Living Off Hope

There’s a new mural near my house in Providence that reads “Most of us live off hope”. It’s a lively, cheerful image depicting large, colorful flowers, vines and butterflies. It showed up late last spring, and was a welcome reminder that the world was still a colorful place in a time that seemed dark and grey. In the early days of summer actual sunflowers and other flowers were planted in the bed directly in front of the painted wall, adding a sense of promise of good things to come. The flower bed was dense enough that when the sun was shining brightly it was sort of hard to tell where the mural ended and real life began. As the long, lazy, mostly uneventful (by 2020 standards) summer days floated by, the sunflowers grew so tall they obscured the art completely. Maybe that was the point. Hope grows. But by October the flowers had all died and didn’t get cut back so the entire beauty of the piece was obscured by withered, dried and blackened blooms that felt like death.  

It’s hard to separate hope from despair these days (it’s such a fine line during a raging pandemic and roiling social unrest) and the dead sunflowers defiantly standing tall seemed to say “see, I told you so” just as Covid started rearing it’s ugly head again and the false sense of normalcy we’d all been warily enjoying gave way to a stark reality. We are not ok. At least not yet. At least not completely.  

The mural, painted by Joanna Vespia for The Avenue Concept, lives on Hope Street, and it’s a reference to a famous (RI famous?) Mad Peck poster from the 70’s. The poster reads “Providence, Rhode Island, where it rains two days out of three, except during the rainy season when it snows like a bitch. And Friendship is a one-way street. Rich folks live on Power Street. But most of us live off Hope.” Upon first read, it sounds like a pretty pessimistic view of a divided world, but maybe there’s something more to it.

Hope Street is a throughway that runs from the bottom part of the East Side all the way to Pawtucket. Hope is a very long street; some blocks are more beautiful than others. The blocks are, in turn, stark, leafy, peaceful, pristine, neglected, lively, colorful, and raw. Together they form one continuous pathway that connects several unique neighborhoods including Fox Point, College Hill, Freeman Plat, Hope and Summit. These neighborhoods are home to a wide variety of architecturally interesting structures in various states of repair (or disrepair) that date from the 1700s to present day, an eclectic mix of restaurants, shops, schools and people from every walk of life. Some businesses and people are thriving. Some are not. Others are somewhere in between. It’s a river of humanity in all its glory and shortcomings.

I love Hope Street. I love the ugly parts as much as the beautiful ones. In the early morning, when the sun is just starting to rise and the day still holds promises to come, I like to run from my house in Hope Village all the way down to the very end of Fox Point. The Multi-Family homes, American Four Squares and Bungalows that define my neighborhood give way first to grand Victorians and then to well preserved Colonials, Federals and Georgian homes. I run past the library, the bodega, the bakery, the Indian spice store, the florist, the bike shop, the Brown athletic complex, the specialty grocery store, the French school, the dome shaped observatory that I am intensely curious about but haven’t yet found the time to investigate. I am never tired of what I encounter along the way. There’s the guy putting a pile of unwanted items on the curb with a note that says “free, or best offer”. There are high school students trudging off the RIPTA bus, masks askew, faces lighted by the glow of their phones. Dog walkers, other runners, shopkeepers turning on lights. It strikes me that we are all living very different lives, but that we’re also inextricably tied together by at least one shared experience. We’re all living through this strange two-year hiatus from real life where we are both fully present and completely removed. And all of us, every single one of us, are currently making our way down Hope, one way or another. 

The thing is, some of us don’t notice that we’re still on Hope. We’re just putting one foot in front of the other, forgetting to look up or make eye-contact. We’re not even sure where we’re going anymore, or where we’re meant to be. We’ve lost sight of our destination because the journey has been long and we’re exhausted. But I think we’ve come too far to turn back now. This latest Covid surge is discouraging and depressing, and we still have mountains to climb if we’re ever going to be an equitable and inclusive society, but there is still reason to believe that this long (crazy, stupid, ugly, awful, frustrating, heartbreaking) trip is coming to an end. Can we keep going just a little bit longer? Can we make it a little further down the path every day? I know I said Hope is a long street, but I’d really like to think so. I really do think we can get there. 

It may rain two out of three days here in Providence, except when it’s snowing, but the sun does always come back. So what if it isn’t always sunny like it is in Philadelphia (wink) — maybe that can make us appreciate it a little more when the day shines bright.

And maybe Friendship isn’t a one-way street after all. Maybe it’s a two-way street with a dotted line running down the middle. We might not be in the same lane, or even going the same direction, but we can grasp hands on our way by and hold on with everything we’ve got until the light turns green.

And yes there are a lot of people still up there trying to make it on Power Street and maybe they can’t see very far down the hill, but it’s getting more and more crowded on Hope Street and I’ll take that as a sign of good things to come.