Can the pocket parks and a feisty Avenue live in peace?
On Sunday afternoon under a gray sky, two matching woman’s high-heeled shoes lay strewn in one of the gardens at the Phillips Avenue pocket park in the near North End.
The lot was littered with trash in areas set aside for bushes and plantings, a concrete slab at its center looked as if it was in search of a centerpiece, or at least a picnic bench.
The actual picnic benches in the park are on a bed of gravel toward the Avenue, their bright colors unconvincing amid the debris and otherwise minimalist design.
I bent down to photograph the shoes and when I looked up a woman was staring at me, a vacant look on her face. She said nothing and afraid she was going to proposition me, I began to walk away. From the sidewalk, I saw her bending down to pick up the high heels. My eyes followed her as she walked over to a pickup truck waiting on the Avenue with its motor running and got in.
What she was about I don’t know. But I do know that that pocket park did not look like a place that anyone who had washed their hands that day would go.
High-heeled shoes at the Phillips Avenue pocket park on Sunday, February 28. [ Jack Spillane ]
I had earlier been at the Phillips Avenue park, and another pocket park down the street at the corner of Nye Street, before daybreak on Sunday. I wanted to understand how bad the prostitution, illegal drug activity and homelessness is in the wake of city councilors Maria Giesta and Debbie Coelho’s complaints in council chambers last week.
“The abutters of those properties unfortunately have seen and heard things that no one should see and hear,” said Giesta in asking the council to invite members of the Mitchell administration to appear before them for a hearing on the parks.
“The greenspaces in these areas are just not working for the neighborhood,’ she said.
Coelho told me that every unsavory item imaginable can be found in the Avenue pocket parks. The prostitution and drugs are just one part, she said. People have pitched tents, they’ve defecated in the parks.
“We gave them seating, with greenery and soft lighting. They love it,” she said.
The Phillips Avenue pocket park on Acushnet Avenue. [ Jack Spillane ]
Giesta and Coelho, who both live nearby, want the pocket parks closed, either sold off to the private sector or turned into municipal parking lots. (It seems New Bedford’s urban neighborhoods can’t get enough of off-street parking even though most of the lots along Acushnet Avenue are never full.)
As I sat in my car outside the Nye Street pocket park just after 5 a.m., a police car slowed, apparently wondering what I was up to. A white pickup drove by and parked a block up but directly in front of me until I left. It was all a bit creepy. But it was 5 a.m.
Urban public parks, of course, are notorious for unsavory activity, particularly when the lights go down.
Looking across Acushnet Avenue to the Nye Street pocket park at 5 a.m. on Sunday, February 28. [ Jack Spillane ]
In the downtown where I live, the homeless gather not infrequently at Custom House Park, not to mention Wings Court, the bus station, the Post Office steps and even the commercial parking lot next to my house. You can sometimes find them sleeping in the doorways of Bristol Community College and the National Park courtyard.
It’s an unattractive part of city life. But no one would argue that Custom House Park, Wings Court and the National Park have not been big successes. They come to life during city festivals and during the good weather people eat lunch or have coffee in them.
But it’s undeniable that the arms of urban parks are also open to the marginal. They are, as the Paul Simon song goes, the poorer quarters where the ragged people go.
Still, Acushnet Avenue in the near North End is different than the downtown.
The triple deckers are directly adjacent to the streets and above the storefronts are low-end residential apartments. These parks are in with the people as the people live.
The near North End may not be Padanaram but much of it is owner-occupied by folks on the first rung of the American Dream ladder. They don’t want to look out their window and see fornicating and partying hardy in the night.
For a while, I’m told that a fellow from the Housing and Community Development office was going up to the Phillips Avenue park and cleaning it himself once a week. And it’s certainly true that when neighbors and councilors complain, the cleanup and policing gets more aggressive for a while. But the parks have been there for almost 10 years and the complaints continue. The idea was for the adjacent businesses and neighborhoods to take ownership of the parks but it hasn’t happened.
“It’s not part of our culture to take ownership like that,” said Coelho. Her perspective is that the pocket parks are havens for the “wicked people” and the “good people” simply don’t go there.
The Nye Street pocket park was clean of litter on Sunday, February 28, 2021. [ Jack Spillane ]
Jon Carvalho, Mayor Mitchell’s spokesman, said the mayor is open to selling the pocket parks if someone made a proposal to develop them -- but the city has not seen any. The mayor, however, is not open to replacing the parks with parking lots, he said. He pointed out that illegal activity also takes place in parking lots, albeit without seating.
Last year, Councilor Giesta led the charge against a private developer turning the old Phillips Avenue School in this same neighborhood into a residential, tax-paying development. Some of the neighbors of the school, located on a thickly developed street between the Avenue and Ashley Boulevard, wanted off-street parking. And they could have had it as part of the development but they wanted no development and all parking.
This is really a debate about what Acushnet Avenue should be.
During the Lang administration, funding was obtained for International Marketplace, an effort to sell the Portuguese and Latino businesses by upgradingthe sidewalks and streetscape in a more pedestrian friendly way. It looks great, everyone acknowledges, but the businesses on the upgraded block are sleepier than the ones up the street where the pocket parks are located.
Coelho, an independent councilor in her last of 16 years in office, says the pocket parks are about what professional planners want, not about what the neighborhood wants.
“It was never the neighborhood’s idea,” she said.
“These two pocket parks are a disaster.”
Just because there is grant money available to do something, doesn’t mean doing it would be overall a good idea for the community, she argues about the government money that built the parks.
The idea for pocket parks is not going away, however.
This month the Community Preservation Committee will recommend to the City Council another small park on this same section of Acushnet Avenue. The Cape Verdean Association has been awarded $200,000 to build Island Park, an educational playground with a cultural theme connected to the island peoples of New Bedford. It will be on a lot adjacent to the former Strand Theater. Like the pocket parks, there is nearby housing and retail establishments.
Will it succeed? It’s a nice idea. And extending International Marketplace further up Acushnet Avenue is a nice idea too if they can ever get the seed money.
But will this kind of urban planning work on the Avenue? Widened sidewalks, tree plantings and pocket parks? It’s all very familiar in gentrified neighborhoods. But the Avenue is not gentrified. It is the heart of New Bedford’s ethnic retail center; it is flavorful and lively and downmarket.
You can as much as hear the salsa and taste the chourico in its colorful signs. But it is also gritty. It has all the problems of urban America. And it has its own ideas about things.