September 19, 2009

Rockwell Park revived

For generations of children, Rockwell Park‘s lagoon, playground, fields and forest offered a daily setting for fun and adventure.
Thousands of people poured in on hot summer days to cool off in the spring-fed waters, frolic on the beach and enjoy the West End park donated by industrialist Albert Rockwell in 1914.
Despite its designation on the National Register of Historic Places, the rustic park fell into disrepair and crowds dwindled in recent decades, to the point that many young people in town didn’t even know how to find it.
But that is no longer true.
Beginning with the opening of a $500,000 skatepark there last fall, and spurred by this year’s overhaul of the playground area, the park is suddenly thriving again.
Though a $7 million renovation is still underway – the lagoon is next up for an overhaul – the project’s success is already obvious. A dying park has come alive.

Origins
Enriched by the New Departure Manufacturing Co. that he helped create, Rockwell donated 80 acres to the city in 1914 to create a park that would give the city’s blue collar workers a chance to commune with nature.
The only strings attached were a requirement that Bristol pump $15,000 or more into developing the park and that it spend at least $3,000 annually to keep it up. Another 15 acres, and a pile of cash, followed to create and endow Mrs. Rockwell’s Playground.
What resulted became such a jewel of urban park design that it secured national recognition more than a quarter of a century ago.

Heyday
Former Mayor Frank Nicastro, who grew up near Rockwell Park, said he remember the park “was the center of activity for every child and adult in the West End and beyond.”
Even on cold winter days, he said, “everybody came together for ice skating.”
Nicastro recalls summertime as a whirl of swimming, buying frozen fudge bars, hiking in the woods, playing baseball, clambering on the playground equipment and generally spending every available minute at the park.
He said the place was a hive of action except when the lifeguards closed down the swimming for an hour at noon so all the children could go home for lunch.
“I love Rockwell Park. It means everything to me,” said Nicastro, who has three large oil paintings of the park hanging in his house that capture the park at its busiest.

Decay
But a long, slow decay set in, punctuated by the decision to fill in much of the lagoon with debris from the urban renewal projects downtown, a move meant to control flooding. That buried the old island and left a large field where much of the lagoon had been, though a large expanse of water remained even afterward.
By the late 1980s, some parking lots had been blocked off after police found a few gay men using them as meeting spots. It didn’t matter too much because so few people went to the park anyway, mostly just dog walkers and youngsters hanging out.
It’s hard to pinpoint the low point in the park’s history, but it probably occurred in the summer of 1998 when at least several dozen daring swimmers and beachgoers who braved the algae-choked lagoon came down with a mysterious rash.
Though experts never knew for sure what caused it, there was little doubt that it had something to do with the goose droppings on the sand and the lack of movement in the soupy green water.
For health officials, the decision was clear: they banned swimming in the lagoon. The following summer, the city drained the legendary swimming hole.

Fumbles
The city’s leaders never gave up on the park. They just didn’t know what to do to revive it.
Studies determined that nothing much could be done to reopen the lagoon because the watershed that once provided the flow that kept it cool and clear no longer existed – the same reason the health department closed off the historic spring just west of the beach in the mid-1990s, where residents had filled drinking jugs for many years.
In 1997, the park department flirted with putting a football stadium in the open expanse between the lagoon and the pond, an idea that residents decried and finance officials quickly stifled. They later eyed a cinderblock gymnasium near the entrance to the park, another idea that fell victim to fiscal concerns.
Early in this decade, park officials even considered wiping out the remnants of the lagoon to create a $2 million swimming pool, a move that historic preservationists crushed.
But officials and concerned residents could see that the park was falling apart and that with every passing year, fewer people bothered to go there at all.
Its playground was antiquated and perhaps unsafe. Its swimming consisted only of a tiny training pool. Its walkways were dark and decaying. Its future seemed at least uncertain and possibly bleak.
“It just seemed like it was spiraling in the wrong direction,” said former city Councilor Ellen Zoppo.

Revival
The turnaround began with the construction of a new pool in Mrs. Rockwell’s Playground six years ago. That attracted swimmers again, though nowhere near the crowds that senior citizens remembered.
And a park revitalization effort led by a determined city councilor, Zoppo, supported by Mayor Gerard Couture, decided that fixing Rockwell Park had to be a top city priority.
Couture said it saddened him to see the park deteriorate so he jumped at the chance to renovate it.
“He deserves as much credit as anybody,” Zoppo said.
At first, the $7 million park overhaul designed by the Cheshire-based Milone & MacBroom was going to be paid mostly with state cash, but when the state spigot ran dry, city leaders opted to press forward anyway. They said repairing the park was important enough to use municipal money if that’s what it took.
So a few years ago, the work got underway, with the first spruced up sections opening last year, particularly the stunningly successful skatepark that drew rave reviews from the skateboarders and bikers who couldn’t imagine Bristol erecting a topnotch facility that has proven to have regional appeal.
Next year, the lagoon area should be restored, though without a beach and where no swimming will be allowed.
A portion of it is slated to be a swamp so residents can see birds and other creatures that should thrive there up close, more educational than the frolic of older days.
But what’s already clear is, that after a decade of doubt, Rockwell Park is on the rebound.
“It’s just teeming with life,” Zoppo said Saturday. “The taxpayers got their money’s worth.”
Rockwell Park won’t ever be like it was, but it’s increasingly possible it may emerge as something even better.

*******
Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

great article Steve - nice to see the timeline and now a new generation of kids will enjoy it like my generation did.

Anonymous said...

Always loved Rockwell Park, and will love to see it brought back to a useful life.

Jack Ben Phil said...

good to hear they're doing something

but

it won't be "better" unless it gets a big swimming hole back.

that WAS rockwell .

Marty J. said...

Yesterday's event was fantastic and there should be more of them! it was SOOOO nice to see so many people in the park. I bet there would have been so many more if they hadn't gotten rained out the first time. :-(

Anonymous said...

ELLEN great job this town made a big mistake this was one of your projects and you did a fine job please get back involved this town needs you, THIS TOWN IS GOING BACKWARDS.

Anonymous said...

Hooray for those with a heart and cares. Rockwell Park has always been a special place. It's good to see progress there.

Anonymous said...

7:23 HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD WE NEED ELLEN BACK

Anonymous said...

7:23, This town didn't want or need ELLEN. Never has/never will.

Anonymous said...

Ellen is a good example of how many Bristol voters vote on personality and not on competance, committment and dedication, and then end up with second best, or worse.

Would have been nice to have a legitimate contest between people like Zoppo and Stortz, but the two town committees put politics before the city of Bristol.

Anonymous said...

9:44 AM is 7:23 AM. Hit the nail on the head?

BTW, I agree with 10:20 AM.

Anonymous said...

Collins' infatuation with certain Bristol Democrats never ceases to amaze me.

Anonymous said...

12:21 --- Which Bristol Democrats is Collins infatuated with? Ward? Zoppo? Nicastro? Diamantis? Do tell.

Anonymous said...

Infatuation with Nicastro and Ward is evident, a few others less so.

Anonymous said...

the new playground is nice but why no bathrooms if there is tell me where they are. i did not even see a porta potty

Tim Gamache said...

I have to say it was nice to hear Ellen give some overdue credit to former Mayor Couture for his role in the revitalization of Rockwell Park.His name has been conspicquosly missing form this whole scenario.

Anonymous said...

Zoppo did not do this on her own - Park Dept. had a great deal to do with it.

Anonymous said...

2:35

He sure doesn't like the Republicans!

Anonymous said...

Oh for God sakes, Ellen was an accomplished policy leader and lost the primary due to Artie being more popular. Give credit where credit is due - the park and many other projects would never have got done without her pushing them and in the process she pissed off some people, and angered others. That's what happens when politicians take position and don't care about pleasing everyone. Not that we have seen a lot of that lately..... and PS. thank you Ellen and Mayor Coutre, we love the park.

Anonymous said...

I am sure there are many people falling off their chairs laughing at the idea of Steve Collins sucking up to any politician, especially Zoppo. The Press certainly didn't do her any favors when she ran. However, Steve wrote an insightful article with the full circle of the park and I for one am grateful that he included Zoppo since she was a big part of it. And on top of that, I thought she was very gracious to include Mr. Couture in the credit. She is a class act.

Anonymous said...

Frank Nicastro and his 0 tax increases when mayor are the reason for the park's decline. Too bad people on this blog aren't attacking him. He deserves it.

Anonymous said...

Well at least the people that are using Rockwell can stay at the new 100 room hotel that's being proposed. I suppose ultimately it is an ok thing that Rockwell was revitalized to remind us of how people used to use the parks in this town, The reality is, the majority of people that use the park system (skate park not included) do not pay taxes to this town. Why is there such a fetish with parks? Could not that 7.5 million dollars for you liberals that are going to scream that it is our responsibility to give children and non-taxpayers things to do, could not that money have been better spent still allowing something for children to do and for non- taxpayers to do yet still generate revenue for this town? With such a small parks dept., at what point is too many parks, too many parks? The days of lore are gone people, the need for something to generate revenue while easing the tax burden is upon us and that is the reality.

Anonymous said...

Ellen please come back forget about the past don`t give up on this town this town made a bad choice and if it wasn`t for ellen and jerry this would have not happened the park dept better not let it go to waste like in the past.

limelight glitter said...

6:42 hit it in the head, these park projects didn't get down by the "queen" herself but she probably can't visualize anyone else sharing her mirror. How about the work of the whole Park Revitalization Committee, the Park Commission and the Park department to just name a few?

Anonymous said...

"Ellen was an accomplished policy leader"

-Yeah that mall purchase policy is really paying dividends so far. Oh and lets' not forget "so be it" when she was told her anti-business policy towards Firestone might drive that company out of Bristol. Oh and thanks for pushing for the purchase of daddy's building at 51 High Street and lets not forget having one of her adversaries arrested for "brealing into" Dumb-o-crap HQ.

Thank you Art Ward for saving Bristol from a certified liberal zealot and a angry middle-aged (now) woman.

Anonymous said...

Rockwell and all the parks suffered when Nicastro was Mayor. All Frank has is a big head.

Anonymous said...

Collins doesn't like Republicans? He was a friend to Stretch Norton, worked well with Mayor Stortz (how many people can say that?), appeared to like Ron Burns, and seems to get along with both Councilmen Cockayne and Rimcoski. I always thought he favored Republicans even though I know he's a registered Democrat.

Anonymous said...

@ September 21, 2009 8:08 AM

Ward is a nothing more than a semi-functional alcoholic bully illiterate whose nose perpetually smells like butt residue from all the kissing he's had to do to get where he is today.

He's not worthy to even breathe the same air as Ellen Zoppo. Bristol deserves what it gets with the likes of Mayor Artie "let's party" Ward. Politically, this city is pitiful.

Anonymous said...

Got to love how Frank rewrites history. A lot of the decay to the parks in town happended on his watch. He should be ashamed of himself.

Anonymous said...

Collins and Stortz got along because each respected the others efforts to do their job.

Anonymous said...

Uh oh, sounds like 8:08 AM struck a nerve in 12:20 PM.

"a semi-functional alcoholic bully illiterate whose nose perpetually smells like butt residue from all the kissing he's had to do to get where he is today."

Tsk, tsk...must we regress to 3rd grade level replete with childish insults and name calling? Mr. Ward won. Ms. Zoppo lost. Time for you to get over it.

Anonymous said...

We are all trying to get over it - but with a Mayor like Ward - the city is in a mess. Try being a Mayor Ward instead of a party boy.

Anonymous said...

What did the Poet Burns say" the saddest words of tongue or pen are these words" It might have been".

We could have had Zoppo, we could have Stortz, but the politicians haad it THEIR way.

wimpy said...

3:11, so stop moping dope - get off your squeamish duff and do something other than slopping tears for yourself - you sound like a real wimp with nothing going for you other than being anonymous - which will probably be your highest goal in life.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Republican and although I'll probably support my party in the next election, I must admit Ward is a fair mayor (for a Dumb-o-crat).

And please, Ward is an older man, not a party boy. Anyway it's better to be a party-boy than a liberal, nasty partisan party-hack like other Bristol Dumb-o-craps.

Anonymous said...

NO 3:11 IT`S THE MAYOR`S JOB BECAUSE WE DON`T HAVE ONE.

Anonymous said...

5:44pm sure sounds like Artie.

Anonymous said...

Thanks 2:10 PM, I'll take that as a compliment!

Anonymous said...

2:27pm - compliment? Oh man are you clueless.

Concerned Conservative said...

It’s just teeming with life,” Zoppo said Saturday. “The taxpayers got their money’s worth.”

-Actually Ellen the taxpayers received little. It's the people who barely pay any taxes if any at all who are benefitting from this.

Anonymous said...

Too bad 7:41 's intelligence doesn't go past name calling.......but what do you expect from a cowardly republican't? (loser with with a big mouth)