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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com