Thursday, June 20, 2024

An image from the Jerry’s PondFest held in 2022. (Photo: Greg Harris)

Allow me to introduce you to a place no one in Cambridge has ever known: Jerry’s Pond.

“But that’s ridiculous!” you might say, if you’ve ever exited the Alewife T stop via Russell Field and paused to admire the resident ducks and occasional heron. Or if you’re a Cambridge Rindge and Latin Falcons football or soccer or lacrosse fan, a North Cambridge Little League family, a biker crossing from the Minuteman toward Davis Square or one of the hapless drivers stuck in the afternoon crawl at Rindge Avenue. Or, for that matter, if you’re one of the 4,000-strong residents of the Rindge towers and adjacent Jefferson Park who have lamented that this body of water and the woods around it are fenced off in what seems a plot to keep you penned between a cemetery and train tracks, cut off from everything nice. “Jerry’s Pond is in plain sight.”

What we’ve known is not Jerry’s Pond. It’s Jerry’s Pit. Jerry’s Pit has a rich and interesting history. Jerry’s Pond has yet to be created.

It’s a vision still on the drawing board of IQHQ, the lab development firm that is owner (since 2020) of the site and has, to its credit, committed to taking down the fences and improving the site with boardwalks, viewing platforms, tree plantings and an EcoCenter for environmental education.

For the first time in 62 years, the public will have access. 

This still-to-be-createdness of Jerry’s Pond, the chance to add a significant natural attraction in a neighborhood designated as a priority for environmental justice, in part explains the eruption of controversy at the City Council meeting April 24. At stake was a $600,000 federal grant that had been awarded – then suddenly revoked – to a community group, Friends of Jerry’s Pond, to study the feasibility of building an even more ambitious park with widened bike and pedestrian access along Rindge Avenue, many more trees to fight air pollution and the heat island effect, a resculpting of the shoreline to make the steep Pit edges more hospitable to wetland flora and fauna and a potential price tag of $20 million. 

The city manager’s position was that in IQHQ’s plan, the price tag – to the city – is zero. IQHQ would build and maintain everything, funding Green Cambridge’s community garden and the first five years of the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s EcoCenter programming.

In the context of a long history of the “city does nothing” approach to Jerry’s Pit and its environs, though, zero dollars is also a problem, and the city manager’s position did not sit well with Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and the City Council. The story of fenced-off Jerry’s Pit becoming parklike Jerry’s Pond is not one in which the city has acted to restore a natural area to the neighborhood. It’s nearly the opposite: Resident activism created the natural area, and resident activism is gifting it to the city. 

Jerry’s Pit originated in the 1860s, when Irish immigrant and entrepreneur Jeremiah (“Jerry”) McCrehan started a brickworks, digging up rich post-glacial clay to bake bricks that would build significant parts of this city. What sets Jerry’s Pit apart from other pits dug in the area, all since filled by such things as the trash that forms the foundation of Danehy Park’s hills, is that it flooded in the 1870s and has remained flooded since. 

Once it was an aquatic feature, the Pit found other uses: Among others, the J.B. Johnson ice cream manufactory set up shop, carving out 10,000 tons of ice blocks a year and storing them next to the pond. From the early 20th century to 1961, a Pit-side beach earned the area the affectionate and ironic nickname “The Cape Cod of North Cambridge.” 

Such purity could not survive North Cambridge’s next wave of industrialization. Starting in 1919, chemical company Dewey & Almy set up on the northern edge of the pond. Photographs show bathers looking across it at the plant where the company made, among other products, can sealants and asbestos brake linings. In 1954, the W.R. Grace company bought Dewey & Almy and its land. Aware of contamination and fearful of liability for swimmers, W.R. Grace closed off the Pit with fences in 1961.

You would not at that time mistake the Pit for a park. More than 2 acres around it was paved. A drive-in burger joint stood at Rindge Avenue and Fresh Pond Parkway, and beside it the Lehigh Metals building (later to house the Music Complex, a studio run by Tom Scholz of the band Boston in which J. Geils, The Cars, and Aerosmith are reputed to have rehearsed).

How, then, did Jerry’s Pit acquire its fringe of woods, its wildlife habitat? The way Chernobyl has: by being left alone. This was the first of the two major gifts by activist residents of North Cambridge. In response to W.R. Grace’s plans in the 1990s to develop Jerry’s Pit into a shopping center – and cognizant of its role in concealing superfund-level pollution in nearby Woburn, a story chronicled in the book and movie “A Civil Action” – a group of concerned area residents formed themselves into the Alewife Study Group. Drawing on varied skill sets including environmental assessor, leaders such as Joel Nogic, Mike Nakagawa, David Bass and Lisa Birk established the presence of asbestos in the soils north of Jerry’s Pit and convinced the City Council to impose stringent restrictions on use.

Over the next 30 years, shrubs and trees cracked through the asphalt and cement. Jerry’s Pit took on the character of the wild. Meanwhile, its neighborhood took on the character of neglect, of traffic, of being at the periphery, across the tracks and alongside highway ramps. This dichotomy gave rise to a further neighborhood activist group, the Friends of Jerry’s Pond (two members of which, Lewis Weitzman and John Doucet, had been part of ASG. John’s father had actually been a lifeguard at the Pit). They organized cleanups, pressed the city to invest even a fraction of what was spent in other areas of the city on landscaping around the edges, and kept their eye on the potential of the ever-more-green space. Eric Grunebaum, the head of the Friends, with his colleagues, went so far as to engage landscape architects to draft a version of the pond they dreamed of, one that would transform neglect and presumed contamination into a source of beauty, health and connection with the natural world for a population deprived of all three.

This was the second major gift of area residents to the city: a vision.

The presence of this formidable activism meant that when IQHQ came into possession of Jerry’s Pit and adjacent properties as part of a biotech land rush into the Alewife area, it was aware of needing to win over residents. Former Cambridge mayor Anthony Galluccio, brought on board to advise, had been a councillor when the Alewife Study Group organized resistance to W.R. Grace’s plans and knew how persuasive the group could be. He helped set up community meetings.

I happened to be at the first, and the transformation of mood among the 100-plus attendees was astounding.

Braced for Grace-style opacity, and with generations-long associations of the land with hazardous waste, people were, it’s safe to say, suspicious. An hour and a half later, you could feel the smiles: IQHQ had presented a plan that came close to threading the needle between ASG’s priority – disturbing as little of the soil as possible and taking every countermeasure against asbestos – and the Friends of Jerry’s Pond vision of a green space open to the public. As importantly, it signaled a commitment to openness, to green-friendly building plans such as biosolar roofs, and to a design that prioritized community connectedness.

What has followed has been a remarkably respectful and inclusive process, with weekly meetings between IQHQ and the leadership of ASG, Friends of Jerry’s Pond and Green Cambridge. It’s produced what’s now on the drawing board: a transition, finally, of Pit to Pond that incorporates priorities expressed in all those talks – up to a limit.

That limit is the $20 million resculpting proposed by Friends of Jerry’s Pond (with support from Audubon and others). IQHQ has – quite reasonably, in the Friends’ view – taken the position that such an investment in the public good should have public money behind it.

There’s none, now that the city has withdrawn the grant (or rather, redirected it to a possible pedestrian bridge over nearby commuter rail tracks, a worthy but largely unrelated project). I spoke extensively with Kathy Watkins, Cambridge’s Public Works commissioner, and she mentioned ideas that sounded promising – a mid-pond floating wetland, for example, that might provide some benefits of habitat without requiring the pond be reshaped. But there’s no commitment. “That zero dollars invested that the city touted as a win,” Eric Grunebaum says, “should be instead regarded as an absence.” The city may hesitate at a $20 million plan – but shouldn’t it show the residents of a long-overlooked neighborhood that it’s determined to invest something? 

There’s something you can do about all this. Come to PondFest from 1:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday. It’ll be a cleanup. A party. You’ll be able to see the differing plans. Form your own ideas. Speak up. There’ll be state representatives. City leaders. The IQHQ team. Bangladeshi dancers from the nearby towers. Connections to the deep history of the site, with Massachusetts tribal vice president Thomas Green demonstrating how to build a fish weir. 

There’s much to be gained by showing up. After all, it’s the residents showing up that has made possible Cambridge’s upcoming reunion with this place we’ve never known.

Greg Harris is the founding editor of the literary magazine Pangyrus and the founder and co-director of Harvard LITfest. His essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Review, Jewish Fiction, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere.