Feature

Restoring Providence's Riverwalk

A dedicated corps of residents is giving one of downtown’s iconic public spaces a much-needed makeover

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Since last summer, sections of the Riverwalk have slowly but steadily been repainted and repaired. The park, which runs from the hurricane barrier up to Waterplace Basin, has long been in need of a little love. WaterFire, gondola tours and Providence Flea all call the area’s land and waterways home, but an up-close look at the details and infrastructure that are a part of the park reveal that it had fallen victim to neglect over the last two decades – until it found advocates in the Downtown Neighborhood Association. Those advocates aren’t just making calls and wagging their fingers at city officials; they’re rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty – and saving the city a whole lot of money.

One of the first things Rich Pezzillo and his husband Michael DeGrandpre noticed when they moved to Providence from Washington, DC, in 2014 was that downtown was missing a proper neighborhood association. Organizations like the Downtown Improvement District (DID) and InDowncity were already representing the city and downtown merchants, but the people who lived there didn’t have the sounding board that residents of other neighborhoods around the city did.

“We quickly realized how special downtown was, and that it was a growing neighborhood, but there wasn’t any representation for the residents,” says Pezzillo, who with DeGrandpre rallied their neighbors to form the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA) in October of 2015.

“There had been groups in the past, but they had become defunct,” says DeGrandpre. “When we came into this we were able to find – between ourselves and some very passionate residents in the area – a group that galvanized and is chugging along quite nicely.”

Their first meeting had 100 attendees, including representatives from the Providence Foundation, DID and Providence Police Department, as well as Mayor Jorge Elorza and Councilman Seth Yurdin. The group gelled quickly, establishing a strong working partnership between downtown residents, merchants, property owners and city officials.

Christine Francis, owner of Carmen and Ginger at The Arcade and a DNA board member, points out that “the business community has always been tight-knit and collegial with each other,” but that the residential component had long been missing. “Adding the residents to the mix, and a way for them to also connect, has strengthened communication across the two communities” as well as bolstered the relationship between residents and city officials.

In addition to serving as a catalyst between neighbors, businesses and city departments, the group has played a key role in strengthening downtown residents’ sense of civic responsibility through various improvement projects. DNA volunteers have helped with gardening and weeding in and around Burnside Park, and, by working directly with city officials, the organization was able to address a longstanding safety concern and get dozens of burned-out lights on the Point Street Bridge replaced. But their most significant contribution to the fabric of downtown might just be the ongoing Riverwalk Restoration Project.

Wendy Nilsson, the superintendent of the Providence Parks Department, was well aware of the state of the Riverwalk – the railings were in rough shape and the cables running between them were broken or missing in places – but the potential costs of repair, combined with the needs of 116 parks throughout the city and the lack of manpower within the Parks Department, didn’t paint a pretty picture. But as the DNA picked up steam, Nilsson saw the potential for what would prove to be a fruitful partnership.

“We work with groups throughout the city to help make our parks unique community spaces and promote stewardship and programming,” Nilsson explains. “We went back and looked at how we could [fix the Riverwalk] using our staff. The manpower… we just didn’t have it, but what if we made it fun and built community partners?”

“In so many cities you do not have the opportunity to make a difference like this,” says Pezzillo. “You’re talking about painting in the heart of the city. It’s like painting Boston Common – it’s just not going to happen. But it’s something anyone can do.”

With the Parks Department prepared to provide the tools, the materials and a few employees to instruct and oversee the work, it was up to the DNA to provide the workforce. The first meetup happened last July: 30 volunteers showed up to sand and repaint more than 40 fence pillars and replace more than 75 of the horizontal cables running between them from the Hurricane Barrier to the Hot Club.

“It was a magical night,” recalls Nilsson. That first project alone saved the city an estimated $40,000 in labor costs (and netted the volunteers a free drink at the Hot Club). The second meetup attracted 60 volunteers, this time along South Water Street from Mile and a Quarter to Hemenway’s. RISD’s maintenance team hopped in to assist, replacing the more than 80 vertical cables in the fence while the volunteers focused on painting the posts.

“You stood on the Crawford Street Bridge looking down, and all you could see was people hanging over each pillar sanding and painting,” Pezzillo says with no shortage of pride. According to him, it’s hard to tell which the volunteers find more rewarding: seeing the Riverwalk slowly restored or taking in knowing that they did it with their own hands.

So far there have been a total of seven restoration projects along the Riverwalk, with residents, business owners and employees, city officials and even random passersby stopping to help out. Like the people who live downtown, the people who work there have a growing sense of pride over the work being done.

“I called Rich and said, ‘You’re working in our office, essentially, so we really want to be involved with this,’” says Kristin Stone, co-owner of the Providence River Boat and Kayak companies. “We've always taken on this role as the eyes and ears of the waterways and shores.”

To date, the efforts of the Parks Department and the DNA have managed to save the city more than $100,000 in labor costs. In the fall, the Riverwalk will be getting its own Little Free Library, one of those “take a book, leave a book” cubbies that have been spotted around the city. (“What screams ‘neighborhood’ more than a little library?” Pezzillo asks.)

After all the paint is dry and the last cable has been replaced, those involved hope that the residents of downtown will continue to serve as stewards for the area’s public spaces, lending a hand where necessary.

“The friends of the Parks Department – the DNA, the other neighborhood groups – are key to the success of the parks in Providence,” says Pezzillo. “Being short-staffed means parks can fall apart, but you have groups that want to get their hands dirty, which is why I think the Parks Department is investing time and money into this. At the end of the day, it’s a win-win all around.”