NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – In downtown North Adams there IS a river running through it – the Hoosic River.
But because of the flood chutes built decades ago to contain its wildness, the river is often a barely running stream within the high concrete walls.
“The flood chutes are ugly. But it could be different,” said Judith Grinnell, leader of the Hoosic River Revival, to a group of merchants and others gathered at Gallery 51 on Tuesday night. “The river area could be attractive and could help to connect downtown and [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art]. River revitalization could bring about economic development by attracting business and people to downtown. Thoughtful planning could provide a prettier view with more green space. So much is possible.”
It’s a speech Grinnell’s been giving for months at meetings with various local organizations to pitch plans on turning the river that runs through the heart of the city back into a centerpiece.
Channeled in concrete by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s after years of devastating floods, the winding river has become a rather unsightly remnant of industrialization. As the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts has breathed new life into the sprawling mill complex in the city’s center, the group hopes to make the river that once powered North Adams’ industry into a more inviting and natural flow.
Grinnell and others say revitalizing the river can bring together history and culture to promote contemporary development. Though no longer a mill town, the city’s history is an important factor in helping to build the area’s cultural renaissance and retaining its industrial character for the people who live here.
After a trip to San Antonio and seeing the energized city life along the river there, and a visit to Providence, R.I., and its $60 million transformation of its three riverfronts, Grinnell was inspired to figure out how the Hoosic River could similarly be transformed.
A little over a year ago, Grinnell met with Mayor John Barrett III about the idea of changing or altering the flood chutes. He showed Grinnell a drawing by former Williams College Museum of Art Director Thomas Krens, one of the inspirations behind Mass MoCA, which had featured an open, lively downtown area by the river. With the mayor’s support, Grinnell was off and running. Soon after, about 35 people came together to listen and discuss the idea and the Hoosic River Revival was born.
“If anybody can pull this off it will be her,” said Barrett last month. “She won’t take no for answer. … I’m very supportive of what she’s trying to do and the city has a representative at the meetings.”
Grinnell said the group has been working hard on raising awareness and outreach to create a broad coalition of support. Grinnell and organization member Gailanne Cariddi have been talking up the concept at both informal and formal settings, and Sister Natalie Cain of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition is setting up presentations for neighborhood groups.
They’re also finding strong support within the newest community to put down roots in the city – the artistic community that’s been fueling the city’s own revival.
“There has been no money and no decisions made, but these are people who like our project and want to support us in some way,” Grinnell said recently.
Tuesday’s meeting, on May 5, was organized by Papyri Books owner Lois Daunis, who wanted to see how her store and others could aid the project.
Photos by Kathy Keeser
Shima owner Susie Helm speaks with HooRWA member Lauren Stevens. The river revival group has found a friendly ear in downtown businesses and the city’s arts community.
Phil and Gail Sellers of River Hill Pottery are working with artist and photographer Joanna Gabler and surface and textile designer Martha Flood plan to collaborate with the Hoosic River Revival for an event with artwork centering on the river.
The Sellers, whose studio is in the Eclipse Mill, have found inspiration in the river that runs by their front door, as have their fellow artists. Using scrap clay and stones plucked from the river’s bed and banks, the potters have created tiles called “Riverscapes.” It was chance encounter with the “Riverscapes” by Grinnell (who said she immediately bought one) that brought the Sellers over to the river group’s side.
“We’re right on the river and we walk our dog there, and my husband is a stone collector,” said Gail Sellers in a recent interview. “He stuck them in the pottery and some fractured and some changed color it looks the river and it looks like the eddies in the river.”
The Sellers consider themselves friends of the river, said Gail, who waxed enthusiastic about the fauna and flora along its banks and the reaction of people visiting the mill.
“They’re bringing in new eyes to what we see every day, we” she said. “We see peple stop and they’re oohang and aahing over this river, over this little city … nowhere else do we know where dance, theater and art is so close to nature … I think what Judy is doing is so admirable.”
The Hoosic River Revival is working in partnership with the Hoosic River Watershed Association.
“The Watershed Association is concerned with improving the lives of people who live around the river and all ideas that impinge on the river and its environs are important to us,” said longtime HooRWA member Lauren Stevens.
Grinnell poinnted out that HooRWHA is concerned with the entire three-state, 70-mile Hoosic River while the Hoosic River Revival is concentrating on the city’s sections of the North and South Branches and their convergences near Mass MoCA. The bike path being planned that will eventually link North Adams to Williamstown and will most likely run near the river for much of its way is another tie into this revitalizing venture.
One of the Sellers’ ‘Riverscapes.’
It won’t be easy. There are difficulties in altering the flood chutes, and expenses. But the concept is in line with changes in state and federal policies that is looking to make rivers more wildlife and people friendly by removing dams, restoring banks and encouraging more natural answers to controlling the waters.
“Fifty years later, there is a different philosophy about what is needed to protect from flooding,” said Grinnell on Tuesday. “A clear plan for the Hoosic River in North Adams is needed.”
Along with garnering support, the revival group is pursuing grants with the goal of holding a charette, or professionally facilitated community planning process, this fall to develop a plan for the river.
This summer, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts intern Chelsy Baker will be putting together a self-guided brochure of the downtown area near the river for the River Revival. On Aug. 22, local artist Ralph Brill will again work with other artists, HooRWHA, city officials and others to provide another night of “River Lights” like the one last April that drew an estimated 2,000 people.
Someday if the dream of Grinnell and others comes to fruition, there will be livelier, greener Hoosic River that enables people to enjoy the environs of the river.
To learn more about the Hoosic River Revival, contact Grinnell at firstname.lastname@example.org.