Old Man River Regains His Voice: Cleaning Rivers, Fighting Crime, Building Community

This article was originally published in the Narragansett Bay Watershed Counts 2016 Report

The Woonasquatucket River winds quietly through the Olneyville neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. Unless you are next to it, odds are you might not even know the river is there. But, it played an important role in the area’s history and, following a period of abuse and neglect, it is making a comeback to play an important role in its present and future.

Industrial mills came to Olneyville in the mid-1800s, drawn to the banks of the Woonasquatucket River for hydropower and its access to railways and ports for convenient shipping. Olneyville enticed an eclectic mix of workers—many newly immigrated—to move to the area for jobs in the wool, textile, and paper mills. The neighborhood boomed. After World War II, however, the mill industry collapsed, leaving behind pollution and unemployment.

The Woonasquatucket River fell into obscurity, meandering silently through Olneyville once again, but this time laden with industrial contaminants. The industrial mill-polluted soil threatened local public health, and rainwater runoff carried those pollutants into the river, which contaminated the water that then flowed into Narragansett Bay.

Thanks to the work of federal, state and nongovernmental agencies, in 1993 the river once again drew attention. The community came together to clean up the contaminants that now abandoned mills had left in the ground and water as a means to restore the lost beauty of Olneyville’s environment and to improve river health. Residents understood that river health was critical to human health.

Determined to improve the areas along the river to benefit both the environment and the community, the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project, Olneyville Housing Corporation, the Providence Police Department, and others formed a partnership with financial support from the non-profit Providence Plan. This unique partnership envisioned clean, safe parks throughout Olneyville to filter rainwater before it reached the river and then flowed on to Narragansett Bay. Plans included a bike path that would connect neighborhoods to businesses. Riverside Park was the first park created under this new plan.

Providence Police Captain Dean Isabella was skeptical when he and his fellow officers first got involved with the project to clean up the Riverside Park area of Olneyville.

“At the time, we didn’t think that was a great idea,” said Capt. Isabella, who grew up in Olneyville. “Riverside Park was one of the worst crime areas in the city of Providence, and the plan was to put in a park and build housing. We thought it was a tall order.”

The site of the future park, home to several abandoned mills, had become a dumping ground that then attracted crime. Despite making up only three percent of the geographical area in the district, it was responsible for about 30 percent of the area’s 911 calls.

“There was all of this debris,” said Jane Sherman, who headed up the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project on behalf of the nonprofit Providence Plan. “It was this center of crime activity.”

Due to its industrial history, the soil was contaminated, mostly with spilled oil and gas. In 1998, Sherman’s team was successful in getting the site designated as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields Showcase Community, which then funded the massive cleanup effort. The agency and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management removed several feet of contaminated soil from 15 acres, put down a protective layer to form a barrier against contaminants that may remain deeper in the soil, and brought in new, clean soil to fill in the area.

“You have to remove all of the contamination,” said Sherman. “If it is going to be a park you have to make sure there are no remaining contaminants that will threaten human health.”

And a contaminant-free park it became. The site is now home to Riverside Park, featuring a state-of-the-art playground, community garden, bike shop, and several acres of green space. An off-road portion of the Woonasquatucket River Greenway bike path winds through the park as it follows the river into downtown Providence, where it eventually will be extended to join the East Bay Bike Path.

The community of Olneyville has been involved with the process from the beginning and now actively participates in the upkeep and maintenance of Riverside Park and the surrounding greenway. Last year, more than 1,300 volunteers—many of them local residents—lent a hand at over 20 cleanup and community improvement events.

Capt. Isabella and the Providence Police Department were first pleasantly surprised and are now converts to what a community can accomplish. Cleaning up the environment and creating enjoyable, safe recreation areas resulted in a sense of accomplishment and pride that has reverberated throughout the community. Crime in the area plummeted over 80 percent, and the drop has been sustained for almost a decade. The population in the neighborhood increased tenfold, largely due to the creation of 126 units of affordable housing, built as part of the revitalization project by the Olneyville Housing Corporation.

“We addressed social issues in communities that were related to the crime problems,” Capt. Isabella said. “There was a high level of commitment to success, not only success with this project, but success with building the partnerships that we all knew were important.” This collaborative process led to many changes that likely wouldn’t have been adopted without such continued engagement of residents and ongoing input from community groups.

The long-silent waterway of the Olneyville community is now a beautiful backdrop for parks and housing and no longer delivers high levels of contaminants to Narragansett Bay. Supporting the cleanup of the Woonasquatucket River benefited both the environment and the residents. It is a big win for the people of Olneyville, who gained a healthier community and a place for safe and aesthetically pleasing recreation. It is a bonanza for the improved water quality of the river and the bay. And perhaps most importantly, it stands as a sterling example of what unique and collaborative partnerships can achieve, despite statistics and conditions that feed doubt.

Biking Toward Environmental Stewardship

The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, formerly the Woonasquatucket River Greenway Project, also organizes educational and recreational activities, environmental restoration projects, and more.

One of the organization’s most popular programs is its summer bike camp at Riverside Park. Each year, nearly 100 kids get their own bike, lock, and helmet to keep. They learn how to ride safely and take care of their bike while exploring the park. They engage in an environmental education curriculum, participating in activities such as water quality testing and visiting the fish ladder at the nearby dam. More than half of the spots are reserved for neighborhood kids, and most of the families pay only five dollars for each child thanks to funding from grants and individual donations.

“Most of our work is focused in Providence because it’s the area that’s been most environmentally degraded, the people have the least access to natural resources,” said Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council. “One of the things that we really try to do is bring kids outside to use the resources in their neighborhood, to go for a bike ride, to learn about nature and wildlife in the communities, to have a healthy place to play.”

Sherman agrees that seeing the community enjoy Riverside Park is one of the highlights of the completed project. “I go out and I see a kid learning how to ride their bike on the bike path or another kid kicking a soccer ball and I go, boy, that’s it, that’s why we did this.”


Art Bridges the Gap Between People and Rivers

Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council educates the public about watershed health through art. The organization has partnered with local artists and schools to paint colorful signs in Riverside Park, expansive murals on walls along the bike path, and even artwork on and around neighborhood storm drains.

“Art is a great way to connect people to natural resources,” said Executive Director Alicia Lehrer. “It’s easily accessible, it’s beautiful, it’s fun. It really draws you in and you just start to ask the question, what’s that all about?”

One program gives high school students the responsibility of designing a piece of storm drain artwork that shows how the drain connects to the river. Then, the student is tasked with coordinating a group of elementary school students to bring their design to life.

“Not only do you have a great picture to give people a much better understanding of the connection between what happens on the land and what happens in the river, but you’ve also just developed a leader with that high school student that now is passionate about protecting water quality,” Lehrer said.


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