PROVIDENCE — It’s literally called Public Street, but at its eastern terminus on the Providence River, it has been the site of overgrowth, a fence, trash and other barriers to access.
State regulators on Tuesday took action to put some truth to the street’s name: The state Coastal Resources Management Council voted Tuesday to designate Public Street east of Allens Avenue as a public right-of-way. That means the area, in the shadow of salt piles and a scrap metal yard, will be protected for public access in perpetuity.
“We want to make sure our neighborhoods have access to the port in a way that can be for public use, similar to what other communities have,” Dwayne Keys, the chairperson of the South Providence Neighborhood Association, said in an interview before the vote. “Why do I have to go to Cranston or Narragansett or other towns?”
The CRMC designates rights of way around the state — strips of publicly owned land to the shore that people can use to get to the water.
There are now more than 200 rights of way around the state that have been formally designated by the CRMC. But many more exist — some towns take it upon themselves to designate them — and the agency has a goal of one right of way per mile of shoreline in Rhode Island. There are 400 miles of bay and ocean shoreline in the state, which means the CRMC has many more to go even after Tuesday’s vote, held at a Department of Administration conference room.
These areas are often overgrown, the victims of neglect that is sometimes benign and other times malignant. This can sometimes happen whether or not an area has been formally designated as a right of way. On Public Street, for example, adjacent property owners were encroaching on the area, Attorney General Peter Neronha wrote in a letter to the CRMC in October.
Though Providence is the state’s most-populous city, relatively few rights of way are located there or in other parts of the densely populated urban core. Many of the fights over access pit well-off white people against even-more-well-off white people. In Barrington, for example, a dispute over which Barrington residents get to access the shore is a battle between the haves and the have-mores.
On Public Street, though, this new right of way will predominantly serve people of color, who already live near a site so overcrowded with industry you can’t even see across to East Providence. It is a site where pollution concerns are also growing even more acute. That was not lost on the people pushing for it.
“It’s immensely important, given the history of pollution in that area, for those folks to have some spot where they can access the shore,” said Jed Thorp, advocacy coordinator for the nonprofit Save the Bay.
Designating a right of way involves digging through a city or town’s archives to find a public street somewhere in the records. In most cases, they’re places where neighborhoods were sketched out, with roads that on paper stretch down to the tidal waters of the state. Think of a road that runs perpendicular to the water, then stops. In many cases, the pavement might stop, but the legal roadway continues on to the water.
Public Street was one such case. Lawyers for the state, the attorney general dug through deeds and other city records and had to go back to 1876, when city aldermen plotted out a public road. A lawyer for one property owner down there raised the question at an earlier hearing of whether the state really wanted to designate a public right of way in an industrial area, but didn’t formally object to it. Everyone else was on board.
“To me, the city of Providence owns this, and the public has the right to travel on it,” Anthony DeSisto, a lawyer for the CRMC, said Tuesday.
It hasn’t always been treated that way. People who live in and care about the neighborhood say their concerns about the industrial uses along that stretch of Allens Avenue are getting worse.
“We want a legitimate public venue there, that we deserve,” said Linda Perri, of the Washington Park Association. “Fox Point has it, Edgewood has it. We have zero. We deserve better, and we’re fighting for that.”
Public Street itself is surrounded by a discount tire barn, a depot for road salt and, in the distance, a scrap metal yard. On a recent Tuesday, the site didn’t look like very much, with beer cans and lotto scratch tickets lying by cement barriers blocking off the walk down to the rocky shore. While environmental advocates like Thorp say they wouldn’t recommend swimming there, certain species of fish would be edible, and people fish there now plenty.
With the new designation, signage will soon go up, and advocates say more and more improvements could make things better. The CRMC’s vote was unanimous, and was greeted by applause — and the feeling that more work would need to be done, both in sprucing up Public Street and identifying other public streets.
“I don’t think we have enough access,” said Councilman Pedro Espinal, who represents the area and has been involved in advocating for Public Street’s official designation. “It’s hard to live near the water, and not have access to it.”