A Pond by Any Other Name

April 29, 2013


A hidden gem….a toxic pond….a dumping ground.…a source of life and inspiration….a spot to watch birds, chase frogs, and play baseball….a natural resource in need of remediation….a swimming hole….a place haunted by the remains of factories….part of a watershed….home.

These phrases capture some of the ways that people describe Mashapaug Pond, the largest body of freshwater in Providence and the city’s only remaining natural pond.  Perched on the southwestern border of Providence, Mashapaug survived the eras of industrialization and deindustrialization forever changed by the presence of manufacturing and the growth of dense neighborhoods on its shores.

Recently, the pond has taken on new life as the focus of a public humanities and community art project that links the Center with the Urban Pond Procession (see http://brown.edu/academics/public-humanities/initiatives/mashapaug-pond).  As part of this ongoing initiative, a new cell phone tour will bring attention to the ways that Mashapaug has been used in the past, the challenges it faces in the present, and the possibilities for renewal in the future.  Mashapaug’s Neighbors: Stories from Beyond the Pond, invites listeners to use their own cell phones to hear stories about Mashapaug Pond and the people who care about it. 

Working with Holly Ewald of the Urban Pond Procession, and Annie Valk of the Center, students in the class, Oral History and Community Memory created the tour.  Throughout the semester, they recorded memories and reflections about Mashapaug from current and former residents of nearby communities, teachers and students at neighborhood schools, artists and activists who are working to clean up the pond, and workers formerly employed in the area, including at the Gorham Silver Manufacturing Company.  These interviews will be added to those collected by students in 2011 and made available via Brown’s Digital Repository at: http://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/collections/id-617

In Romeo and Juliet, the title character asks, “"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet."

How can words fully express the essence of a place and the way it exists in memories, senses, history, relationships? 

Members of Oral History and Community Memory have tried, distilling hours of interviews into short tour segments that convey the significance of Mashapaug.  The project is motivated by the goal to take stories out of the archive and share them with the public, back at the place where they can inspire listeners to see the pond in new ways.  Tour stops focus on people’s recollections about fishing, swimming, skating, and boating at the pond before toxic algae made the water unsafe and chemical contamination polluted the shores.  Even nearby churches held picnics at Mashapaug and used its waters for immersion baptisms.  Others remember the vibrant community “across the tracks,” torn down in the early 1960s to construct an industrial park that now houses many commercial enterprises, including Brown University’s library annex. Former workers at Gorham recall the company that helped make Providence world famous and once employed thousands, before uprooting and leaving a legacy of contamination. And new residents, coming from many parts of the world, describe the joys and struggles of living and going to school in the area today.

Many other organizations contributed to the creation of the tour.  Sixth grade students from Sophia Academy conducted interviews and helped choose stories for the tour.  Their school will be moving near Mashapaug and students in art, science, and language arts classes are learning about the pond and taking action to clean it up.  Teachers and students at Alvarez High School, located on the former Gorham site and next to the pond, are creating a video and a ceramic mural to teach other students and the general public about Mashapaug’s history and current conditions.  The Urban Pond Procession shared many resources and helped organize the tour and the opening.  The Steel Yard designed and produced metal frames to hold signs announcing tour stops.  The Providence Department of Parks and Recreation and RIPTA have helped with the installation of signs on their property.  And numerous neighbors participated in interviews and provided advice, ideas, and inspiration for the tour and the oral history project.

Come on May 4th and to explore Mashapaug through the audio tour.  Or call 401-643-2578 to listen to the tour from your phone.  The tour runs until October 15, 2013 at locations around the Pond.  More information about the tour and the class that created it can be found at: http://www.storiesfrombeyondthepond.com

Mashapaug pond in the springMashapaug pond in the spring

Public Humanities Events