborhood Builders) and the Olneyville Collaborative, whose members use community-responsive approaches to neighborhood revitalization.

The Valley neighborhood is an economic engine for the City of Providence.

The Steel Yard’s approach to ownership has created room in the Valley Arts District for slow growth, small business incubation, and broad-based commitments to local hiring and sustainable construction practices. Additionally, the organization benefited early on from being located in a then-new tax-free zone for art sales, which helped to catalyze new creative capacities of those working in surrounding buildings and throughout the Valley. Work by long-time artists residents to secure master leases and to help manage creative spaces has enabled artists to keep occupying under-utilized buildings, including The Wurks and others along Acorn Street, Ajay Land on Harris Ave and the studios in the Nicholson File Complex. Building owners in the neighborhood have been key advocates, having recognized the benefits of having small businesses as tenants. These fifty to eighty artist studios have begun to restore the vital momentum to the Valley’s creative ecosystem that was nearly lost in the early 2000’s. Businesses with creative or artistic profiles aren’t alone in the Valley, but the neighborhood’s cultural overlay is critical to its diversity, walkability, and feel. Artists are great neighbors. They bring cultural value and meaning to their work and practice and occupy studios and work spaces twenty-four hours a day, like a de-facto neighborhood watch. Artists also tend to value their industrial neighbors, employ residents from nearby, and engage with surrounding neighborhoods, helping create networks of barter and trade while beautifying their studios, streets, and living spaces in unexpected ways.

The Valley neighborhood is an economic engine for the City of Providence. BuildingFutures, YouthBuild Providence, PolarisMEP and the Steel Yard all have successful job training programs that prepare the next generation of Providence and Rhode Island residents for opportunities in the building and manufacturing trades, industries that are growing across the State. This is only possible because the Valley has maintained its identity as an industrial corridor for the City. The jobs provided and supported by Umicore, Capco Steel, B Del Toro and Sons, Monster Mini Golf, Eagle Tool, Rhode Island Welding and dozens of others should not be overlooked in terms of how they contribute to the local, state, and regional economies.

The Steel Yard has become a refuge for artists in the Valley and an anchor cultural institution in the City of Providence, providing a creative context for manufacturing, industry, small business and the arts all in one. Further, strong partnerships with the AS220, New Urban Arts, the Dirt Palace, Broad Street Studios and others have also allowed the organization to connect what is happening in the Valley to vital cultural resources across the City. Over the next five years, the Valley will see a significant increase in business density as the Steel Yard welcomes new neighbors like WaterFire, Gather Glass, Farm Fresh RI, US Rubber Lofts, and others. The Steel Yard will be expanding its facility to maintain its function as a community gathering hub so it can keep hosting local elections, neighborhood block parties, and cultural events that bring old and new neighbors together. Its staff, Board, and the artists that it represents, along with its partner arts, cultural, industrial, manufacturing and workforce training organizations, will continue advocating for more industrial development and the preservation of spaces for creation, manufacturing, and innovation.

Howie Sneider is an artist, Valley/Olneyville resident and the Executive Director of the Steel Yard. The Steel Yard is an award-winning non-profit industrial arts center. A manufacturer of custom and functional public-art, a craft school, and a shared studio, the organization’s mission is to support professional artists makers and the community practice and learn the industrial arts. It fosters creative and economic opportunities by providing workspace, tools, training and education, while forging lasting links to a local tradition of craftsmanship.

The Steel Yard is grateful for  the generous support of the City of Providence Department of Art Culture + Tourism. Organizational funding provided in part by a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, through an appropriation by the Rhode Island General Assembly, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and private funders.

All pictures courtesy of the Steel Yard.

Further Reading:

The Bruner Report

The Steel Yard Blog