Community News

Debating River Road's Future

The latest news on the River Roads controversy and the future of the park


River Road is a ribbon of asphalt that runs along the bank of the Seekonk River from Irving Avenue to Richmond Square. The Blackstone Woods, an area laced with trails, marches up to the edge of the road from the west. On summer mornings, it is quite beautiful down there. The fog rises with the sun, revealing the broad, placid Seekonk River, its smooth surface cut only by the occasional gliding rower.

Visitors can easily sit in the meadow, the patch of grass across from the Narragansett Boat Club, and forget that there was bustling city just behind them and over the hill. The morning wears on; the rowers have packed up and gone so the river empties, but the road fills with commuters, many bypassing congestion on the boulevard.

At dusk, the rowers return to the river and cut straight lines in its surface. Latino fishermen and their families set up picnic dinners on the riverbank. They park their cars on the side of the road, spread out blankets, set up chairs, cast a few lines, eat dinner and have a few beers while the kids run off a little energy. It’s perfect for still-warm evenings: the air by the river has cooled, and the east-facing bank affords views unimpeded by sun glare across the river. Evening commuters return, too. They occupy the lane that the fishermen have left open, and they often drive fast. The road and the river are busy.

But other things happen. Hands pass each other, making illicit exchanges. Cars, rendered suspicious-looking by their slow crawl, by the fact that they’ve now passed several times, roll in loops. And the driver, usually a man, with his hat pulled down and shades tight, scans the scene. Men exit parked cars and enter the woods and emerge again a few minutes later. Men sit in parked cars and wait.

While gay cruising is generally known to exist along River Road, a compromise seems to exist between neighborhood residents and the gay community. Now however, a determined group of neighbors, at least two of which are members of the Blackstone Parks Conservancy, feel that a better use of the beautiful area would be to close off River Road to vehicular traffic and convert into a well-designed park that would encourage more usage by residents. To test their theory, they persuaded Councilman Sam Zurier to close off the road for a weekend test in September. Other neighbors aren’t so sure and speculate whether closing the road to cars might create more problems than it would solve.

I recently took a walk along River Road. It was Saturday, September 21. A small group of concerned neighbors had convinced City Councilman Sam Zurier to support a temporary road closure to test their proposal to close River Road permanently to traffic. I parked on Irving Avenue, just up the hill from River Road. A few cars were parked next to mine. Each had a man sitting in it. I strode down the hill, past the temporary barricades, one of which appeared to have been tossed aside, and onto River Road.

I remember thinking how desolate it was when a man on a bike suddenly materialized at my shoulder. He asked the time, and I gave it to him: 1:05pm. He coasted along, turning what seemed like every few seconds to have a look at me, until he suddenly took a hard right turn, coasting into an access road at York Pond. He stopped 20 yards off the road and stood up, the bike between his legs, and craned his neck to watch me walk by, which I did with great gusto, desirous to make my destination seem far off.

I walked all the way to Richmond Square, a car passing me on the way. At the square, the blockades, cheap plastic affairs, had been cast aside. I made my way to South Angell and then to Paterson Street before stopping at Paterson Park to examine the bulletin board there, in the hopes that the group behind the River Road closure proposal would have posted something. And sure enough they did: a piece of white copy paper was posted, on the top of which was typed “Petition to Close River Road.” I sent an email to the address listed and my phone rang three minutes later. Ten minutes later I was face to face with the de facto leader of the Coalition for the Seekonk Riverside Reclamation, Rick Richards.

Richards and I sat on a bench in Paterson Park and discussed the situation. Recently, he said, the road was closed for dredging at York Pond. The neighbors loved it. The road, free of cars, was a safe place to walk and to enjoy the scenery. Families were down there. The crime largely disappeared. When the road re-opened, he said, the conversation centered on how to keep the road permanently closed to traffic.

Richards and a group of people, including Jon Ford, developed a conceptual plan which, according to literature on the petition, addresses five main issues: access to the waterfront, crime prevention, safety for families and children, improved bike path and controlling stormwater runoff and pollution. On the back of the petition was a depiction of the phased propsal.

Phase I extends from Angell Street to Irving Avenue and includes closing the road to traffic, except for a small section at the NBC boathouse to be used for parking, modifying the existing road to a multiuse bike path, planting trees along that bike path, implementing storm water management solutions – including riverbank restoration – and building public docks and plazas. Phase II extends south from Angell Street to Richmond Square and entails modifying the existing road to create a multiuse bike path, planting trees along the path and implementing storm water management measures including riverbank restoration. Ford, a local engineer, resident and coalition member, has lead the effort to design and render the conceptual plans for the proposal. He notes, “It is not a road closure, it is a transformation.”

Richards says that a major objective is to provide a usable waterfront park to bring people into the area and cut cars out, for the purpose of mitigating crime and environmental issues. Neighbors complain about men having sex in the woods and men soliciting other men for sex and drug dealing. Al Dahlberg, a local resident, says, “I’ve gone walking through the woods and seen men having sex. It’s an issue that’s been going on for decades.” According to Richards and Dahlberg, people don’t feel safe bringing their families into the Blackstone Woods or down to River Road.

Stormwater is another major issue. According to Ford, York Pond was designed as a sedimentation basin, but it is failing. It fills with sediment and on rain events burps plumes of sedimentladen water into the river. A 2012 annual storm water system report to the Department of Environmental Management states that the storm water system at York Pond, which consists of an energy dissipater and sediment forebay, the only structural Best Management Practice the city maintains, is “not maintained and ineffective.” Another issue is that storm water on the road currently discharges directly to the river via concrete spillways. Lack of storm water controls has also resulted in severe riverbank erosion. Areas of severe erosion are visible.

The coalition presented the plan to Zurier, who agreed to set up a public meeting to present the proposal. The meeting was held July 11 at Nathan Bishop, and about 50 people showed up. Zurier, a measured speaker, says, “There were strong views on both sides.” The proponents hail the environmental and crime mitigation benefits. The opponents like to drive down the road to enjoy the scenery or use the road as a bypass to a congested boulevard and they point out that another similar car-free space already exists down there: Gulf Avenue.

Despite this opposition, Richards has set out an aggressive schedule. The goal is to permanently close the road by spring, something that will probably require a city council vote. I ask him how many people have signed the petition. “Oh, I don’t know, ten or 15.” I ask him about the Blackstone Parks Conservancy, that plays a major role in managing the Blackstone Woods. “Though I sit on the BPC board, I do this work independently. They are an apolitical organization. I bet they won’t even comment on it.” Jane Peterson, the BPC president, confirms this. “The BPC is swamped with its mission-related work and though I personally see the potential for the area, the organization doesn’t have the capacity to take a position on the proposal. Though Jon and Rick sit on the BPC board, they act independently.”

Gay cruising, as it were, on River Road goes back awhile. Lt John K. Ryan, of the Providence Police Department’s 9th District, says, “the area has been a gay cruising area for a long time.” Dahlberg, a local resident, characterizes the crime issue as “pervasive,” and says, “I’ve lived there for 12 years and I’ve witnessed men having sex with men in the woods, and they give you this look like you’re the one invading their privacy.”

The debate over how to handle the crime issue, particularly dealing with drug deals and illicit sex, has been ongoing for decades. Two 1996 Providence Journal articles describe what sounds like a particularly ugly episode. In response to a spate of neighbor complaints, then City Councilwoman Rita Williams called a public meeting to discuss solutions. The result was a police crackdown, but there was blowback. In an article published July 9, 1996 with the headline “Police defend increased River Road vigilance,” one gay man, after being aggressively questioned while sunbathing, asserts, “I feel my civil rights have been heavily compromised.” A 1997 Providence Phoenix article on the crackdown notes that activists argued that gay sex, not public sex in general, “seemed to ignite the passions of nearby residents.”

Kate Monteiro, a long-time activist and former president of the RI Alliance for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, remembers those days. “It was a really bad time. Undercover policemen were pretending to be gay. They were arresting people doing legal things, like meeting to get a cup of coffee. It was harassment.” Lt Ryan confirmed that undercover stings were in fact carried out by the Providence Police in the late 1990’s as part of an effort to combat sex and drug crime in the area. Monteiro and other activists passed out flyers along the road, educating people of their rights. They met with the police and recommended ways to properly police the area, including mounted police patrols, something the police are doing now, albeit only once or twice a week, according to Ryan.

Monteiro doesn’t have a position on the proposal, but notes that the LGBT community supports any effort to combat illegal sex. However, she adds that the prevalence of the sex crime at River Road may be overblown. “People may make a report on an activity that actually isn’t happening.” She also notes that many men in the park have an expectation of privacy, a widely held legal test for defining the scope of privacy protections under the Fourth Amendment dealing with the locations and situations where people can reasonably expect privacy. When I mention this to Lt Ryan, he says, “Sex of any kind in a public park is illegal, regardless.” One resident who had been active back then is taking a decidedly more passive role this time around. In return for anonymity, he explained why. “Things have been fairly stable over the last few years, so I and many of my neighbors are willing to let things be. The boathouse functions well. Joggers come through all the time. It’s a very small group that has been lobbying hard for closing the park to traffic, less than a dozen I think.”

He continues, “I also don’t see that closing the park will really improve much of anything. The woods will still be here. The bad element will just park on the streets in our neighborhood or at Richmond Square and walk over. In some ways, not having cars driving through wouod make me feel less safe rather than more. We’d be better off keeping things the way they are and do programming to attract bigger crowds along the river which would be the best way to reduce crime.”

Things have changed. Though police patrol the area routinely by car, horse and, most recently, park rangers, the so-called crackdown tactics are no more. “We are lean on manpower. The challenge is that you have to catch them in the act,” says Ryan, a 22-year veteran of the Police force, “but a crackdown does not solve the problem.” Left said is the reality that forced out of one area, it’s likely they would just seek out somewhere else equally secluded but accessible.

The police have said that more eyes would reduce the crime that’s been around for decades,” says Zurier. But it is a complex issue. Both sides have strong views. Zurier knows this because he gets their emails. He agreed to the temporary road shut down to gauge how residents would respond, but it was marginally successful. “By the end of the day, the barricades had been tossed aside. Neighbors would replace them, and they would be moved again.” In Zurier’s September 29 Ward Letter, he addressed the closure:

I saw a family walking along the road. By Sunday, however, people had cast aside the traffic barriers, and the experiment was brought to a premature end. It is unfortunate that people did not respect the barriers or the plan for the weekend. I will be meeting with the residents who planned last weekend, as well as the police to determine next steps. A number of you sent me emails with observations from last weekend and suggestions for improvement - if you have not yet done so, your feedback would be welcome.

“We need more data,” he says. “We need to know who uses the park, how much traffic goes through there.” Despite the data gaps, he’s working with the coalition, the police, and other groups to schedule a second temporary road closure. The key will be to plan events to bring people to the area and to implement improved barricades to keep the cars out. “They need something like what’s at Gulf Road,” says Lt Ryan, referring to the large planters that block traffic.

Ryan points out the planters on a recent ride-along. It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, but there were several cars parked in the area, each populated with one man. One older man climbed out of a van and walked into the woods.

It’s clear that crime exists on River Road and in the adjacent Blackstone Woods, but it’s not clear how to deal with it. The police crackdowns of the ‘90s were met with stiff resistance from LGBT groups claiming unfair targeting of homosexuals. Al Dahlberg, the coalition member and local resident, says that the police tread lightly as a result. And he may have a point: though mounted patrols have been dispatched, Ryan indicated that they patrol the area only once or twice a week and that it’s been several months since the last arrest in the area. Monteiro disputes the suggestion that police use kid gloves when it comes to River Road.

The Coalition for the Seekonk Riverside Reclamation has developed a proposal that they hope will address, among other things, the long-standing crime issue. They want to bring people into the area and solve some environmental issues. They’ve designed an ambitious proposal and set equally ambitious goals, but Zurier advises caution. “Realizing this vision requires resources, an investment the City is probably not in a position to make.” And though he’s agreed to support a second temporary road closure, he notes, “There is not a consensus for the best use of River Road.”