By Anne Valk
Last summer I moved from Providence, Rhode Island, to North Adams. Trading one small industrial city for another, I have observed similarities and differences in the ways residents of each area have responded to current economic, social, and environmental challenges. Facing population losses precipitated by the decline in manufacturing and ecological damages after centuries of industrial production and pollution, Providence and North Adams now seek ways to make their urban landscape more appealing and attract new residents and visitors to a revitalized city.
Rivers run through the heart of both cities and have become a particular focus of renewal efforts. River power fueled manufacturing that created jobs and wealth throughout the industrial era; factories also dirtied the water with pollution and dumping. Residents remember foul smells and water colored by the dyes used by textile companies. They also recall destructive floods that endangered homes and property and sometimes took lives. After decades of using and abusing waterways, both cities now recognize their rivers’ value as part of a new economy focused around tourism and recreation. In the 1990s, Providence led the way, tearing up railroad yards and parking lots that covered the Providence and Woonasquatucket Rivers. Today, life has returned to the city’s rivers, which teem with birds and fish; riverside trails and seating areas host thousands of bikers, boaters, walkers, and visitors. Water Fire, a summer-long public art event, brings thousands of people to gaze at dramatic bonfires on the river and listen to music, watch performers and sample the offerings of restaurants and food trucks.
The positive impact of river revitalization in Providence attracted me to the work of the Hoosic River Revival (HRR) in North Adams. Judy Grinnell founded the HRR with the hope of transforming the Hoosic from an “eyesore into an asset,” believing a restored river could improve life in North Adams and boost the local economy. Since 2008, HRR has worked tirelessly to solicit community opinions and grow enthusiasm for the effort. [see “Hoosic River Revival: A Dream for North Adams,” The Greylock Independent, 2/14/2015.]. It has raised thousands of dollars from state and private sources, funding that was used for flood chute analysis, alternative flood control systems, and most recently for a community-led design process. This summer, HRR selected a design for its pilot project that will add gentle curves, recreational trails, and new ways to access the river’s south branch while still maintaining adequate flood protection.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, city leaders, and state environmental officials will determine how to safely replace the aging flood chutes and HRR will raise the funds and obtain permits to undertake the work. In the meantime, HRR hopes to increase local knowledge and build community backing. This summer, board members, advisors (including myself), and two interns from Williams College shared information with the public during the weekly Party in the Park at Noel Field, and at the monthly DownStreet Art gatherings. It also continued to lead monthly walking tours along the river and updated the walking tour brochure. Intern Sam Park produced a short video, suitable for showing at community events, explaining how the Hoosic has changed over time and introducing HRR’s plans. Intern Eleanor Wachtel created an interactive map, now available online, and installed a small exhibit about HRR and the Hoosic River in Gallery C, North Adams. The installation was part of a larger display, “Our River,” in which North Adams artist Joanna Gabler showed her transfigured photographs of the Hoosic and other local streams.
HRR’s many conversations this summer revealed local residents’ curiosity about, and support for, the river’s revitalization. Thinking creatively and historically about the role of the Hoosic in the city has loosened memories, brought forth personal stories and spurred public imagination. Just as the river played a prominent role in North Adams’ past, HRR is confident a transformed Hoosic can help to restore vitality to the city. Look for future River Revival projects, including interpretive signs along the Hoosic and more community gatherings to continue to build public enthusiasm for a revitalized river.