The working port of Boston is rapidly gentrifying into a gilded playground, but sail up the Chelsea River and the potent evidence of maritime industry is everywhere. There’s Diversified Automotive, which processes some 40,000 newly shipped Subarus each year (and which employs 400 people, most without advanced degrees). There’s the Fitzgerald Shipyard, a large-vessel repair and maintenance dry dock. There are metal scrapyards, boat salvage operations, even an odiferous factory that prepares animal hides for a tannery. Seventy percent of the region’s home heating oil and 100 percent of Logan airport’s jet fuel is stored somewhere along the Chelsea waterfront.
And there’s the salt.
You’ve possibly seen them from high atop the Tobin bridge — mountainous piles of road salt, sometimes covered with a colorful tarp, mined mostly in Chile and shipped here to de-ice roads in more than 300 communities statewide. In the winter, trucks rumble through residential streets, bearing away the salt to boulevards far removed from Chelsea’s urban landscape. “Other communities get the benefit while we bear the burden,” said John Walkey of Chelsea GreenRoots, a community group working on issues of environmental justice.
The six-acre salt dock off Marginal Street is owned by Eastern Minerals, which had been locked for years in a struggle with community groups over its storage practices and its plans to expand to an adjacent defunct asphalt plant. But in a happy — if hard-won — compromise, the company agreed in 2012 to set aside some land for what became PORT park. The design firm Landing Studio won awards for its ingenious use of industrial artifacts in the park; the skeleton of an oil storage tank creates a kind of geodesic dome over a small amphitheater repurposed from a retaining dike once used to contain oil spills. In the summer, the salt pile shrinks to reveal a basketball court heavily used by local residents; the view across the creek to East Boston is bucolic and gritty all at once.
As high-end commercial development threatens to overwhelm traditional maritime uses closer to Boston’s downtown, Chelsea is striving to maintain a balance, mindful of the economic and even historic value of its working waterfront. The PORT park is a tentative gesture toward city residents living in harmony with their industrial neighbors.
Later this week, the local Apollinaire Theatre Company will begin free performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the park. A massive stage set is being constructed by artist Marc Poirier, with timber salvaged from the Hingham shipyard. During the performance, the audience will literally move between two worlds: the leafy park area and the lifeless landscape of the salt pile. The production touches on themes of environmental degradation and other costs of “civilization”; it is an ideal venue for a play that deals in dualities: appearance and reality, nature and culture.
Eastern Minerals is located in a Designated Port Area, one of a small number of waterfront districts restricted by state regulation to maritime uses. Indeed, the PORT greenspace is not formally a park but a “Publicly Organized Recreation Territory,” to avoid running afoul of zoning. Ironically, says Walkey, “the DPAs used to be our bane in terms of recreational access to the waterfront.” But with development pressures on the rise, “it’s now our protective shield against gentrification.” With the addition of a new Silver Line stop and even a brewpub as harbingers of development, longtime Chelsea residents find themselves oddly on the same side as industry: worried about being pushed out by rising prices.
Near the end of Shakespeare’s magical comedy, the Athenian leader Theseus opines that “the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, are of imagination all compact.” It may seem crazy to think that noxious industries and their neighbors can live together happily ever after. But that’s what midsummer dreams are for.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.