Allens Ave. and Nonplaceness

Maxwell Fertik
MID 2023

If you aren’t familiar with Allens Avenue, it’s the long street that runs along the Providence Harbor. Dotted with giant gas tanks, mountains of road salt, and the like, it supplies basically all of the city’s industrial resources. Situated squarely at the intersection of I-95 and the regional railroad, Allens Ave. is also the hub for every material that needs to enter or leave the state by sea before traveling onward by land or elsewhere. ProvPort, as it is known, is New England’s second largest deepwater port. Where most marine ports are typically twenty feet deep, ProvPort is double this: a forty-foot deep channel, capacious enough to bring in petroleum, asphalt, cement, coal, aluminum oxide, and construction cargo, as well as send out mostly scrap metal, automotive parts, and more construction cargo. It is the Port of Providence.

I find myself thinking about Allens Ave. far too often. Like many Rhode Islanders, I was born less than two miles from it at Women & Infants Hospital, and I am perpetually wondering-considering-speculating what actually goes on there. At a single glance, it’s an abstraction of industry—we know that parts are moving, but the nature of what specifically occurs there is blurry to our eye. A glimpse of something either catastrophic or divine; a future of adaptive reuse and mutualism within post-industrial ruins beyond fleeting ideas of growth and wealth; possibly unavoidable flooding. In addition, a large concentration of gentlemen’s clubs are situated here. These places are likewise associated with transient encounters, coming and going but not staying. Thus, a man-made floating platform and an extension of land into the sea, an area in transition, collecting and releasing material in a disaffected cycle.

Author’s screenshots from Google Earth.

By nature, Allens Ave defies any definition of placeness. French anthropologist Marc Augé writes in Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Super-modernity (1995), “If a place can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical or concerned with identity, will be a non-place.”

Augé describes several different examples of non-places, all culminating around the sense of ambivalence and absence of many of the familiar attributes of a place. He also notes that a non-place has no distinct sense of “belonging.” Examples include airports, bus terminals, hotels—places he encountered during anthropological fieldwork and found himself meditating on while in transit. His aim was to theorize anthropological research in global terms but also to investigate the concepts of mobility and temporality via the most superficial spaces.

Floating somewhere between land and sea, I walk and consider assigning non-placeness to this deepwater port. Threatened with impending climate-related demolition by its vulnerable proximity to the ocean or doomed to a towering, corroded longevity of fuels and scraps, this street exists as the most ephemeral of spaces. It defies any sense of pure form. However, places reconstitute themselves within it. Connections and structures are restored and revived within it. Never completed, this Martian landscape of white cylinders, spherical digesters, mountains of salt and shredded steel exists as a palimpsest, on which identity and placeness are ceaselessly rewritten and visible. Non-places are a real measure of time, Augé states, as quantified, industrial zones—perhaps extraterrestrial spaces. It is a material collage of increasingly obsolete industry and yet a dynamo of dark reckoning.

Maxwell Fertik is just happy to be here.