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Haverhill playgrounds, parks get a makeover

Children play on the new slide at Swasey Field in Haverhill.
Children play on the new slide at Swasey Field in Haverhill.(City of Haverhill)

Once a blight in Haverhill’s Lower Acre, the Portland Street Playground is now considered a neighborhood gem, with new equipment and a volunteer group dedicated to keeping the small park pristine.

For years, the playground had the air of an abandoned place. The swing set was missing two of its eight legs. The asphalt on the basketball court was pockmarked. Weeds and debris were more common than children. And a fieldstone wall shielded the park from passersby, making it an attractive haunt for troublemakers.

Today, the playground stands as a dramatic example of the city’s commitment to restoring its green spaces. It is home to new landscaping, a smaller wall, and — at long last — giggling children. A team of 50-plus volunteers earlier this month installed new playground equipment.

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Finishing touches, including pathways and park furniture, are expected to be in place by Labor Day.

Originally pitched as a “Possible Dream” at a community visioning session in 2011, the project was more than two years in the making, a joint effort of city leaders and Team Haverhill, a local civic action group.

“That playground has become part of the history of my life,” said Gary Ortiz, 38, a Haverhill resident and father of three who proposed the park’s renovation. “I think the project helped to bring the entire neighborhood together.”

Work on Haverhill’s parks and playgrounds began in earnest last year as the city found its financial footing and earned an AA bond rating from Standard & Poor’s, the highest rating in the city’s history.

This year, $1.2 million will be invested in park and playground improvements, with the majority of that money earmarked for Swasey Field and the Grand Army of the Republic Park, more commonly called GAR Park. Most of the funding is from state grants through the Massachusetts Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities program, according to Haverhill human services director Vincent Ouellette.

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GAR Park, the gateway to Haverhill’s downtown, will be restored to its heyday. About $250,000 will be spent to clean up the park’s many monuments; restore light posts; and install new landscaping, trees, and walkways, giving the city a picturesque spot for wintertime ice skating. A small playground and a new irrigation system also will be installed.

Roughly $600,000 will be spent at Swasey Field, a 14-acre park developed at the turn of the 20th century for shoe factory workers and their families. Two new baseball fields and a basketball court will be installed and the walking path will be extended. In addition, Ouellette plans to have the hill at Swasey Field cleared and ready to welcome sledders by the time the snow flies.

Residents already are enjoying the improvements that were completed earlier this year as part of the first phase of the Swasey Field renovations, particularly the new splash park, which opened in May. In all, phase one cost roughly $1.2 million, with the bulk of that funding coming from a state grant. “It’s the first time we’ve had water in a park in a long, long time,” said Mayor James J. Fiorentini. “Years ago the parks had swimming pools, but they came out decades ago because of the concern about liability.”

Smaller projects to be tackled by the city in fiscal 2015 include updating one of the baseball diamonds at Riverside Park next to Trinity Stadium, and completing landscaping work at the entrance to Winnekenni Park, the largest and most popular of Haverhill’s recreational areas.

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Additional work at Winnekenni Park will be funded in part by the Dorothy McClennan Trust. McClennan, who was born in Haverhill in 1925, left $900,000 to Winnekenni when she died in 2012 at the age of 87.

Winnekenni, a 700-acre property off Route 110 that features 10 miles of multiuse trails, a popular swimming pond, tennis courts, a playground, and a stone castle built in the 1870s, attracts thousands of visitors each week, according to City Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan, who also serves as a board member of the Winnekenni Foundation, Inc.

The trust is currently working to better protect the bronze elk that McClennan donated to Winnekenni about a decade ago, and is developing cost estimates for improving and expanding a parking area by the castle, rehabilitating an old picnic gazebo, and renovating a dilapidated storage shed. Local architect Joel Gagnon of Architexture has drafted plans for the improvements, Sullivan said, noting that the foundation hopes to begin work on the project next spring.

Meanwhile, volunteers continue to work on other improvements at Winnekenni. Haverhill twins David and Adam Rouleau are trying to earn their Eagle Scout rank and plan to install new benches along the basin and by the castle. They also will place signs throughout the park to educate visitors about Winnekenni’s abundant flora and fauna.

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In addition, mountain biker Jeff Wardle, who lives next to the park, has been instrumental in the New England Mountain Bike Association’s development of multiuse recreational trails at Winnekenni. In April, 21 volunteers created a half-mile descent from Winnekenni castle. The organization plans to continue to help the city add new, sustainable trails to replace badly eroded paths, Wardle said.

The work being tackled throughout the city advances the mayor’s vision of an “emerald necklace of parks and walkways along the river,” from the train station all the way to Groveland.

“I get a fair amount of criticism about our investment in our parks and playgrounds,” said Fiorentini. “There’s a lot of cynicism” about whether the spruced-up spaces will suffer neglect and fall into disrepair, the mayor said. Still, he continues to invest in them because he believes “parks are small dollar items that improve the quality of life for the people who live here, and attract new residents to our city.”


Brenda J. Buote can be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.