Hope is a Duck

This is an essay I read at the Emergence event on August 6th in front of the Adventure Time mural behind the George Arnold building on Washington. The mural is being retired soon. While not a “Now & Then” topic exactly, I do mention Rhode Island, which is how I justify posting it here.

From the pens of poets and mouths of politicians, the idea of hope is habitually a victim of platitude. Sometimes generalized away from any discernable contrast with yearning or optimism or even simple expectation; and sometimes depicted so specifically as to be synonymous with nothing other than faith, hope is easy to say, but shy to the touch. Easier to characterize than define, hope is like obscenity … we know it when we see it.  

The challenges around understanding what we’re talking about when we talk about hope are, to my mind, perfectly captured in the state motto of Rhode Island, which is not “Hope Endures” or “Hope Always” or “A State of Hope,” or as in South Carolina, “While I Breathe, I Hope” (which I suppose means, only the dead are without hope). No, our state motto is just the one word alone. Hope. That’s all we get. What does it mean? Well, in typical, even traditional Rhode Island fashion, we’re invited to figure it out for ourselves. Hope! And never give up. Hope! And keep your powder dry. Hope! And tell Massachusetts Bay Colony to bite me. Hope! It’s what’s for dinner.

Fortunately, not fortunately, the voices willing if not able to help us with the concept of hope are numerous, loud, and annoyingly self-assured. Hope is audacious, but only a small rebellion, an anchor of course, and an axe. Hope is a good thing. Hope is a bad thing. Hope is the companion to power and the only thing stronger than fear. But hope is not a strategy. Hope is a lover’s staff and fertile soil, an open heart and a state of mind, a good breakfast and a rope, the belief that everything will get better and an illusion, a species of happiness and a mistake, a dangerous thing and something you create. Hope is for the hopeless, but the last thing to die. Hope is a discipline, nature’s veil, like peace, a waking dream, a verb. Hope is swift, sweet, patience, passion, important, necessary, and medicine. Hope floats … and, as we all know, it is the thing with feathers.

Hope is a Duck. I mean, might as well be, and why not?

You remember, I know you do, waiting to get sick, which meant, maybe waiting to die. What did hope look like to you then? How did you hope if you did? How does a person hope when they do?  Maybe hope looked like imagining the return of things that had been taken away. Maybe hope looked like nothing other than the absence of despair, a denial of certain thoughts. Maybe hope looked like following all the rules; or ignoring them, because for some people hope might look like not believing in this thing but really believing in that thing. Hope is, after all, if history and words mean anything, many many different ideas and some of them at odds. That the notion of hope as fundamental to the human experience has somehow survived this level of ineptitude and overabundance in articulation is for me a reason to believe that hope is actually a thing. I don’t understand it, can’t explain it, can’t even grasp it long enough to pull it apart and examine its pieces. Hope happens, is all I know.

On land, ducks waddle ponderously. In the air, they are among the fastest birds in the sky. In the water they are at home like the fish. We could do worse in wanting an avatar for hope—even if it’s not exactly the bird Emily had in mind—something to imagine when we need to conjure the feeling for an idea that everyone seems to understand but that nobody can tell us how to do. How do you do hope? I don’t know. It has a mind of its own. Sometimes hope soars. Sometimes it just drifts through your day. Sometimes you’re not sure if it will make it across the road. Hope … is a duck.

Top image, ducks at Roger Williams park, 1908.

The Point Street Bridge(s)

In a manner of speaking, there is no Point Street Bridge because there have been three iterations of the span since 1872. These are often referred to as the first, second, and third bridges. Fair enough. But because the second bridge was really just an updating of the first bridge, I like to call them Bridge A, Bridge B, and … wait for it, Bridge C.

I freely admit I am being almost inexcusably annoying on this point (pause). In any case, they are the Point Street “Bridges.”

Point Street Bridge A

From Cushing & Walling Map, 1849

Prior to 1872, the southern section of the Providence River was crossed by several ferries. Crossings were frequent but not conducive to commercial traffic as industry on both sides of the river was very active. A swing span bridge was constructed in 1872, “swing span” indicating that the center section would pivot to allow shipping to pass. A giant pivot mechanism was sunk into the middle of the river, like the center of a lazy-Suzan, and then the center span of the bridge was floated over the pivot during high-tide. As the tide went out the bridge was lowered onto the pivot. The center section was a bow-spring design, as were the shore spans on either side, so the profile of the bridge was one large bow with two smaller bows to the left and right.

Center span of the 1872 bridge.
Rare photograph of Bridge A (1872 bridge) pivoting to allow a ship to pass. Taken from the western river bank south of the bridge.
The eastern shore span on Bridge A.

Point Street Bridge B

In 1907, after 35 years in operation, the bow-spring shore spans were replaced and the length of the center section was increased by 35 feet. The 1907 version of the bridge (B) can be identified by the absence of a bow structures on the shore spans.

Bridge B, without bows on shore spans.
Bridge B opening for a ship to pass.
Looking east over Bridge B, the 1907 update.
Bridge B from the south just prior to construction of Bridge C.

Point Street Bridge C

In 1927, the entire bridge was replaced with the bridge we know today. The design is a “Warren Through Truss,” that balances push and pull stresses. The swing span remained in operation for 30 years, swinging open for the last time in 1959 as the river closed to commercial traffic with construction of the hurricane barrier, which started in 1960.

Bridge C being floated out over the pivot mechanism at high tide.
Installation of Bridge C, 1927, Narragansett Electric Light building in the background.
Bridge C from the north, probably late 1930’s.
Bridge C from the east with Schlitz factory in foreground.
View from Downtown with new freeway bridge (at the time) where the pedestrian bridge is today.
All photos except this one are from the Providence Public Library online digital collection. This photo is mine. The photo at the top is Bridge C not long after construction was completed in 1927.

Traveling Through Time in Providence

Not long after I started my Instagram account, @pvdnowandthen, I became curious as to why some posts were more popular than others. I wasn’t so much interested in catering to the cause as I was in just understanding it. I myself am just as fascinated by the mundane street corner as I am with our iconic Industrial Trust “Superman” building. But for others, some “now and then” photo pairings are more interesting than others.

I arrived at the following theory, and it is just that, a theory.

Photo pairings that evoke a sense of time travel seem to be more popular than those that do not (with a few exceptions). When is a sense of time travel conveyed? I believe it is a combination of recognition and transformation.

Recognition

First, there must be familiarity. The building or scene must be more or less recognizable in both the old photo and the new. If either photo or image in the pairing is unfamiliar to the degree that the observer has trouble identifying with it, the presentation might be interesting and informative, but the sense of time travel that causes people to linger over the post is diminished.

Transformation

Second, although recognition seems key, there must be at the same time a sense of transformation, which creates the feeling of movement, of moving through time. If there is little in the way of transformation; that is, if the old photo could almost be a new photo that I’ve changed to black and white or sepia, there is no spell, no evocation of time travel.

The most common elements triggering a sense of transformation are what I think of as “time stamps,” and the most common time stamps are transportation, people, and surroundings. Many buildings in Providence look virtually the same today as they did 150 years ago to all but the closest observer. But if the new photo features a Toyota Camry parked at the curb and the old photo has a horse and buggy, voila, transformation. Likewise, if there are people in the photo, their clothing and grooming will contribute to a sense of transformation. Finally, the surrounding buildings, signage, and infrastructure can contribute to a sense of transformation.

A high degree of familiarity combined with significant transformation results in time travel.

A good example is the pair of photos of the Superman building above. There is a high degree of familiarity with this building, especially from this distance and with a fair replication of the perspective. But the absence of the Fleet Center building just to the east makes Turk’s Head part of the skyline from the north, not something you’re used to seeing unless you’ve been around awhile. So, there is both absence and presence in terms of transformation. Then, the presence of the train, dominating the foreground where the river should be (or close enough) is almost shocking because although trains were once prominent in the area between Union Station and Smith Hill, they are virtually invisible today.

In the combination of photos below, we have the opposite result. The current version of this building on Mathewson might be vaguely familiar, but the Westminster Congregational Church, which is now half buried inside the current building and half demolished, is not familiar at all, outside of photographs. The degree of transformation is very high, but identification is low, so no feeling of movement, no time travel. The image of the church is too unfamiliar. It’s still interesting and good information to have, but it’s not really an experience, it’s just data.

Even a relatively subtle change to surroundings, as in the photos of Union Station below, can cause a mental double-take. The building looks the same, but in the old photograph there is a road where we are used to seeing an ice skating rink or plaza. The presence of a residential tower in the distance adds to the transformation.

City Hall is very familiar, so there is a high level of identification. Almost anyone in Providence would easily identify either photo as City Hall. And yet there is a strong sense of transformation because the Hotel Dorrance to the left has been replaced by the Woolworth Building today and the horse trolley is now a bus. Whenever there is a trolley in an old photo I will try, if possible, to have a bus in the new photo to add to this sense of transformation happening right before your eyes. The comment I hear most often about my Instagram account is that people like it when I do this. There might be other ways to explain this, but I think it’s because it feels like time travel. (Note, close observers will see that City Hall itself has also changed. We now have more windows on the fourth floor, where we have also lost the gable and column element in the center of the fourth floor.)

Of course this is all possibly a bit of gobbledygook, stories I tell myself to explain why some posts are more popular than others. In any case, this bit of analysis, if analysis “is the word I mean to use,” allows me to predict with some accuracy which photo combinations will receive the most engagement.