Since the 1970s, Pawtucket has developed a reputation as dirty, grimy, run down, even dead. Pawtucket’s recent history is like many aging American cities; its story – environmental, social, and economic – is not unusual in the history of industrial mill cities in New England or even in America’s Rust Belt, or the abandoned mills and empty towns of the Southeast. Tell someone that you live in Pawtucket and they often look at you with a sense of pity about the plight of the place. The jobs moved, the tax base changed, and the path to urban glory faded. Pawtucket became, in a nasty nickname, the Bucket.
I do not see it that way. Beauty – in nature and the built environment – abounds in Pawtucket if you look. Walk out the front door of my home, and you are immediately confronted with elements of natural beauty. Urban trees stand sentry outside nearly every house – oaks, sugar maples, red maples, birch, willows, and other varieties. These are as hardy and as wild as their forested cousins; they have withstood hurricanes, blizzards, the arrival of asphalt, car exhaust, and road salt. They are a tie to when this place was farm and forest.
Old homes built from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century fill Pawtucket neighborhoods. They are beautiful examples of a century of architectural movements – Victorian, Art Deco, Craftsman, and Ranch – with intricate woodwork, oak and pine and mahogany floors, horsehair plaster and lath walls. Sidewalks built by public money from the Works Progress Administration have linked these these homes. The publicly built sidewalks are a commons for the people to walk, to run, to garden, to gather and live. We interact with urban nature on the sidewalk commons.
The Bucket is transforming itself even more through reuse, repurposing, and reinvention. Old mills are now artist villages and provide an indoor space for winter farmer’s markets featuring local food, organic produce, and sustainable farming from around southern New England. River walks have been re-opened and more are in the works. Anadromous fish, especially river herring and American shad, are returning to to Pawtucket’s rivers. The restorative work has started and the Bucket, I hope, will become a new name for ways that we can improve the human and social connection to the landscapes in which we live.