Liberty Elm Abstract and Bibliography

Bradley Hanson


The Liberty Elm diner opened in August 2007 in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. Over the past year its owners, staff, and ardent supporters have labored to fashion the space into a versatile gathering spot, one heralded as an organic restaurant, coffee shop, eclectic hangout, urban greenspace, purveyor of local goods, and site for progressive activism. The renovated 1947 Worcester lunch car has emerged as what anthropologist Elijah Anderson calls a cosmopolitan canopy, a space where diverse groups safely gather to interact and counter the alienation of urban life. Live music is central to this ambitious mission. Each Sunday morning the diner hosts a rotation of folk and roots musicians representing alternative country, bluegrass, blues, and singer/songwriter traditions. Local economic, political, and cultural goals are promoted always side-by-side these local musical efforts.

The Liberty Elm project, though, has not been easily realized. The Elmwood neighborhood, long suffering due to questionable political policies and bleak economic prospects, has proven antagonistic at times to the diners sweeping goals. Though the proprietors have sought to build an engaged sensibility among their devoted clientele, they have struggled to connect with the actual, largely Hispanic and working-class, Elmwood population. In this paper I describe the successes, failures, and unresolved tensions that surround the diner at a critical moment in its young existence. I discuss the history of the Elmwood neighborhood and examine Liberty Elms place within it. Drawing on interviews with the owners, patrons, and longtime residents, I explore the diners complicated goal for a community-based cosmopolitan canopy. Most specifically I describe the Sunday morning musical performance culture as a revealing backdrop for understanding the achievements and challenges that mark the Liberty Elm experiment.

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