By Steven Fletcher
---- — The weathered field between Liberty, Pleasant and Burnham streets is going to get some much needed attention next year.
The state Department of Environmental Protection awarded Gloucester a $195,000 grant for renovating Burnham’s Field. That money and Community Development Block Grant cash will pay for $340,000 renovation project for the downtown park. The project grew out of a neighborhood effort to fix up the field in 2009, and will stand on top of work to improve it, such as the creation of the community gardens.
Community development project manager Steven Winslow said the renovation is the largest investment Burnham’s Field has seen since the early 1980s. Winslow has worked on finding ways to improve the field since he arrived in Gloucester in 2009.
“People didn’t feel comfortable taking kids down there, and that kind of stuck in my mind — something needs to be done down there,” he said
The community gardens, now in their second year, were the first step, Winslow said. Then, in 2011, the city put together a request for the state funding. Gloucester heard back earlier this month, he said, that it received the $195,000. With that money in hand, Winslow said the city will work on a design with the neighborhood this winter.
He said he’d like to break ground next spring.
Access and lighting are two big priorities. Having both will make Burnham’s Field a safer, more welcoming place, Winslow said. He added that he’d like to see the playground equipment replaced as well.
Gloucester bought Burnham’s Field in 1921, and expanded it in 1950. Before then, the field was a marshy neighborhood dump. Gloucester built housing for veterans returning from Word War II, but those buildings started to sink and were torn down in 1950.
The field has been a playing field since; the Gloucester High varsity and junior varsity softball teams and the Gloucester Patriots Pee-Wee football teams call it home. The city’s last major renovation was in 1984, through an Urban Self-Help grant.
“It’s sends a message that in Gloucester, green spaces and playgrounds matter,” said John McElhenny, who lives near the field on Allen Street.
McElhenny heads up the city’s Open Space and Recreation Committee, and he got involved in that because of Burnham’s Field. He said his kids took some of their first steps on the playing fields, and were on the playground when they could barely walk. For him, and other neighborhood families, he said, Burnham’s is their front, back, and side yard. That makes it worth preserving, he said.
The neighbors it serves, according to the city’s grant application, are from the two areas in the city with highest populations of low-income residents.
Burnham’s is the largest green space in central Gloucester and hasn’t had a stellar reputation. There have been problems with people drinking, using drugs and vandalizing play equipment after dark. Gina Briguglio, who lives on nearby Prospect Street, said neighborhood families were scared to go down there. Because no one wanted to go there, the field was neglected.
“Instead of saying, let’s go down there and make a difference, people have gone to other parks,” Briguglio said.
Briguglio helped start the Burnham’s Field community gardens in 2011. While meeting people and growing her own food were on the top of her list when she signed up, Briguglio said the gardens were created to improve the field.
“Being part of getting the … community gardens going was important for me because it was important to the community,” she said.
There are 20 garden boxes right now, with a waiting list for people looking to get involved. The gardens, and gardeners, she said, have brought more people to the field. They’ve started to change the field’s reputation, too.
McElhenny said he counts a host of people, every day, who come down to the park year-round. The numbers have grown in the past few years. The gardens are part of that.
Briguglio said having people down at the gardens during the day keeps a presence in the field. Just having people there, she said, keeps incidents of litter, drinking and vandalism to a minimum. That presence, she added, also draws more people to the park beyond those attending football or softball games.
“I’d like to think the community garden is a piece of that momentum,” Briguglio said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.