By Mike LaBella
---- — An inner-city playground that deteriorated over the years and is often a dumping ground for furniture left by the neighborhood’s transient residents is being eyed for a total makeover.
Team Haverhill, the volunteer group that has been behind several community art and cultural projects, said one of its projects for 2013 and 2014 is to renovate the Portland Street playground, in partnership with the city and the neighborhood.
“It’s an area that is in need of attention,” said Recreation Department head Vincent Ouellette. “Over the years, numerous groups have adopted it and have cleaned it. From time to time people moving out of the neighborhood dump furniture and other items in the playground. There have been periodic cleanups, but it has become difficult to maintain the park.”
Located on the section of Portland Street that is between 4th and 5th avenues, the playground was the site of a public school until the building was demolished decades ago. In the mid- to late 1990s, the city learned the basketball court created on the site was built over buried tree stumps. The court was sinking and needed to be replaced.
Alice Mann, president of Team Haverhill, said the volunteer organization wants to lead the effort to rebuild the playground and has recruited the very people who they expect will use it.
“For almost a year, we’ve been talking with neighbors and others with family connections to that neighborhood,” Mann said. “Volunteers will help to renovate this important recreation area in 2013 and 2014. We will match the city’s financial investment dollar-for-dollar, and provide volunteer leadership for the project.”
Gary Ortiz, who works for the city’s Water Department, reached out to residents in the neighborhood to enlist their help. He stumbled across the playground in 2010, when Mayor James Fiorentini asked him to talk to neighbors in the nearby Union Street area after complaints about noise late at night at McMurrer Park.
“Many of the residents there are Spanish and some of them said they go up to the Portland Street playground and play,” Ortiz said. “When I visited the playground, there was a group of teenagers playing basketball on the cracked surface and one of them was injured. If you run and you aren’t looking down you can trip on a crack and hurt yourself. I told the mayor what condition it was in and how it wasn’t safe.”
Ortiz has since been working with the city and Team Haverhill on plans for renovating the playground.
“We surveyed neighbors from November to December, with volunteers from the Spanish community and Team Haverhill knocking on the doors of more than 70 homes,” Ortiz said. “We asked questions such as if they know about the park and if they let their children play there. Many said no because of the condition, the lack of security and people hanging around.
“Our dream is to fix the playground and install security cameras so people in the neighborhood can enjoy it,” Ortiz said. “I have 32 neighbors who said they would volunteer to help rebuild the playground. They are so happy to be involved to have a playground that is safe and they can go to. Also they said they would be part of a neighborhood watch group to protect the area and report problems to the city.”
Mann said Team Haverhill will be in charge of the project and a team of volunteers will work with neighbors on alternate designs. During the same time period, Team Haverhill will raise money in a variety of ways and also seek grant money.
“We also welcome business sponsors and individual donors who would like to contribute to the project,” Mann said. “It’s in a neighborhood that very much needs a safe place for youngsters to enjoy outdoor activities that don’t cost money.”
In prior years, Team Haverhill has been involved in re-roofing the bath house at Plug Pond, and assisted in the installation of playground equipment at Swasey Field.
Ouellette said the design of Portland Street playground will incorporate ideas of residents from that neighborhood.
“We want to ensure if it’s a basketball court, that neighbors will embrace it,” Ouellette said. “And we want to make sure that whatever goes in there will be the right fit for the neighborhood.
“Having Team Haverhill work with the city is a plus,” Ouellette said. “It seems as though the neighborhood may be stabilizing with more permanent residents, so hopefully neighbors will get involved as well.”