In the early 1990s, the Woonasquatucket River was hidden in many areas of Providence, running through a neighborhood where people didn’t really want to live. But over the past two decades it has seen a transformation, with the installation of bike paths, the creation of a park on a former Brownfield site and construction of affordable housing where drug houses used to be. The non-profit Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council has been the driving force behind much of the change. This month, Jim Hummel introduces us to some of the key players - and takes a tour of the watershed.
For more information about the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, click here.
From the waterfalls, to the fish ladders, to the this bucolic scene just blocks from a busy road - the Woonasquatucket River, and the bike path adjacent to it, has become a jewel that now draws visitors from all over Rhode Island - and has helped transform what was once one of the most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Providence into a desirable place to live.
Aurrechia: “It’s been a struggle for many years, but it’s exciting to see the transformation because things have been transformed.”
Lisa Aurecchia is the director of projects for the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, a non-profit formed 20 years ago when most people living in Olnyeville didn’t want to be there and the river itself was largely overgrown and polluted.
The council oversees 19 miles of river and 50 square miles of adjacent land in six Rhode Island communities. Its leaders see that area as an environmental, recreational, cultural and economic asset for the state.
Lehrer: “They knew this was the neighborhood that had the least resources, it was the most abused and neglected and the poorest people in town lived here. And somebody said ‘I think there’s a river that runs through there, maybe there’s something we can do with that.’”
Alicia Lehrer recalled the discussion city and community leaders had in the early 1990s about Olneyville. Lehrer became executive director of the watershed council 10 years ago, just as Riverside Park off Manton Avenue had been built on a former Brownfield site, home to sprawling mill during the turn of the century.
The council was formed in 1998 after President Clinton designated the Woonasquatucket an American Heritage River.
Lehrer: “This is bigger than just the neighborhood of Olneyville, this is bigger than Providence, this is a whole watershed, so need an organization to go with this.”
Lehrer, a water quality scientist by training, was intrigued by trying to do something with the river itself.
Lehrer: “If we have dirty water in the Woonasquatucket, that’s dirty water in Narragansett Bay.”
Woonasquatucket, she says, is an Algonquin word meaning where the salt water ends - in this case at the mouth of the Woonasquatucket in downtown Providence near the Providence Place Mall.
Lehrer: “ I do obviously care about the natural resources. But what I really care about is restoring the quality of life for people and the animals that live in our urban areas. Because this is all we’ve got. These are our natural resources. Not everyone can go to Yellowstone and see the wonders of that. But we all do need to be in touch with what we have outdoors. We all need to breath fresh air, stand next to a tree and play in a park.”
Isabella: “Drugs, prostitution, low-level gang activities, robberies. It was just a really bad area.”
Dean Isabella grew up just off Manton Avenue and remembers what it was like before Riverside Park was built and this new housing adjacent to it made people actually want to live here.
Isabella: “When we first started the project on Aleppo Street, that small geographical area of 3 percent of the area that I was responsible for policing, or overseeing, generated over 33 percent of our calls for service. So one in every three calls we were sending somebody to that area to deal with an issue that was being generated there. Once the project was completed and the affordable housing was there and the people in the neighborhood had a decent place to live and became engaged, our calls for service dropped 98 percent and crime dropped 90 percent.”
Isabella, a captain and 32-year veteran of the Providence Police Department, said the bike path and greenway now draw people from all over Rhode Island who never would have dreamed of coming to the Manton area 10 or 15 years ago.
Isabella: “Sometimes we think about parks and we think about green spaces and good housing as a luxury and it’s not, but it’s not. It’s a necessity, especially in neighborhoods where that doesn’t exist. Because it creates that buy-in for the community, that collective efficacy that makes those communities stronger for the long run, because people care about where they live.”
Another area that has been transformed: Donigian Park off Valley Street, which for years was called `needle park’ as it was overrun with drug dealers and users. It includes this signature bridge that carries bikers and walkers over the river near Olneyville.
On an overcast Saturday in mid-September dozens of riders gathered for the 9th annual Woony River Ride, an event created not only as a fundraiser for the watershed council, but to promote the greenway and the bike path, and give those who had never been on it a chance to experience it firsthand.
Five groups of riders - ranging from five milers to 60 milers - made the roundtrip from Water Place Ppark, travelling along bike paths and bike lanes throughout the watershed council.
But only 2 ½ of the five miles between WaterPlace Park and this neighborhood in Johnston is off road. It’s something Lehrer would like to see change, with more sections of the popular off-road paths.
Lehrer: “While it’s a great asset for the neighborhood - it doesn’t connect to the rest of the state, so that has always been a major goal: how do we connect that greenway to the rest of the state, how do we extend the bike path so it feels safe? All the way from Olneyville right to downtown, so that people can feel comfortable using alternative transportation: they don’t have to figure out how to take the bus, they don’t have to have their own car. They can just get on the bike path and be downtown and feel safe.”
The council, which helped build this pocket park in Eagle Square near the American Locomotive building along the Woonasquatucket has secured funding to create a path along Kinsley Avenue on the other side of the river.
Lehrer: “What happens is because they develop the walking path on the other side of the river, now people are suddenly making a loop to walk from American Locomotive side to the Kinsley side.
Hummel: “What would you like to do over the next couple of years?”
Lehrer: “My biggest priority is rebuilding the piece of bike path between Eagle Square and downtown Providence. And making it a real placemaker. A place that people go from downtown to see, to walk along, to experience. We’re going to have canoe launches, we’re going to have pocket parks, we’re going to have a separated bikeway. We’re going to have green infrastructure, which is using plants and soils to collect storm water and treat it before it goes into the Woonasquatucket River. It’s going to be green and beautiful.”
Over the past decade three fish ladders have been installed along the Woonasqutucket: this one in back of the Rising Sun Mills on Valley Street, another at Riverside Park and a third at the Manton Dam near the Johnston line. It has helped restore the fish population to the river.
Lehrer: “This river has a giant capacity for wildlife, it has a giant capacity for fish. We can bring 40,000 adult herring to use our river, just by opening the dams between Narragansett Bay and Manton Dam.”
The council has also launched a branding campaign of sorts, with its logo and colors painted at various sites along the bike path where there isn’t necessarily an off-road area.
Aurecchia: “The goal is to have a separated bike lane. We’re hoping we can still do that, but in the meantime it’s still the greenway, so let’s make sure people know that and with the paint, with the brand, let’s build the awareness.”
Aurecchia, who has been with the council since its inception two decades ago said it’s sometimes hard to remember how bad it was along certain sections of the watershed and greenway 20 years ago.
Aurecchia: “It has dramatically changed. And I forget that sometimes ‘cause you can just get caught in the nitty-gritty and it’s good to have those moments. I had my aunt and uncle come through, my aunt lived in the area and was just blown away by the transformation. It was like `Ooooh”. She remembered Delaine Street a certain way.
Hummel: “But you can close your eyes and remember the way the park used to look.
Aurecchia: “Merino Park was shut down when I began. Merino was closed, we had to advocate to reopen that park space again. The bridge had been knocked down that connected Riverside Park to Merino so another thing the organization did was advocate to rebuild that bridge so kids weren’t running across the highway. It’s gratifying when I hear from people that live in the neighborhood that really see the change, feel the change, were part of the change and express that. Oh, you know you’re doing something right.”
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.