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Memorializing India Point Park’s History

Local community organizations differ on the best way to memorialize the Cape Verdean heritage in Fox Point

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One of the more immediate and visible benefits of the I-195 relocation project has been how it has so effectively integrated the Fox Point neighborhood with India Point Park. Pedestrian access over the bridge from Fox Point is now a beautiful walk in and of itself, albeit over eight lanes of speeding traffic. But even the I-195 traffic whizzing by beneath your feet seems to magnify the respite from urban life that clearly beckons ahead. Indeed, since the removal of the highway’s on-and off-ramps and other attendant improvements and changes to street patterns on its western end, India Point Park promises to connect the entire city to its 18 acres of open space and, with its 3,600 feet of shoreline, to the natural beauty of Narragansett Bay.

It was the building of I-195 in 1966 that, in the words of historian Frances Betancourt in her 2002 History of India Point Park, “furthered the downfall of Fox Point.” Fox Point residents objected, especially the about-to-be-displaced Cape Verdean community, which had deep roots and was firmly anchored in Fox Point. Betancourt reports that “government officials did not recognize [neighborhood residents’] opinions and needs, as houses were torn down to accommodate the road.”

It was the economic diversity of the Fox Point neighborhood that in one respect enabled the city to bring India Point Park from concept in the 1940s, to garnering of public and political support, actual planning and land acquisition in the mid to late 1960s, and finally to reality when the park was dedicated on September 7, 1974. Betancourt states that it was Fox Point’s average household income of less than $5,000 per year that qualified the city to apply for and receive a 50/50 matching grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which helped get the park project off the ground.

It was the planned re-location of I-195 that spurred the formation of Friends of India Point Park (FIPP), a 501(3)(c) non-profit, one of city’s first and most active “Friends of Parks” groups. Co-founded by David P. Riley and Marjorie Powning in 2000, FIPP’s mission is to “protect and enhance India Point Park’s informal, unstructured natural beauty and preserve it as a refuge from the city and the built environment.”

The group has been vigorous in carrying out that mission. It has advocated against, and been successful in stopping, several high profile projects that, in its view, would have encroached on the park (e.g., a 700-car parking garage proposed by Brown) or, especially, the shoreline (e.g., a ferry terminal and information kiosk planned by RIPTA and the City’s Parks Department and an addition.al classroom building proposed by the Community Boating Center). FIPP has also achieved reductions in the scale of other projects to minimize visual impacts within the park. Most recently, it has been in the forefront of efforts to get National Grid to bury its power lines.

FIPP has not been working alone, by any means, in its efforts over the past 15 years to protect what it calls the park’s “quirky and free-spirited nature” and its “unencumbered landscape.” The group has worked with elected representatives, city and state officials and numerous other grass-roots organizations on a variety of issues, including offering support for the installation of the Fox Point Cape Verdean History Panel, and supported the use of the park by the Mexican Soccer League, the annual Cape Verdean Independence Day Festival and this year’s City-wide Fourth of July celebration.

There has not been total agreement between FIPP and other stakeholders on every issue and not everyone would have the same understanding of what constitutes “quirky and free-spirited” or even agree to its importance. But what about “an unencumbered landscape?” With the park’s “sweeping water views” (the only such public access in Providence) FIPP’s core mission is to keep that shoreline “unencumbered” – that is, free of the “built environment.”

A built environment is what they see being proposed within a section of the park by the recently filed 501(3)(c) non-profit entity, Fox Point Cape Verdean Heritage Park. Riley and Powning learned of the project in early June of this year, although the Heritage Park committee first presented its proposal to the Board of Parks Commission at a public meeting in November 2013 under the city’s previous administration. The Parks Commissioners, following a subsequent public meeting in September 2014, reserved a specific site within India Point Park for the memorial project and expressed its intent to enter into a 50-year lease with the non-profit group.

Claire Andrade-Watkins, PhD, a Fox Point native of Cape Verdean descent, the president and founder of Spia Media Productions, Inc. is the project director for the proposed memorial, and was the committee’s spokesperson at both meetings. The memorial, commissioners were told, would be symbolically placed in an area adjacent to where Cape Verdean immigrants arrived and made their living, and would use graphics to present the story of the Cape Verdean community. While conceptual drawings presented in September 2014 showed a roughly outlined estimated budget of $1 million, and the installation of permanent concrete and granite structures, including benches, statues and a memorial wall along the shoreline, and incorporation of about 180’ of shoreline within the memorial space – Andrade-Watkins emphasizes that the project is as yet just a concept. “It is all on the table,” she says.

She does, however, see India Point Park as the appropriate location for the memorial. The space, Andrade-Watkins says, will be “symbolic and actual” – a virtual memory and a physical place. “It will say, ‘We were here,’” Andrade-Watkins states. “Finally, in the city that displaced us, we will create something that comes from us.”

When Providence’s new Superintendent of Parks, Wendy Nilsson came to her job, she inherited the Heritage Park project with certain city approvals already in place. Since then, seeing a need for public input, she has brought together some of the major stakeholders – Andrade-Watkins, Patricia Phillips of FIPP and Lynne McCormack, the City’s Director of Art and Culture – to talk about how to move ahead together in a positive way. Subsequent conversations indicate that the project may be “taking a turn in a completely different direction,” says Nilsson, but what is certain is that “there will be a memorial in that location.” The City is currently undertaking a survey of the park area so that the project’s landscape architect will have accurate information on which to base plans.

FIPP strongly supports a memorial space dedicated to the history of the Cape Verdean community, but objects, first, to the process of its review and second, to its location within the park. Powning fears that dedicating 180 feet of shoreline will adversely affect the integrity of its entire length, and will interfere with many of the informal activities the park accommodates. The Parks Department estimates that 75,000 people use India Point Park annually.

The public will have an opportunity to hear about what is being planned within India Point Park for what is now called “The Fox Point Cape Verdean Heritage Place.”

The group of stakeholders orchestrating the meeting issued this statement: “The plan is to host a thoughtful community conversation in September that includes how people currently use the park and the significance of the monument/ memorial to the history of the city.”

As this issue went to press, the date, time and location of the meeting had not yet been determined, but Nilsson promised it would be well publicized.