Reflection on the closing of the Cable Car Cinema and Cafe

With the closing of the Cable Car Cinema and Cafe in Providence, R.I., after 42 years, we had planned to write an editorial about it. We have so many memories of going there. In fact, the past couple of years the owners really raised the bar with their programming. We also featured them in Limelight Magazine two years ago when the indie cinema celebrated their 40th anniversary. (Click HERE to read the story). However, we noticed a post on Sara Archambault’s Facebook page that expressed our thoughts exactly.  Instead of rewriting essentially what she posted, we asked for her permission to share this on our page with our readers and she graciously accepted. So long, Cable Car Cinema and Cafe. You were a gem in the Providence community and a cultural institution!

To Whom It May Concern:

As a filmmaker, an arts sector worker, and a life-long RI resident (with about 20 years in Providence), I want to add a line to the recent debates about the closing of the Cable Car Cinema.

I am fortunate to work at a regional arts funding organization called the LEF Foundation. LEF supports documentary filmmakers who reside in New England but make films around the world. Each year, we gather a jury of film professionals from all over the country to make the grant decisions and in the last few years, we have moved these deliberations from where the foundation is centered, in Harvard Square, to Providence.

I helped to orchestrate this move. I have what is possibly an absurd amount of Providence Pride. I revel in showing off this city’s historic and crafty features. I love the people here; our DIY spirit; the fierce call to create and forge our own paths with nothing but some good ideas and a little sweat. You can see this manifested all over the city in myriad ways.

In the mornings, I walk the jury from where they stay at the Dean Hotel over to Small Point Café for breakfast. At the end of the day, I bring them out to see art or shop some craft stores after a hard day’s work.

Significantly, I always send this jury to the Cable Car, one of this city’s most important cultural institutions. This is a place dedicated to showing the best of independent film, and intentionally building community around cinema. After a day of watching emerging films in progress, it’s satisfying to send the jury to the “cinema with couches” to see what one of these films might look like when it reaches the big screen.

But this year was different.

I knew I was sending this group of film industry leaders to the Cable Car for the last time, and I was heartbroken.

But it’s not only the Cable Car closing that pains my heart. Walking down Westminster, the jury encountered closed storefronts on each block. Every new construction boasted signs for hotels or luxury apartments. But what is it that will draw people to our city? Or make them stay? I’m heartened by the cool little shops and restaurants I see sprouting up downtown, but I worry the new construction signals a stripping away of this city’s beating heart.

Why am I so worried? Until recently, the LEF Foundation was located in Harvard Square, where it had been since 1992. I witnessed the Square morph from a funky, eclectic space to a corporate white wash of familiar franchises. The building LEF was in for more than 25 years was sold and the rent doubled. Down the block the Brattle Theatre, an independent cinema, is a remnant of what the Square once was. It’s all the more treasured for this reason but it too has a wealthy landlord–Harvard University–and ongoing challenges remain.

What I saw happen in Harvard Square, I see happening here.

And so I ask: What do we value, Providence? What do we want this place to be?

Providence is well known around the world for its arts scene. The culture of this place is directly tied to its creative character. Anchors like AS220, Trinity Rep, and PPAC, helped spur this growth we see. Places like the Cable Car, Craftland, Thee Red Fez, the Columbus Theater, Haven Brothers, Armageddon Shop, the Dirt Palace, and Frog N Toad, to just mention a handful, are what give Providence its flavor. Our success as a place is, was and will always be tied to the fates of the determined artists, storytellers, and entrepreneurs who bring our city its cultural life.

RI artist Hilary Treadwell (now famous for her “Don’t Mess with RI Either” t-shirts) was quoted in local media when there was speculation that the Crook Point Bascule Bridge was to be taken down. She said, “The soul of a place is diminished when we dismantle its strange things.”

In our city’s pursuit of growth, I fear we may be dismantling our strange things. And it is, indeed, these same strange things that provide the bedrock to why people want to come here in the first place. What is the vision for nurturing and protecting the local while planning for this growth?

In the case of the Cable Car, it is important to note that one of the largest arts institutions in our city took a primary role in the elimination of one of the smallest. RISD receives tax benefits from our city. What is their commitment to being a community partner?

On the state level, instead of giant tax breaks for one or two large corporations, what about incentives for 40 small businesses? What can we do to help grow the Cable Cars – people committed to this city, with roots here – into mid-size or large businesses with more jobs? Where is that vision for advancement? Finally, how can the giant behemoths of the universities create meaningful partnerships with the business and cultural sector that service a more useful set of values than an asset on a spreadsheet?

What do we want to be, Providence?

I am inviting those of us who are so lucky to live in this wonderful little city to think creatively and challenge our leaders to think with us. Think of sitting on those comfy couches discovering a new movie or maybe going on a first date. What does Providence become without the Cable Cars?

I will mourn the loss of this theater for a long time. I wish the owners (my friends – full transparency) well and I hope they find it within them to recreate somewhere else in town.

Finally, I implore our city, state and institutional leaders, please don’t dismantle our strange things in the pursuit of profit and growth. They are the very pillars that hold us up. Including you.

Respectfully submitted, 
Sara Archambault

The logo of the Cable Car Cinema and Cafe in Providence, R.I. 

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