I step off the Providence streets into an industrial complex. Scattered about the lawn are a menagerie of sculptures from repurposed industrial parts, bikes, and scrap metal. To my left, engine innards from a massive ship. To my right, a towering garden of flowers, organic texture hammered into steel.
This site, for the better half of the last century, housed the Providence Steel and Iron Company. Like hundreds of other mills in the city, the complex was left vacant in the aftermath of Providence’s decline from industrial power in the mid-twentieth century. 10 years ago, two entrepreneurs—Clay Rockefeller and Nick Bauta—stumbled upon this site and revitalized it into a community hub called the Steel Yard.
At the end of the walk is the main building. The brick is faded, and many window panes are blank, some filled in with a mosaic of metal sheets. The Steel Yard has been developing slowly, organically. It may not have been their intention from the start, but Rockefeller says this slow development has allowed the organization to respond to the creative uses the community has found for it.
And the uses are many. The Steel Yard supports a diverse collection of tradesmen with educational, non-profit, and for-profit initiatives. Their Public Projects program has landed Steel Yard major contracts with the City of Providence, including the commissioning of trash receptacles, bus stops, planters, tree guards, and bike racks situated around the city. In turn, the Steel Yard sub-contracts these orders out to its network of creative makers.
The Yard prides itself in the connective powers of group buying, coalesced expertise, and shared resources for lower production costs. According to Rockefeller, “the focus on inclusiveness and interactivity” were the key to the organization’s success. “The Steel Yard is an organization committed to cultivating an environment of experimentation and a community strengthened by creative networks.”
The 10,000 square foot site houses studios for art, spaces for learning, and manufacturing facilities where products are crafted daily. Equipment for welding, slip-casting, ceramics, and other types of fabrication are readily available. They have added new units to the mill with large garage doors for massive-scale work—for example, the large geometric bear under construction during my visit. The site contains venues to showcase the work produced, including a gallery and store.
Work that comes out of the Steel Yard is unique and engaging, and it is also profitable. The crafts are either sold as art in galleries or made available for consumers through websites, stores, and craft fairs.
This is a new kind of adaptive reuse. Traditionally, adaptive reuse means converting old spaces for new purposes once their initial program has expired. The Steel Yard is unique in that it not only revitalizes a dilapidated plot in Providence’s industrial Valley district, but also keeps the spirit of its initial use alive. The craftsmen use the same machinery and work with the same materials, while allowing the Yard to support a vibrant new community.
The Steel Yard hosts regular classes, as well as eccentric events like Welding with Your Mom on Mother’s Day and the Iron Pour each Halloween, in which “yardies” pour molten iron into carved pumpkins for a brilliant display of fireworks. The annual Wooly Fair attracts thousands throughout New England for a DIY carnival with costumes, music, and art.
Sam White, founder of the Wooly Fair, describes the event as “surreal, spectacular, and people-driven”. The same can be said of the Steel Yard itself.
The Yard is a study in the emergence of a post-industrial creative economy across the United States, particularly apparent in progressive cities like Austin and San Francisco. The organization operates as a network of small businesses and self-employed craftsmen. This model allows artists to pool resources and reduce transaction costs, thus increasing efficiency while avoiding the lure of vertical integration.
The organization employs just four full-time employees to minimize costs and leverages their network when needed to work flexibly. They boast community and creative leaders on their board who contribute time and expertise. Operations are supported by a patchwork of programming income, private and government grants, corporate giving, and donations from individuals. Every so often they save enough to take on larger development projects to move closer to their vision. The yardies recently set out to clean up the property, polluted by decades of industrial activity. After years of planning, piles of red tape, and USD 1.2 million—financed from a mix of savings and grants from the state and federal governments—they have successfully remediated the site, a feat that required both the passion of the community and ultimate cooperation of legislators.
The Yard is a mélange of connectors, collectors, producers, doers, and spectators. It is more than an organization or a space—it’s a nurturing ecosystem that inspires artists to use their creativity to add value to waste. Through the hub tradesmen receive education, access to equipment, and contracted orders—all in a way that generates sustainable revenue for the central organization.
The Steel Yard has taken a slow trajectory, but this has made the organization all the more powerful. They maintain deep roots in the community and allow their diverse stakeholders to drive the organization’s future. Despite its sense of place, it is part of a broader movement of connected creative enterprises and networks around the United States and abroad, each embedded in its own neighborhood. Because of their authenticity and openness, these organizations have garnered loyal stakeholders deeply invested in their success.
Clay Rockefeller is still renovating the facilities and pushing the organization’s mission forward. So long as the demand for the arts, education, and local production burns on, it will thrive. Still a work in progress, the Steel Yard’s success and vision shine a light on possibilities to reuse the derelict sites that dot the landscape of post-industrial cities across the world—and to revitalize communities at the same time.