Rhode Island Artscape: Urban Ponds To Clean And To Celebrate

May 29, 2014

For this month's Artscape, Rhode Island Public Radio's environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza profiles the Urban Pond Procession, a group of artists, scientists, educators, and residents who want to promote the health of urban ponds. The group's focal point is around raising awareness about the contamination that plagues Mashapaug Pond on the south side of Providence and ways to heal it.

In a classroom at Reservoir Avenue Elementary on the south side of Providence, about 10 third graders in a special afterschool art workshop are on a deadline to finish making head lanterns in the shape of turtles.

Freelance artist Lisa Abbatomarco leads a lantern-making workshop with third graders at Reservoir Avenue Elementary on the south side of Providence.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

They’re busy cutting away heads, tails, and legs, and making turtle shells out of paper mache, as freelance artist Lisa Abbatomarco comes by to staple their headbands. 

They’re going to debut the turtle head lanterns at a parade later that weekend. Abbatomarco asks her students to remind her what all these lanterns and the parade is all about.

“You guys remember some of the things we were talking about?” she asks.

A chorus of voices jumps in to share many reasons, which one student sums up:

“We’re doing this to remind people to not pollute the water and to remember how important the pond is.”

That would be Mashapaug Pond tucked away in the Reservoir Triangle neighborhood. It’s part of the Pawtuxet River Watershed. As these students warn, it’s not safe to swim in Mashapaug Pond or eat fish from it.

That’s why every year for the past seven years, local artists, musicians, families, friends, educators, and scientists gather in a celebratory parade to raise awareness about Mashapaug Pond’s contamination and cleanup efforts around its neighborhoods. It’s called the Urban Pond Procession.

At this year’s parade earlier this month, children and adults walk through the residential and industrial neighborhoods around Mashapaug Pond with handcrafted lanterns in the shapes of fish, birds, turtles, and houses. They’re dancing and singing songs and chants.

Along the way, parade goers stop for a water ceremony.

Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

A member of the Narragansett Tribe, Dawn Dove, leads a blessing in her native language and in English. This year’s parade honors families who were displaced in the 1960s when a neighborhood near the pond was bulldozed as part of what were called “urban renewal” projects.

Others take part by reading ceremonial phrases in different languages.

The procession concludes at J.T. Owens Park with music from youth ensembles, dances, poetry and shadow puppet performances, and an oral history art installation project. The  presentation also features a short story about Mashapaug Pond written and recorded by preschoolers, who visited the pond to learn about the pond’s history and stormwater runoff. The children talk about a “beautiful Mashapaug Pond,” home to wildlife like turtles and foxes, where people decide to build a factory to put “gooey stuff in it.”

Creating the parade’s art props, stories, poetry and performances have allowed the young and old from all backgrounds to come together to learn about Mashapaug Pond’s health, history, and its interconnections with other waterways. The pond eventually flows into ponds at Roger Williams Park.

One of Rhode Island’s jewels, the Gorham Manufacturing Company, operated at the edge of Mashapaug Pond for more than 100 years and dumped its waste into the pond. That site, now a brownfield, is owned by industrial conglomerate Textron. The factory’s toxic waste still plagues the pond’s cove.

This Urban Pond Procession got started sort of by accident.

In 2007, the Department of Environmental Management conducted a Mashapaug Pond study and put up warning signs around the pond to discourage people from fishing and swimming at the pond. The pond is classified as “impaired” because it does not meet water quality standards. The signs listed a state health department phone number.

“And I was questioned about putting up more signs,” said Bob Vanderslice, leader of the health department’s Healthy Homes and Environment Team, who started to get complaints about the sign. “And I said, “We don’t put up signs.

The warning signs were only in English and many non-English speaking families were eating fish from the pond.

This is the sign that inadvertently triggered the creation of the Urban Pond Procession.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“And I tried to convince them that they needed to go to the city,” recalled Vanderslice. “‘The city makes signs, they erect signs, it’s the city’s property. Go talk to the city.’ And they said, ‘You know the city’s not going to do anything about this. Go put up signs.’”

Vanderslice describes putting up signs as a thankless job, because signs often get vandalized and destroyed.

“So I went to Textron and said, “Would you give us $5000 to get an artist to actually work with the community? Because if it’s the community’s signs, maybe they will stay there and they won’t get destroyed.’”

Textron agreed. The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts hired local artist Holly Ewald on behalf of the health department to do the signs. Ewald explored the neighborhood and knew she wanted to be a part of the project when she saw families walking about the neighborhoods. She went to a public meeting about remediating the former Gorham site and the EPA-funded cleanup of the Roger William Park Ponds as part of her research. She noticed mostly government and Textron officials at these meetings.

“They were trying to speak to the public about how they were going to clean it up, but there was no one from the public there,” Ewald said. “So I thought, ‘They need more than signs. I need to do something on the streets.”

So she started to brainstorm with people. Ewald spoke with late Tom Slater, a former representative of that area.

“And he said one thing to me, that really stuck in my mind, and that was, ‘Well, you know, two feet from the water’s edge up is public land.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, well we can go through everybody’s backyard with our signs and raise a raucous,’” said Ewald.

Ewald said she didn’t know anything about putting a parade together. So she talked to Erminio Pinque, founder of Providence-based Big Nazo, an international puppet performance group featured in parades, festivals, and stage shows. Big Nazo has participated in the procession since the procession’s first year.

“And Erminio said one thing that resonated, ‘Holly, do you want to do a protest or a celebration?’ and I said, ‘I want to do a celebration. I mean, this is a beautiful pond and we need to clean it up.’”

Vanderslice remembers that very first parade. Ewald worked for nearly a year with neighborhood schools, the local Cambodian temple, and many other groups to create fish costumes and other art props for the parade. It blew Vanderslice away.

“The neighborhood came together and said, ‘You know, we care.’”

Vanderslice still has some of the first silks screens made by children in his office.

Bob Vanderslice, the Rhode Island Health Department's team lead of the Healthy Homes and Environment initiative, still keeps the first silk screens about Mashapaug Pond created by children.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“So Holly started making silk screens with the kids and these are some of them,” he said as he showed off some of those original prints. “They are wonderful, wonderful silk screens that kids did and carried in the parade. These were some of the first signs.”

Vanderslice said the Department of Transportation was ecstatic to work with Ewald on the new signs. The signs around the pond today depict these children’s designs, with information in English and in two of the local neighborhood’s dominant languages: Cambodian and Spanish.

Vanderslice believes children quickly realize through these art projects that the pond isn’t suffering only from the legacy of Gorham’s toxic waste.

“It was the soda bottles, and the street runoff, and the dog poop, and everything else. Once Gorham was [going to be] cleaned up, they still weren’t going to be able to swim in this pond, they still weren’t going to be able to eat the fish,” said Vanderslice.  

That’s the story of how Holly Ewald became the Urban Pond Procession’s founder and director. Ewald still works closely with the DEM’s deputy chief of the office of water resources, Elizabeth Scott, to make sure information shared through these art projects are factually correct.

Bob Vanderslice and Holly Ewald at this year's Urban Pond Procession
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“I think she’s done a fabulous job of taking the scientific information and technical information that is known about the pond and then being able to communicate it in very simple terms to all those people who she works with and then to be able to produce all this great art, performance art, and other visual arts to be able to communicate what the issues are with the pond,” said Scott.

The procession takes places once a year, but the work that goes into it, raising the pond’s visibility, happens year round. And Vanderslice believes that’s keeping people safe.

“As a public health official, I just wanted to put a big fence around it and say, ‘Go away. This is a bad place, don’t go there. Be safe.’ That’s not what we need. We need a reason to celebrate, embrace that history, clean up that environment and make it a beautiful place.”

No one knows when it will be safe to swim in Mashapaug Pond or eat its fish. Remediation of the former Gorham site is still underway. People say the Urban Pond Procession has brought much needed attention to a pond described as “sick” and “long forgotten.” The movement has sparked other projects around the pond. And now people are excited about the pond’s potential to be an even greater asset to its neighborhoods.

“There must be 10 feet of documents you could stack that have to do with this site,” said Vanderslice. “And they don’t tell us anything about how to really fix it. The sign tells us how to fix it. They tell us that you need the kids in the community to be involved, members of the community need to be involved, and you need things in three languages that people can understand, and I think that’s why this means so much to me.”

Vanderslice said the cost of cleaning up toxic sites can be extraordinary and all the artists and storytellers behind the Urban Pond Procession tell us that cleaning up Mashapaug Pond and its neighborhoods is worth it.

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