Eighteen years ago, the city finished construction of a park along the Acushnet River that has arguably changed a New Bedford neighborhood more than any other action of city government in the last half century.

The opening of Riverside Park — with its heavily-used soccer field, its breathtaking vista of the river and its popularity as a summer spot for Central American festivals — has been an unqualified success.

Outside of the city’s two grand industrial-era parks — Buttonwood and Brooklawn — Riverside very quickly became one of the most sought after recreational venues in the city. Drive by there on any given night in the good weather, and it seems as if the entire Latino community of New Bedford is out, many playing or watching on the soccer field, others using the playground and strolling the pathways.

Riverside Park is the only one of New Bedford’s signature parks located in a very low-income neighborhood and it has proven that it’s really true that “if you build it, they will come,” no matter where a good park is located.

The Kalisz administration had a $2 million federal environmental grant to build Riverside. Much of it sits on the site of the former Pierce Mill and 25 years ago, there were those in the city who said the land should have been reserved to continue as industrial space. 

But the day of cavernous, red-brick, multi-story factories in 19th century-built center cities are long gone. Pushed on by former City Councilor Debora Coelho, the then-president of the Bullard Street Neighborhood Association, the administration of Mayor Fred Kalisz built Riverside.

Today, there is another sprawling city park in another low-income and forgotten part of New Bedford that needs some serious attention. 

The closure two years ago of the Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League has left Dias Field, located at the heart of Ward 3 near the newly-rebuilt Franco-American Square off Hathaway Road/Nauset Street, in a severe state of decline.

There’s a sign for Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League but not one for Dias Field. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The Greater New Bedford Youth Baseball League, like the ward it is located in, was always the least noticed of the city’s baseball leagues. Its members struggled mightily as the better endowed Whaling City Youth Baseball League and South End Youth Athletic Association (SEYAA) attracted more of the middle-class families. Their facilities were better quality and more attractive.

A sign outside the Greater New Bedford canteen about sums up the challenges this league and the related park faced: “Before you complain… have you volunteered yet???”

A sign on Gabby’s Canteen at the former Whaling City Youth Baseball League encouraged people to be positive. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The Parks, Recreation and Beaches Department is aware of what a rare and valuable resource that a large and little-used contiguous green space like Dias Field is in New Bedford. It has moved quickly to address one of the city’s long-standing recreational deficiencies: In an immigrant community wild for soccer (arguably as popular as any youth baseball league now), there is no regulation-size soccer field.

The Rec department has already held the community meetings, and tapped an outpouring of support from the city’s soccer leagues for a regulation-sized field at Dias. It hopes to build and open the new field in the fall of 2024.

This green space is located in the heart of Ward 3, where the state’s recent reconstruction of Franco-American Square has included long-overdue sidewalks that are helping transform the whole area from a pedestrian-unfriendly highway to more of a contemporary urban center. complete with plantings, signal lights and walkways that make traveling from one of the many retail businesses to another much safer. If any retail store of quality ever gets constructed at the old Building 19 spot, it will be even better.  

The rebuild of Dias Field into a full-scale, handsome urban park would enormously help this section of New Bedford, wedged between the north and west ends.

Dias Field is really more of a park than a field. It has sprawling lawns, a tree-lined walkway through its center, a single basketball court with room for a second, and what remains of a tots’ playground, which at this point is only a long-fading swing set.

Dias Field, by any measurement, is in rough shape.

It’s not just the shabby dugouts and announcer’s booths on the ballfields, a sharp contrast to the more sturdily built and manicured facilities at Whaling City and SEYAA. The bleakness of Dias, I think, stems from a long lack of attention to this park in general. Maybe because it has no immediately abutting middle-class neighborhoods. Maybe because it never had a good landscape architect.

The city quickly points out that the leagues that lease fields from the city are responsible for their upkeep. But Dias has huge swaths of space not directly related to the ball fields that the city could have done more with long ago. They certainly have at the comparable space of Brooklawn.

The Dias parking lots have no signage or plantings; the baseball league’s headquarters is as industrial a structure as imaginable — certainly not a classically-styled community building like those at Brooklawn, Buttonwood, Hazelwood or even Ashley Park. Unlike at Riverside, Clasky and Brooklawn, there is no handsome, iron harpoon fence around Dias Field.

The only tot’s playground at Dias Field is a dilapidated swing set. The Presidential Heights housing development is in the background. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The swing set has not been painted in years. And the basketball court, which ostensibly was resurfaced a few years ago, does not appear to have been a high-quality surface because it’s already tattered and worn. Unlike at places like Buttonwood or Pine Hill Park in the far North End, there are no lights around this court.

Up against a grimy chain-link fence on the Dias Field’s eastern border is a narrow, heavily-wooded strip of land that slopes down to the adjacent industrial Myrtle Street area. As I walked along it, I came across a place where a big hole had been cut in the fence. In the wooded area a few feet from the hole, were blankets for someone to sleep. It was isolated and pretty scary.

A hole in a fence along the softball field at Dias leads to a heavily wooded area that has blankets and other evidence of folks sleeping in the area. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Dias Field is not completely forlorn. 

A few years ago, a Community Preservation Act grant was used to install new scoreboards at all four ball fields, two of which are on the upper part of the park that will now give way to the soccer field. On one of the fields on the lower level exists a relatively recently-built men’s softball field, which evidently was born after the softball field at Ashley Park closed a few years ago. 

The softball field shares an innovative, solar and wind-driven lighting system with an adjacent minor league field for the youth leagues, which there’s talk of using for T-ball. That’s the one baseball field that will remain at Dias after the soccer field is built. The softball field could use an outfield fence to separate it from the basketball court and tots playground. 

The lone basketball court at Dias Field is not lighted. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The planned soccer field is to include bleachers, but there will be no lights when it is first built. The basketball court, unlike in other parts of the city, also doesn’t have lights. The plan seems to be a bit made up as they go along.

The hope is that when travel soccer leagues come to New Bedford they will play at the rebuilt Dias Field. As the newly-elected Ward 3 councilor, Shawn Oliver says it would be nice for the park to have some other amenities when traveling families come to the city.

The unpaved sidewalk on Van Buren Street next to Dias Field has kept the city from making plans to upgrade the playground. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The city’s plan is to upgrade the rest of Dias along with the soccer field, with better plantings, signage and a new tots playground. The tots playground, however, was put on hold, as its location is adjacent to Van Buren Street where there is no sidewalk for the south border of the park. That’s the area adjacent to the Presidential Heights housing development. Federal disability law requires all playgrounds to be adjacent to navigable sidewalks nowadays. So the playground upgrade was placed aside for a while. 

But maybe there’s some movement percolating on all this.

Parks and Rec director Mary Rapoza has a planning background and is a visionary leader who has slowly helped rebuild many of the city’s parks and rec facilities over the last decade or so. She said it’s worth taking another look at solving the sidewalk issue as part of the park rebuild. 

In the wake of the pandemic, all of a sudden there is federal money around. This week, by coincidence, the mayor’s office announced there is federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money available for playground upgrades. Community Development Block Grant federal money is being used for the soccer field.

I asked Councilor Oliver about the rebuild and he agreed that Dias Field is an underutilized resource. A youth league veteran and baseball fan, the new councilor said that while he’s sad to see Whaling City go, he understands the growing popularity of soccer. 

Oliver had also recently met with Mayor Jon Mitchell and asked about the plans for the field. The mayor says he was unaware of the sidewalk problem but was well aware of the planned soccer field. The project may be eligible for federal ARPA money and DPI had already costed it out.

This is all good. I hope it’s a real plan as sometimes I wonder about the depth of commitment of things the city is reactive to, instead of proactive. 

The mayor, predictably, dismissed any suggestion that the city could have made Dias better a long time ago by saying it’s the responsibility of the leagues. But the baseball leagues all play at Brooklawn Park and the sections of the park that are not connected to baseball are much better tended to than the Dias facility has ever been.

The needs at Dias remain great. 

Though there are middle-class neighborhoods nearby the field, the closest residential areas are the big Presidential Heights and Nashmont low-income housing developments. In addition to the Nauset Street commercial area, the park is bracketed by the industrial area where Purity laundry is located and Empire Ford on Mount Pleasant Street.

A tree in the foreground of a wide swath of lawn near the softball field at Dias Field. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

If you didn’t know it’s there, it’s easy to miss the complex, or imagine its impressive size, as you drive by.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time at the field in the last week. No one is playing at its baseball diamonds on the spring nights because there is no longer the league. 

The baseball facilities have been closed a few years ago but they look like they were worn long before that. The meagerness of the infrastructure, I think, is a witness to the fact that if you want to run private youth baseball leagues in low-income parts of New Bedford, the city government needs to be involved in subsidizing the facilities. Without that, volunteer leagues in these parts of town have the same problems as urban public education does compared to the suburbs. There simply are not enough resources to easily do it well.

By the way, it’s been an open secret in New Bedford for the longest time that all the nonprofit institutions that run youth recreational institutions are located in the southern and western portions of the city — the Dennison Memorial, the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club. There is nothing north of Coggeshall Street.

There is hope that the rebuild of the Strand and Capitol theaters on Acushnet Avenue can fill some of that role, but there won’t be big athletic gymnasiums like in the south.

Maybe there’s some unseen organization out there ready to start a new, nonprofit youth facility in the near North End. But I don’t see it on the horizon, as people have been talking about this need for years. The Dennison began in the 19th century and the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club many decades ago.

It’s funny how some sections of New Bedford end up getting left out of easy access to important amenities. 

Some of it, no doubt, is related to the lack of good planning in decades gone by.

We all know about the devastating effect that the construction of Route 18 had on the New Bedford waterfront and the related downtown and South End neighborhoods.

Much less talked about, however, is the devastating effect that the development of the strip malls, supermarkets and unplanned industrial areas have had for several generations now on Hathaway Road and Kings Highway.

It’s not just the residents of the adjacent Presidential Heights, Nashmont and nearby Brickenwood housing developments that need a quality park. The residents of the nearby middle-class neighborhoods also have no nearby large recreation field. Councilor Oliver says he often takes his young son to the airport playground, as the nearest best place. Watching the planes take off is exciting, he said.

The absence of playgrounds in Ward 3 was an issue in last winter’s special election for the new ward councilors. I was surprised to learn that in Precincts E and F, the middle-class neighborhoods around Rockdale Avenue and that abut the Dartmouth town line, the residents were asking for a better playground to be built at the Carter-Brooks Elementary School, which is actually just over the ward border in Ward 5. There is virtually no place in the streets around upper Rockdale and lower Hathaway to walk to a playground, never mind a sidewalk to walk on.  

Anyway, Dias Field is right there in the heart of the city. It needs improvement. It needs an advocate or two.

What do you say New Bedford? Is it time for some love for Dias Field?Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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