Transforming urban spaces! The Regional Environmental Council’s Earth Day Cleanups!

By Virginia Marchant Schnee

Former City Councilor Steve Patton remembers when young trees and brush had overgrown Dodge Park, obscuring its meadow and making the walkways impassable. The baseball fields that existed fifty years ago, when he was young enough to play Little League, were unrecognizable. In the 100 years since Thomas Dodge donated the 13 acres of land in 1889, many improvements had been added to the park, but over time they had deteriorated.

“There was a lot of dumping going on there, with tepees and the remains of beer parties,” Patton said. “Most of the benches and the bridges in the back were broken but the remnants were still there.”
Patton helped organize the first Regional Environmental Council Earth Day cleanups in 1990, and he said that at the time, tons of heavy trash and debris plagued many sites like Dodge Park. After several years of successful Earth Day cleanups, and once volunteers had removed most of the heavy trash from these other areas, he set his sights on Dodge Park.

“How many times do you have a chance to reclaim a park that’s gone fallow?” asked Patton. “It was a great opportunity to do some good.”
With the support of the REC and the assistance of many cleanup participants, including the Indian Lake Association and Boy Scout Troop 54, Dodge Park underwent a transformation. Year by year, they opened up a little more of Dodge Park, and their work drew the attention of then- Parks Commisioner Beth Prokow.

 She arranged for chippers to help remove more brush and trees and prompted the City to replace the bridge, build a gazebo and install a patio. Donations purchased benches, leading to an official rededication of Dodge Park in 2001.

According to Patton, former Boy Scout Michael Brown worked in Dodge Park with his brother Partrick and parents, Paul and Michelle, during the Earth Day cleanups. Working towards his Eagle Scout rank, Brown continued the reclamation of Dodge Park and capped off his Eagle Scout project by building an informational kiosk in 2003. A jewel among the city’s parks, Dodge Park now offers a place where adults can relax while children frolic in the sunny meadow.

In the early days of the post-proposition 2 era, Worcester had simply abandoned many city properties and open spaces and parks. According to Joe O’Brien, Oread Castle Park had suffered a similar fate. He first joined the Regional Environmental Council in 1995 as the Earth Day cleanup coordinator for the whole city. The experience inspired him to move to the Main South neighborhood, and the following year, he focused his energy on Oread Castle Park as its cleanup site coordinator.
O’Brien said that people first became engaged with Oread Castle Park because they were interested in the REC Earth Day cleanups. Over time, people came together and brought in the Army Corps of Engineers to clear out the overgrowth and trees.
“When people get involved in the cleanups, they begin to feel ownership towards these places. Then they’re more willing to maintain the space and less likely to allow others to degrade the space,” said O’Brien.
Soon afterwards, the City put in a new handball court, built a new playground, and renovated the old basketball court. In 1999, the neighborhood built the Castle Street community garden that still exists today and produces a variety of healthy vegetables for local consumption.
O’Brien is quick to point out that the restoration of Castle Park occurred because the cleanups do more than just remove litter.
“The long term impact to the city is more than what gets picked up that day. You build advocacy for these parks and community spaces. Earth Day cleanups connect people to these public spaces, and then they’re committing to improving to them,” he said.
During some of the earlier REC Earth Day cleanups, Regional Environmental Council President Dr. Margot Barnet remembers pulling 55-gallon barrels, old tires and huge pieces of debris out of the Coes and Patch Reservoirs, but now volunteers are less likely to find these items in Worcester’s waterways. Dr. Barnet explained that the cleanups have succeeded in improving many aspects of the city environment for all its residents.

“We make our surroundings cleaner and more pleasant, make new friends, and get to know our neighbors better all at the same time. And it’s really working; every year we have more volunteers and find less trash,” she said.
The data collected from the REC Earth Day cleanups supports Dr. Barnet’s assertion and shows a definite trend. In 2004, 500 volunteers cleaned 50 sites and collected 96 tons of trash and recyclables, and in 2006 the same number of volunteers collected 80 tons of trash and recyclables. Fast-forward to 2008 when 1,000 Volunteers collected only 30 tons of trash and recyclables at the same number of sites, and it becomes clear that the city is getting cleaner.
Dr. Barnet also participated in the first and subsequent “100 Women Sweeps” and saw firsthand how people, especially the women, forged lasting connections.

“People get to know their neighbors better, share a common purpose, and have a sense of contributing something positive to their neighborhood,” said Barnet. “The camaraderie organically happens, and the development that happens as a result of the REC Earth Day cleanups helps people create their own community organizations.”
In 2004, a group of women began organizing in their Piedmont/ Pleasant Street neighborhood to address the growing tide of violence that threatened their community. They decided to host in a neighborhood cleanup in both a concrete and an abstract way. On the day of the REC Earth Day cleanup, they distributed brooms and pink T-Shirts to the cleanup participants and called the event the “100 Women Sweep.”

“We wanted to do something symbolic. We wanted to say, ‘we’re going to sweep the streets clean of crime,’” said Ines Beron, former network coordinator for Women Together/ Mujeres Unidas.
After that first cleanup, the women shared a community lunch in a local church, Beron recalls. She says that the cleanup worked to bring the neighborhood together and the people to know each other, which was a main goal in addressing violence in the community. They later called themselves “Women Together/ Mujeres Unidas,” and adopted a strong mission statement to end the violence that had taken the lives of many young people in their neighborhood.

Sometimes, the transformative energy that surrounds the Earth Day Cleanups inspires people to envision a better purpose for an unused or abandoned space. At the corner of Winslow and Pleasant Street, Women Together/Mujeres Unidas did just that. After finding the empty corner lot full of trash year after year, Women Together/ Mujeres Unidas realized as a group that it had been abandoned. They took pictures of the trash and broken TVs dumped on the lot. One of the women made a drawing of how it could look as a park. The estimated cost to purchase and renovate the lot would be close to $750,000, and so Women Together/ Mujeres Unidas pooled their available cash.
“We signed for the lot with 500 dollars, and we didn’t have any idea if we could get more money,” Beron said.

Women Together/ Mujeres Unidas held many fundraising events, including a walk-a-thon, and wrote grant requests. They successfully raised $100,000 and solicited another $100,000 from the City of Worcester. After a Massachusetts land trust put in $500,000, their dream moved within reach. With the assistance of skilled contractors, Women Together established Our Neighborhood Peace Park in the summer of 2008, completing the transformation of a trash-filled vacant lot into an urban oasis.
“The people who live there believe they have a new neighborhood. They have a place now to relax, to build community, to have a place to meet and know each other,” Beron said.

Despite having recently lost the funding for their Network Coodinator at their home base, the Pleasant Street Neighborhood Network Center, Women Together forges ahead through the efforts of its dedicated volunteers, including Ines Beron. They have joined forces with Worcester Roots to build a community garden in the back portion of Our Neighborhood Peace Park for this year’s Earth Day.
Having participated in the REC Earth Day cleanups since the very first one, Steve Patton observed how they have narrowed in scope.“It’s evolved from not being able to clean all the sites that you need to, to being able to attack the few sites that still need it,” said Patton, and he also notes the long-term benefits.

“The REC Earth Day cleanups been very successful in creating a dynamic that has a multiplying effect. Now we formally have ‘Keep Worcester Clean,’ and now there’s a strong focus on keeping Worcester clean, maybe not always apparent everywhere, but way better than it was,” Patton said.

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