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The Next Economy | America 360 / Providence

Trash Cans as Art?

A Providence nonprofit doubles as a blacksmith and welding workshop, as a well as a manufacturer of metal benches, bike racks, fences, and trash cans that decorate the city.

December 20, 2013

This trash can, decorated with hot dog cutouts, was created by The Steel Yard, an arts not-for-profit in Providence, R.I.(The Steel Yard)

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—The trash can that sits outside New York System, a popular hot dog joint on Plainfield Street, wouldn't make sense on any other sidewalk in the city. That is part of its charm, as trash cans go. The lime-green steel receptacle has been thoughtfully stenciled with … hot dogs.

This playful take on the humble garbage can is the work of local artists at The Steel Yard, an industrial arts nonprofit about a mile away in a part of Providence that once hummed with manufacturing. Over the course of nearly a decade, The Steel Yard and its Public Projects program have turned out a few hundred products like this: trash cans, benches, bike racks, fences, and planters that are part public utility, part public art, all placed at various spots around Providence.

The idea is an ingenious one for any cash-strapped city. Don't have a budget for more-traditional art? There's probably some money for it somewhere.

"People don't typically think of their municipal garbage-can fund as a way to talk about community identity, or a way to support local industry. It's a line item," says Howie Sneider, the acting director of The Steel Yard. "But through Public Projects and other community partnerships, we're able to keep that money local and use it as a chance for a community to express itself."

The arts nonprofit is built on the site of a former steel and iron company, pictured above.(Emily Badger)

The Steel Yard was founded in 2001 in what had been the home of Providence Steel and Iron, which made structural and ornamental steel for buildings and bridges in the area for decades. Now The Steel Yard has a sizable complex there devoted to the industrial arts, where it teaches welding, blacksmithing, and ceramics. It also offers studio space for local metal fabricators. The industrial interior of the massive workshop out back recalls another chapter in the city's manufacturing history (or perhaps another century in time when blacksmithing tools were still commonplace).

"Being so close to the heart of the Industrial Revolution here, there's a sort of pride in wanting to not lose the buildings and the history that's associated with them," says Islay Taylor, who leads The Steel Yard's jewelry-making program. That's another niche industry with a long Providence tradition.

The Steel Yard's mission has been as much about repurposing this industrial site as finding new purposes for the kind of metalworking skills once associated with it. Through the Public Projects, it has found customers in City Hall, individual businesses, and other community nonprofits and civic booster groups, some of them beyond Providence in New England.

Howie Sneider of The Steel Yard shows off some of the nonprofit's equipment.(Emily Badger)

The program ultimately serves several purposes simultaneously. It creates work for the kind of craftsmen who know how to fabricate one-of-a-kind trash cans out of recycled bike parts or hot dog motifs. It alters the way the public views these otherwise mundane objects. And the objects themselves, in turn, transform the feel of public space.

"Why can't the utilitarian have a really unique, cool spin to it, just like our city does?" says Frank LaTorre, the director of public space for the Downtown Improvement District. The group has purchased 120 trash cans from The Steel Yard over the years, sleek black-metal cans with yellow accents that look like someone actually put thought into them. "I know that's embellishing one hell of a lot out of a trash can," LaTorre laughs. "It sounds far out there, but it's also the truth."

 
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