LAWRENCE — Much of this city's story can be told by the Spicket River.
A trickle in mid-summer but a thundering force after a heavy spring rain, the Spicket offered a reedy settlement to the Pentucket Indians, drove the turbines in some of the world's biggest mills and provided a place where industrial wastes and sewage could be dumped and forgotten about for a century.
As the mills closed and the jobs disappeared, the Spicket became a symbol of the decline of the city at its mouth. Most of the river was barricaded behind chain link fences and a wall of weeds, largely forgotten except by illegal dumpers and the neighbors who are reminded of its presence whenever it overflows its banks.
"People would pull their trucks up as close as they could and throw their garbage over," city planner Dan McCarthy said during a walk along the river on a recent sweltering morning. "Industries pumped in their dirty water. There was raw sewage coming in from the flats. There were a lot of dye houses in this city. The river would be painted different colors."
This month, work began on the final phase of a 13-year, multi-million-dollar project that officials hope will remake the Spicket into a glistening centerpiece of the city's Arlington and downtown neighborhoods and open a new chapter in the story of both the river and the city.
On a short strip of ground behind the city garage on Myrtle Street, contractors are breaking ground on a $2.6 million riverfront trail that will throw open access to a cleaner Spicket and, officials hope, aid in a recovery of the neighborhoods that surround it, which include many of Lawrence's poorest.
The greenway will run along all but a few short stretches of the Spicket's 2.5 mile course through Lawrence, jumping back and forth on bridges over the river to connect the four parks that have been built on former mills and other industrial sites since 2006 in the first phase of the greenway project.
"Piece by piece, we put this together," said Heather McMann, executive director of Groundwork Lawrence, the non-profit agency that made the Spicket River Greenway its signature project since it arrived in the city in 1999. "It's really been about keeping our eyes on the prize."
The project began with $55,000 in seed money from the National Parks Service, which was funneled through a federal Environmental Protection Agency program that cleans up brownfields. The city matched the grant, using more federal money from the Community Development Block Grant program. More money would come from other government agencies, including the Massachusetts Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities program, known as PARC.
The greenway was mapped in 2001. A year later, the first annual Spicket River Cleanup drew dozens of volunteers and began raising public awareness that there was a river behind the fences and weeds. Last year's cleanup drew 240 volunteers, who pulled 5.4 tons of trash from the river, including more than 200 tires.
Another milestone came in 2006, when the first of the riverfront parks opened on 2.7 acres of a former Brook Street brownfield that had been a mill, then a laundromat and then a vacant lot for 20 years. The EPA paid to clean up the brownfield and Bank of America donated the land to the city, along with $200,000 to help build the park.
Three more parks followed. Kennedy Park opened in 2007 on a site where about two dozen flood-proned homes were demolished using money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Misserville Park was converted to a skateboard park, also in 2007. Manchester Park opened in 2009 on Stevens Pond at the Methuen line on another brownfield once occupied by a mill and then the Covanta incinerator.
Manchester Park has since won two national awards, including one this year from the National Community Development Association that recognizes projects that improves life in low-income neighborhoods. In fact, the Arlington neighborhood where the park was built may be the poorest neighborhood in the state's most impoverished city.
"The reason we're focusing a lot of our energy on urban parks is that these are areas of the state where people don't have green space right outside their front doors," said Melissa Cryan, manager of the state PARC program, which provided $500,000 of the $2.6 million the Spicket Greenway received last year to build the trail. "Parks serve as gathering spaces for these communities."
Besides the parks, the Spicket Greenway will connect several of the city's most prominent landmarks, including Lawrence General Hospital at the east end and Central Catholic at the west. The hospital provided one of the five easements the Greenway received to run across private property. Central Catholic recently built a ball field beside the river with the city.
"A safe and inviting walkway, with new green areas throughout our region, is exciting to us," said Nicholas Zaharias, a hospital vice president. "Since this ties in so closely with our mission, it's logical for us to be a partner and to be involved in bringing it to fruition."
The trail itself will run from the Methuen line at Stevens Pond, where the Spicket enters Lawrence, to the Gateway park planned for the mouth of the Merrimack River. The trail will run through an easement as wide as 20 feet and will be made mostly of asphalt, with occasional stretches of boardwalk. The trail and the parks they connect will include ball fields and amphitheaters, historical and environmental markers, and possibly boat launches.
When the Greenway opens in June 2012, a new round of challenges will begin for the city and the river, including adding what will be the second largest park in the city to a park system already reeling from recent budget cuts. The impact of the cuts is evident even at Manchester Park, where much of the grass and trees that were planted just two years ago - oaks, maples, willows - already are dead. On a recent morning, the walkways through the park were littered with goose droppings and broken glass. Weeds grew through cracks in the sidewalks. The park was empty during a half hour visit, except for a few meandering geese.
McCann, the Groundwork Lawrence executive director, said the agency is planning to assemble "a partnership with the community and the city" to maintain the greenway. She said $50,000 already has been committed, although some of that will be used to help maintain other parks.
"It'll need more than that and everyone in the community will need to help maintain it," McCann said. "Lawrence does need these parks. We have a very young population. They need places to play."
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