By David Scharfenberg
Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline's second annual Senator Claiborne Pell Lecture on Arts and Humanities wasn't really about the arts. Or the humanities. And the event, held at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence March 9, wasn't really a lecture either.
It was, instead, a series of presentations: a mish-mash of slides and maps and witticisms that formed a quirky ode to that too-often forgotten means of stitching together our fragmented cities: the bicycle.
Samuel Zipp, an American Studies professor at Brown University, walked the crowd through cycling's glory days in the late 19th century — the "feedless horse," it seems, was a big hit when it first emerged — and its decline in the face of the automobile.
Barry Schiller, head of advocacy for the Providence Bicycle Coalition, imagined a city where 90 percent of the transport came by foot or bicycle and 10 percent by car, rather than vice versa. And Thomas Deller, head of Providence's department of planning and development, gave a sort of state of the bicycle trail in Rhode Island, circa 2010.
But the most intriguing presenter of the night was a former RISD student by name of David Byrne. Best known as the frontman for Talking Heads — "You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile," he once sang — Byrne is also a cycling enthusiast.
Last year, he published a nifty, orange-covered travelogue, Bicycle Diaries, that chronicles his two-wheeled adventures through New York City, Istanbul, and Manila, among other cities — "faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person."
And at Trinity, dressed in white pants that matched his thick shock of hair, he projected a series of images and photographs that amounted to a sort of abbreviated version of his global amblings and amateur musings on urbanity.
First, an old shot of Providence. And memories of a largely paved-over river, mostly obscured from sight: "Let me show you something, let me show you something, there's a river down there."
Then, an image of towers built by termites that manage to maintain a steady temperature within — something we've been unable to do with our towers, he noted, absent some heavy reliance from fossil fuels.
Byrne showed visions of atomized cities dreamt up by early 20th-century figures like Le Corbusier — a famous architect, Byrne said, "round glasses, all that" — and lamented that those visions had, to some degree, come to pass.
There was a picture of lifeless streets in downtown Houston, surrounded by skyscrapers; another of the highways cutting through Austin; an image of the sort of featureless parking lot that dominates so many of our cityscapes. "It's storage," Byrne said.
Then, pictures of what's possible: lively street scenes in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. Bike parking on the streets of Portland, Oregon. Protected bicycle lanes along urban streets in Berlin and New York.
And that was it. Lecture complete. Bicycle Diaries for sale in the lobby.