Cambridge’s Magazine Beach prime for revitalization


by Emily Cataneo, Wicked Local Cambridge

Cambridge — A panoply of statewide and local groups are aiming to revitalize a derelict park along the Charles River in Cambridge

At Magazine Beach, Cambridge’s second-biggest park, clean-up crews often find piles of garbage–and sometimes syringes. A former powder house at the park is now structurally unsound and scrawled with graffiti.

But organizations including the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association and the Cambridge Historical Commission are working together to figure out how and when to transform the park into a place Cambridge can be proud of.

This initiative recently received funding in the form of $25,000 from Community Preservation Act funds and $50,000 from a DCR partnership to study how to shore up the powder house roof and determine how much it will cost to completely revamp the powder house. The study will build on research undertaken in 2011 and 2012 into the history of the powder house, as well as on a Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association survey of residents that’s slated for release this fall.

Cathie Zusy, a Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association board member and a leader in the efforts to revitalize the park, said she thinks the surveys are the first step towards finding funding and a solution for the area.

“Why should we have a park that looks like that? With broken benches, broken picnic tables, graffiti, a roof that is broken, water that seeps through all year round,” said Zusy. “There’s no reason we should tolerate that. But rather than complaining, we’re partnering with the parks department, and with other organizations.”

Zusy said she’s been interested in Magazine Beach for about a decade, but began campaigning for change in earnest in 2010, after she and Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association president Bill August organized a clean-up of the site and received a groundswell of support.

“All these people turned up from the neighborhood and clearly wanted to see change at Magazine Beach,” said Zusy. “That really empowered me. I realized, if I was willing to organize the process, the community would support it.”

The powder house at the park was built in 1818, said Nina Cohen, one of the two historians who researched the powder house in 2011 and 2012. The powder house fellinto disrepair in the 1880s, and the famed Olmsted brothers converted it into a bathhouse in 1899. From 1900 to 1910, the area was actually a beach, and drew many Cantabrigians and Bostonians to swim in the Charles on hot summer days. But in 1910, the Charles River Dam was built, which led to an increase in pollution from the Brighton slaughterhouses and Watertown factories. The beach was officially closed in the 1940s, and the powder house was converted to a storage shed in the 1950s.

Charles Sullivan, Executive Director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, said his organization is interested in the property because of the historical significance of the powder house.

“The powder house itself is one of the most significant buildings in Cambridge. It’s a unique structure that reflects the early days of Cambridgeport history, and the development of the riverbank,” said Sullivan

Several officials said they supported revitalizing Magazine Beach, including Cambridge Director of Community Planning Stuart Dash and State Rep. Marty Walz.

Zusy and August said they have numerous potential ideas for the park, including turning the powder house into a stand that sells healthy snacks and coffee; holding a farmers market there; renting out kayaks and canoes; hosting programs and tours that meet at the park; and installing interesting lighting or an interactive exhibit.

“There are so many things it could be, and I feel like things are just about to take off,” said Zusy.

Zusy said she wants to involve high school students in the process of revitalizing Magazine Beach. She said the park is a popular drinking spot for area teenagers, and she wants them to help facilitate change there so they continue to feel welcome at the park.

“I think it’s important that people feel ownership of Magazine Beach,” said Zusy.

While these groups are working on revitalization efforts, other groups such as the Charles River Conservancy are focusing on clean-up efforts now.

Danielle Stehlik, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator at the Charles River Conservancy, said her organization regularly brings volunteers to pick up trash, paint benches and trim plantings at Magazine Beach through a partnership with the DCR.

Stehlik said volunteers usually enjoy working at Magazine Beach because it’s easy to see improvement from start to finish. But sometimes, volunteers are fighting a losing battle.

“Last year the state brought in a crew and cleaned the whole powder house, but now the graffiti is back again,” said Stehlik.

One group not as enthusiastic about revitalization efforts is the Friends of the Charles River Geese, a non-profit organization dedicated to defending a group of white geese that live in the parklands lining the river. The geese group sees revitalization of Magazine Beach as potentially detrimental to the river’s geese population.

Wayne Petersen, Director of the Massachusetts Audubon Important Bird Areas program, said the white geese are domesticated animals, so their fate is largely tied to the people who maintain their lifestyle by feeding them.

“Depending on what they’re going to do in the area, the geese have a few choices. They can leave, and move up and down the Charles and find another contingency that will feed them and take care of them,” said Petersen. “Or people might continue to do what they did all along that kept them in that stretch [at Magazine Beach].”

Zusy said while she sympathized with animal lovers, she doesn’t think revitalizing Magazine Beach will have a detrimental effect on the geese.

“I think it’s very important that we have wild places and habitats that are preserved…but I don’t think our efforts to preserve and stabilize and find new uses for the powder magazine and for the park are contrary. I don’t think we’re in opposition. I don’t think we’re harming the white geese by bringing more people to enjoy this open space along the Charles River,” said Zusy.

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