A new park marks the final chapter in a rare success story of a brownfield being put to use as green space. It’s also the story of a marginalized community fighting for a say in how their neighborhood is developed.
Twenty years ago, this site was the toxic remains of the Gorham Manufacturing Company’s silver factory. Now it’s a very different scene.
Tucked behind the Popeye’s off Reservoir Avenue, past a nearly vacant strip mall and the parking lot of Alvarez High School is a new public park. The wildflower covered hill looks over Providence’s largest body of freshwater, Mashapaug Pond.
“There’s like this beautiful little cove that was closest to the Gorham factory,” Amelia Rose pointed out. “as part of the remediation they took out some of the soil, and they put in all these beautiful wetland plants. And now you see birds, and all these beautiful trees, and look! There’s a boat!”
Rose is the executive director of the environmental nonprofit Groundwork Rhode Island. She got involved with this site as an activist back in 2007 when the clean-up was underway.Almost a century of industrial use left the soil and groundwater contaminated with lead, petroleum products, and chlorinated cleaning solvents. Citing environmental justice concerns, community groups opposed construction on the contaminated property a school that would serve mostly low-income, kids of color.
The school was built, but the community won on several counts. Venting and monitoring systems were installed to prevent buildup of toxic vapors inside the school building. A school siting law was passed, regulating construction of future schools on contaminated property. And part of the property was turned into a public park.
“This is an example of a project where you would have had a community that was marginalized, that marginalization continuing. In this case they were able to speak out, and for the most part, get what they wanted,” said Joseph Martella, who has managed the project for the Department of Environmental Management since 2001. “They really wanted a park out there. And eventually, that’s what they got.”
Martella added, the site will remain a brownfield because of contamination in the underlying soil. And the remediation work isn’t over: groundwater is still being pumped from the water table for treatment, and vapor levels beneath Alvarez High School continue to be monitored.
But completion of the park marks a turning point for the site.
“It’s really exciting to be able to take people out here, have people see the pond for the first time,” Amelia Rose said, adding that the park gives residents a new way to enjoy this urban slice of nature.
“It brings us back to the 1940 when Gorham was still operating, people swimming, using Mashapaug as a beach, getting baptisms and all sorts of things,” Rose said, referencing a series of oral histories about the neighborhood surrounding the pond. “With the remediation and knowing about environmental hazards, it just being completely closed off to people was really sad. So now it’s an exciting culmination to a long process.”
A celebration to mark the opening of Mashapaug Park kicks off at 5:00 pm on Friday 6/21. (375 Adelaide Ave, Providence, RI 02907, behind Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School)