Thursday, June 20, 2024

Memorial Drive in Cambridge on March 29, 2020, near the start of the Covid lockdowns. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The rhetoric around Riverbend Park escalated this week to explicitly include race and class.

Though the speakers on the topic at a City Council meeting Monday included leaders of the local NAACP and Cambridge Black Pastors Alliance, the invoker was city councillor E. Denise Simmons, an opponent of expanding the hours of the park – formed by closing Memorial Drive to car traffic – to include Saturdays from the legally obligated 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays between April 30 and Nov. 12.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation decided April 3 to limit Riverbend Park to Sundays. A City Council policy order that passed 7-2 asks for more information and for the state to reconsider. It was brought forward originally April 10, but Simmons used her “charter right” to end debate until this next meeting.

Councillor Paul Toner’s vote against came without comment, while Simmons stated her case. 

“Those that live in the Riverside neighborhood and near the Riverside neighborhood who have urged DCR to revert to the Sunday-only closure have come to view this matter through the prism of race and class,” Simmons said. “Those who have urged for full-weekend closures have viewed this through the prism of wanting to have access to stretch of land on Memorial Drive.”

Environmental justice

The extra days of Memorial Drive closings began during the Covid pandemic, when there was less car traffic and a greater need for socially distanced recreation. Proponents say there’s still a need for Saturday closings in Cambridge, which has half the proportionate open space of other cities, while opponents complain of the traffic diverted into the neighborhood – initially so bad that they complained of becoming prisoners in their homes.

Supporters of expanding Riverbend Park hours greatly outnumber opponents even in Riverside, according to a proponents’ map showing signers of petitions and public letters. 

The key reason cited by the state for rejecting Saturday hours was that “parts of the adjacent neighborhoods are classified as an environmental justice block group” that would be hurt by additional car traffic. Much of the city falls under the same environmental justice designation, several people noted two weeks ago.

“It’s a matter of environmental justice for us to listen to the overwhelming majority of people who want this,” councillor Patty Nolan said of expanding Riverbend Park hours.

Adding race and class

Simmons argued that “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” But with issues of environmental justice and sheer numbers already on the table, she added an element Monday in issues of race and class.

“Those who view this through the prism of race and class are feeling that they come to the City Council and express how they feel about Memorial Drive and say it’s a quality-of-life issue and they’re drowned out, they’re dismissed, they’re ignored,” Simmons said. “That has echoes of too many other incidences in the life of communities of color, both private and public.”

The councillor had also nodded toward a racial divide in biking years ago, around the initial implementation of bike lanes that began in 2017, suggesting they benefited mostly white residents.

Asked to “step outside” their experience

Simmons asked for Nolan and councillor Burhan Azeem to “step outside their own experience and really listen to the voices of opposition,” then rescind the order they wrote and co-sponsored.


Azeem was born in Multan, Pakistan, and his family first stayed in a home where 11 people shared three bedrooms. His parents found jobs at a deli and Dunkin’ Donuts to earn the money to move out, he has said on the campaign trail, where he recounted experiencing repeated instances of xenophobia.

In the early days of his first term as a councillor, Azeem lacked a permanent home in Cambridge and had a “horrific” time finding even a modest room he could afford.

On Monday, he rejected rescinding the order but avoided Simmons’ raising of race and class issues, saying the order expressed disappointment that the DCR decision ignored options for a middle ground and “chose to limit it to what they’re legally mandated to do.”

Mitigation and compromise

Several councillors said they were interested in seeing more done to ease traffic in Riverside, which could allow for the addition of Saturdays in the future without a bigger burden for residents. The approved motion includes a call to the city manager to continue that work as well as to seek to understand how the DCR made its decision and its legal justifications. Though the state says the decision was “to ensure compliance” with a 1985 law, that statute is read different ways by different people.

Ken Reeves, president of the city’s NAACP, said he represented Riverside residents who were “exasperated and disappointed with the lack of responsiveness from the majority of their elected officials,” but did not mention race.

Problems of navigating traffic were mentioned by two black religious leaders, including the Rev. Samuel Johnson Jr. of Central Square Church, interim president of the Cambridge black Pastors Alliance, who told councillors simply, “I would hope that you would consider honoring the DCR’s decision.” A member of the Alliance, Bishop Lawrence Ward of the Abundant Life Church, said “that instead of attempting to reverse the DCR decision, I’m asking that the City Council work with DCR to find a way of compromise and not to negate the rights of one group over the desires of another.”

Ward pledged the help of the Abundant Life Church in finding a compromise.

Among the several speakers on Riverbend Park were Sonja Scoby, who accused councillors of working “to support MIT and Harvard behind closed doors” and Cheryl Lyn Williams, who referred to class in saying she grew up in West Cambridge and was sickened by seeing “the people that live down at this end and how you treat them.”

Supporters of the Saturday closing, meanwhile, plan a “Rally at Riverbend” from 1 to 2 p.m. Saturday season at the John W. Weeks Footbridge.