Open Up my Neighborhood Park

I start this essay by noting that I have been conducting a scientific study of the ecology of Fowler’s Toads in the North Burial Ground for 8 years.  Much of that research is conducted in the dark as toads breed at night and without accessing the North Burial Ground after dark I would never have learned what I know about the amphibian populations.  I would also have never been able to study the bats and evening birds as well.  This year for the first time in 8 years I was unable to observe the toad’s breeding season.  

I also include in this essay the perspective of someone who has slept beneath bridges, in interstate cloverleaves, and parks while trying to stay out of sight, as well as someone who regularly makes friends with the people of the fringes of society along North Main St and those using the North Burial Ground as a refuge.  

Providence’s North Burial Ground and Randall Park is a special place. In addition to being the only active public cemetery in Providence, serving the families of 180000 residents, it is 109 acres of history, demography, and natural wonders. Straddling the Moshassuck river including a section of the historic Blackstone Canal, it sits right in the ancient transportation corridor, with documented use back to the Narragansett nation, between I-95 and Route 1 (North Main St).  It is the third largest green space in Providence, and one that truly shows the waves of immigration into our community.  Cooler in the summer than the surrounding residential and commercial areas, a magical place at night in a snow storm, the only home in the city for the otherworldly mating groans of the Fowler’s Toads, and the permanent home of 100,000 former residents of the city from paupers to robber barons and slave traders as well as everyone in between.  After 300 years and a few pandemics it is rapidly filling up, placing its budget and future in jeopardy.   It really needs all the Friends and neighbors it can get.  

10 years ago a small delegation from the Summit Neighborhood Association, instigated by me, having noticed that the perimeter fence was both porous, and only a deterrent to law abiding neighbors, asked the Parks Department to open up the walk in gates so that it was more accessible to the community and so the neighbors could walk in the park in the evening.  The Parks Department said yes and promptly opened the gates.  Over the last 10 years the number of neighbors using the park to walk, or as a place for ecological restorations in partnership with the City, has dramatically increased.  There has been the development of a Friends of the Burial Ground and Randall Park, a merger of interests between those focused on the cemetery, history and ecology.  In addition to opening walk in gates 24/7, when the city fixed the fences, it put in walk in gates in two places where the holes in the fence were part of the shortcut between the neighborhood and the grocery store, saving walkers half a mile in the roundtrip.

When COVID-19 hit and everything closed down, the City closed the cemetery to everyone except families burying their loved ones.  With the spread of the disease, the increase in funerals, and the restrictions in place on everything in an effort to get everyone to stay home, except for socially distanced exercise, the NBG walkers understood, though we really missed one of the best places to walk in the pandemic as social distancing is very easy there.  We expected that as the rest of Rhode Island opened up that a great place for people to get socially distanced exercise would open up with the rest of the parks.  It has not turned out that way.

While the main automobile gate in of the NBG is now open from 8 to 4 each day, for months none of the walk in gates were opened.  Eventually the gate at N Main and Rochambeau opened, but only from 8 to 3:30 on weekdays.  In other words even fewer hours than the auto gate, not at all on weekends, when walk in use of the cemetery is at its highest, not at all in the evenings, when it is most useful, and often it is locked  when it is supposed to be open.  So now the fence has lots of holes again. While the neighbors stay out.

I have been the spokesperson for the walkers and several times have written letters to the Parks Department.  The letters received in return have given us the run around while never directly answering our questions.  We have asked if anything has changed since before the pandemic.  Is there more crime?  More vandalism? At night?  Not as far as anyone can tell. Then we get complaints about dog poop on graves.   I still walk in the NBG nearly every day. The amount of trash seen before the crew cleans up in the morning has not changed significantly.  I cannot remember the last time I saw dog poop there.  There is plenty of poop on the ground.  99% of it is Canada Goose poop.  Even coyote poop is at least 10 times as common as dog poop.  I think someone does not know the difference and therefore finds it convenient to blame dog walkers for the closing.  The City has told us there have been at least 6 times in 6 months that they have called the police during the DAYTIME for drug overdoses.  Not a real surprise in an opioid epidemic and a pandemic induced anxiety epidemic.  And they take place when the automobile gate is open. They do not tell us if there have been any overdoses at night, though we know, both from eyewitness reports and the evidence of cut fences, that people are in there at night, mostly on their way to somewhere else.  I was also told that the Burial Ground is now considered to be unsafe in the evening, but every one of the walkers I have talked to says they still felt totally safe there right up to the date of closure, and that if it is unsafe now it is because the neighbors are no longer allowed in, leaving the Burial Ground at night much more open to those who are willing to ignore the law.

I have been involved in parks issues for many years.  One of the things we are constantly taught is that to reduce nuisances in parks, the best thing is eyes on the park.  In other words the more of the neighbors that are in and using the park, the less likely there will be nuisances.  So the Parks Department has created its own nightmare.  More holes in the fence, no neighbors to keep an eye on things, no safe places to walk for elders seeking a socially distanced walk, more patrols by the police increasing city costs, and no way to get the great publicity the Friends of the Burial Ground garner with their ecological restoration projects as it is harder to water trees and film the wildlife of the Burial Ground when access is only one way and only during the heat of the day. 

One very telling comment from the Parks Director was by locking the gates everyone in the Burial Ground after 4 PM is considered a trespasser.  I have yet to hear of an arrest, but I do know the increased patrols during the daytime by the police are an effort to intimidate the homeless and people of color.  At a time when the city, and everyone, has become much more aware of the discriminatory nature of policing, the new and current policy is designed to appeal to a white middle class constituency while ignoring that it is making life more difficult for people experiencing homelessness, people needing a shorter route to the grocery store, people who want a cool green space to relax in in the evening, and people of color.  My interactions with the increased patrols have been pretty tame.  As an educated gray bearded middle class white guy I open my mouth and tension dissipates, but I can tell that if I was of some other demographic it could get ugly very fast.  At a time when everyone ought to be aware of the implications of Black Lives Matter, the new Parks Department policy is a throwback to the stone age.  

One of the things that really bothers me is the way the city made this decision.  

Over the years I have befriended the slow trickle of people who have felt a need to stay in the burial ground overnight.  Sometimes I am able to direct them to services, other times I am simply someone who will talk to them without stigmatizing them.  Closing them out of the Burial Ground or arresting them for trespassing would have been a colossal failure of government. 

Remembering it had been open at night for 10 years, that the walkers felt safe, that those of us who walked in the morning did not notice increases in trash, and that prior to the pandemic there had been no mentions of night closure, it feels like the city made the decision under cover of darkness when they could hide it away, and without consulting any of the people that would be affected. The city contemplated its budgeting and staffing issues, legitimate in the face of crashing revenues, but it gave no thought or voice to the people who use the cemetery at night for all of the legitimate purposes such as a shorter distance to the grocery store, a place of refuge when there is nowhere else to go, or the study of biodiversity in the city.  And when we ask for a public hearing on the closure we are flat out told no, that it is a safety issue that means we do not have to do that.  Sorry, but sunshine is the only antiseptic to bureaucratic disinformation and when the city refuses to open up the discussion, asks that the discussion not take place in public, asks folks to wait 6 months to discuss even minor changes, after it made a decision in secret, “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” to quote a well known author. Maybe the hearing should be at 9 PM at Ridgeside Lake and special invitations should be posted by all the holes in the fence.  I think the city needs to hear from the folks that are their targets instead of just turning them into criminals. 

We have tried a quiet approach, but clearly the city is turning a deaf ear to the quiet approach.    So we are asking everyone’s help.  Help us get our local greenspace, the best place in the city to walk, the best place to walk in the falling snow I have ever experienced, the richest wildlife area in the city, a place that had been open for 10 years with essentially no troubles, reopened.  Can you all the Mayor?  Can you call your City Councilor?  Can you call the Parks Department?   Any help would be greatly appreciated.