After Years Of Waiting, Pittsfield’s Westside Riverway Park Opening Pushed To Monday
The ribbon will be cut Monday on a long-awaited new park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
The story of the Westside Riverway Park begins around 14 years ago.
“In about 2007, the Parks Department and the Office of Community Development started visioning a Westside Riverway, which would be a larger system connecting the parklands throughout the Westside neighborhood with the natural resources of the West Branch of the Housatonic," said Tessa Kelly, one of the architects behind the park, which sits at the intersection of Dewey Avenue and Bradford Street in Pittsfield. “This is sort of the biggest built initiative that came out of that plan. So it started in 2007. And it's opening up to the public.”
The design of the new park was tailored to the community around it.
“We received an OUR TOWN grant from the National Endowment for the Arts about three years ago, which was specifically intended to support robust design engagement with residents who live near the park,” said Kelly.
She says the park team used the federal funding to approach that engagement from multiple vantage points.
“The first event that we did was an architectural model building afternoon with about 50 kids in the Marilyn Hamilton Sports and Literacy Camp," Kelly told WAMC. "And then we just, from one event to the next, kept sort of being offered new leads or ideas about where to best connect with people. We went to churches, we went to free lunches, we went all over the place. We had events in partnership with the Westside legends, which is a neighborhood group that was formed, right around the same time that we got the NEA grant.”
“Westside Legends basically is a group formed from people that used to live in Pittsfield on the Westside," explained Tony Jackson. "And we all had such a great childhood, and got to a point where in our professional lives, where we want to give back and we decided to start hosting events, doing things and giving back to the community in every way possible.”
Jackson is a representative of Westside Legends. He describes the neighborhood – a working-class area and historic home to Pittsfield’s African American community – as full of love.
“The older people always made sure they took care of the younger, make sure we always stayed and stayed in line and did what we were supposed to do," Jackson told WAMC. "A great sense of community, where we all had pride in what we did and how we did it. And we knew that people were looking after us, and they cared about us.”
Westside Legends saw the new park as an opportunity to fill a crucial gap in the neighborhood.
“We have a lot of parks that have other recreational things like basketball and baseball, and we wanted this park to basically focus on the river, and art, dancing, music, singing, the performing arts,” Jackson told WAMC.
Kelly says the design team made that community need the centerpiece of the park.
“People were really excited about telling stories about the neighborhood, they were really excited about ways to gather together and recreate some traditional events that took place in generations past in the Westside that haven't been happening as much," she said. "Specifically, block parties. So block parties became kind of the key mechanism that we started using to engage community input, and we really wound up designing the park as a space that is created for block parties.”
A long performance pavilion connects the sideway to an open-air stage deeper in the park, on the east bank of the Housatonic River.
“The pavilion really links the river and the kind of ecological life of the Housatonic back to the life of the sidewalk and sort of activates both the street, the big open lawn and the river," said Kelly. "It has a stage. It has plenty of power for music and other kinds of happenings. And it's sort of set up based around what we learned from doing mock block parties at the site before construction even began, about how people wanted to use the space, what kinds of performances were like, what the scale of the space might be like.”
The community-minded approach is novel for the Westside community.
“Normally, we just all of a sudden we'd see a park develop, and had no input on what went into the park, how it was designed, and any of our needs or wants. Weren’t even asked," said Jackson. “This transaction was totally different. There was a lot of input. There was a lot of community involvement. They did a lot of surveys. They asked us what we wanted, what we could provide and what we really needed the park to do where prior administrations didn't even address or even speak to us about those issues.”
The park’s total construction budget was $700,000, with $400,000 coming from the state, $125,000 coming from private donors and the remaining $175,000 from the city of Pittsfield.
“The Westside River Way Park is one piece of a component of the vision of the Westside River Way, which is a broader plan to improve access to the river in the neighborhood between Wahconah Park and Clapp Park," said Nate Joyner, who works for Pittsfield’s office of community development. “The vision for the Westside Riverway is really a collection of trails, parks and other features that provide opportunities for residents to enjoy the river, which is kind of a neglected resource. As is so often the case, people are separated from the river by private property. And this was an opportunity to bring the neighborhood to the river in a new way.”
Jackson sees the new park as a fresh canvas for the Westside community.
“I think it's going to be a great gathering place for people to come out, sit on the grass, listen to music, enjoy poetry," he said. "We started doing different things: kayak riding, canoe riding, which Westside had none of those things to its disposal prior. So those things are really exciting. We're doing some exciting things.”
The Westside Riverway Park’s official opening features performances, speeches and a ribbon cutting starting at 1 p.m. Monday.