The Hillside Beach situation 

Let’s take a look under the proverbial hood shall we 

The story of Hillside Beach is a complicated one, full of the minutiae of environmental regulations and zoning and planning and public housing policy and grant applications, but it’s an important one. It’s instructive of the way that racism and classism manifest themselves in the mechanisms of city government. I’m going to try to report this one with less of the traditional sass and ranting and raving and a little bit more of the explaining, because I think this whole situation deserves a proper in-depth look, and it hasn’t gotten one. 

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The upshot is that residents of the Lakeside Apartments could have a great and well-maintained beach right in their backyard, an amenity which would benefit the children who live there immensely, as I’m sure you can imagine. Instead, the city is well on its way to getting rid of the beach all together by reforesting it and paving over it with a path and boardwalk in Columbus Park. 

First, what in the hell is Hillside Beach?

Hillside Beach is a small beach on Coes Pond directly next to the Lakeside Apartments, a public housing project managed by the Worcester Housing Authority. The beach hasn’t been maintained by the city in decades. Instead, there are a handful of signs warning that the beach is closed and that swimming is prohibited. There’s a steep drop-off in the water, one sign warns. “The water depth changes abruptly.” Signs saying not to swim of course have always famously prevented people from swimming, something to keep in mind throughout this. 

The beach is easily accessed by two paths: one coming from Coes Park on Mill Street and one coming from Circuit Ave. The beach is not, however, easily accessed from the Lakeside Apartments, another thing to keep in mind. The apartment complex is fenced in, and two gates that would allow residents to access the beach and the path from the beach to Coes Park are locked by heavy chains. The Worcester Housing Authority at one point many years ago promised Lakeside residents a key to the gates, I’m told, but never made good on that promise. To access the park or the beach residents have to walk one of two ways that are a whole hell of a lot longer than simply walking through a gate. 

The residents of this housing complex skew lower on the socioeconomic spectrum than the city as a whole, which is sort of like a ‘duh’ thing to point out, I know, but it needs to be kept in mind throughout this story. 

Tonight the project to replace the beach with a boardwalk got the final green light it needed. The Conservation Commission unanimously voted to allow the project to continue, even after about a dozen residents called for more time for community input. I live-tweeted the meeting, which you can read by clicking through right down here.

At a Council meeting last week, Councilor Khrystian King motioned to delay the Conservation Commission hearing that took place today, also calling for more time for community input on the project. The council shot the motion down by a 2-8 vote. Only Councilor Sarai Rivera voted with King to delay the hearing. 

At the meeting, City Manager Ed Augustus Jr. said there “really is nothing to stop this project” and that he “would like to see the process continue to move forward.” The council has already given him authorization to take out loans for the construction costs and the grant applications, he said. The grant is also a key detail in this story, by the way, but I’m getting there. But now, a bit more about this project that would effectively remove the beach. 

In a memo to the City Council, a Department of Public Works official outlines a cost of $5.5 million to make the beach safe, a cost which involves the creation of an access road, a building for storage and bathrooms, and regrading the slope of the beach so that there is no more sudden drop-off in the water. I’m just some guy, I’m not an expert in these things, but it seems to me that the road and the pool house are pretty unnecessary. I’ve been to plenty of beaches that don’t have either. By comparison, the project which would get rid of the beach costs only $1 million. The memo also details that the beach would have to be significantly reduced in size to make room for wetlands, which brings us to our next aspect in this story.

By law, the city is required to replace wetlands it removed to make improvements to a dam on Coes Pond next to Coes Park some years ago. The way the environmental law works is if you take away X amount of wetlands you need to find location Y on the same body of water to replace them. The city has chosen Hillside Beach as their location Y, a move which to them gets two birds stoned at once. They get rid of a beach they haven’t been maintaining for decades, and they satisfy the requirements of environmental law. But for the Lakeside Apartments residents you can imagine how it looks a little different. It looks a lot like the city is taking away their beach, and they’re right about that. That’s what the city is doing. 

It should be noted there are three other places on Coes Pond the city could replace wetlands. Those three potential wetland locations add up to about 5,000 square feet. Hillside Beach is about 6,000.

The city’s perspective on the issue is that the beach is not safe and as such is a liability. It’s on city property, after all. There have been at least three drownings at the beach. A six-year-old boy from Webster drowned at the beach in 2007, and after that the Hillside Beach gates were locked for good. At the time, as detailed in a Telegram story, residents complained that the city should make the beach safer instead of closing it, and city officials said it’d be too expensive to make the beach safe, and at the time they said it would cost a million dollars, and hmm, adjusting for inflation, is $1 million in 2007 money $5 million in 2020 money? No, it would be $1.2 million, at least that’s what an online calculator tells me. Also, it seems to me the issue is the steep drop-off, which is about 25 feet out. Give me a Home Depot gift card and a six-pack and I can fix that problem right quick with some rope and foam buoys. 

Two other drownings, one in 2017 and one in 2020, have also been reported. Information on those incidents is less available, but it seems they were adults, not children. 

Budgets are moral documents, after all. We don’t have $5 million for a beach that would benefit a group of our city’s poorer and more diverse families, but we can come up with $5 million for other things pretty damn quick, can’t we? 

So this project, which would create a walking path past the ghost of Hillside Beach and through Columbus Park, is a significantly cheaper project if the DPW’s estimate is to be believed. The path project is only $1.2 million, and the city is only responsible for paying $800,000 of it. The other $400,000 is coming from a state grant that the city successfully obtained in no small part because Columbus Park and Hillside Beach are in what government people call an “environmental justice neighborhood” which means mostly it is poorer and more diverse than the city as a whole. Take a look at this little handy graphic here. 

What you’re looking at here is census data outlining what neighborhoods qualify as the sort of Environmental Justice Populations that allow the city to qualify for the grant. The blue parts are the ones that really qualify. They are diverse, low income and non-English-speaking overall. That little patch of blue in between the yellow there is the Lakeside Apartments and a few other blocks that are all in easy walking distance of Hillside Beach. Basically, the city got this grant to remove the beach because of the very people who are most likely to use the beach. Great!

Nelly Medina, a Lakeside Apartments resident active in organizing around the Hillside Beach issue, said the majority of Lakeside Apartments residents want to keep the beach. She said the city has not paid much attention at all to what that community would like or need. 

“It’s really disheartening to continue to say that it’s dangerous and they’re doing it for our own good when they won’t even talk to us,” she told me. 

The city has maintained that the Lakeside folks can just walk over to Binienda Beach down the street if they want to swim so badly. Though there are sidewalks along Mill Street, the walk isn't necessarily the safest. Mill Street is a busy, two-lane street and people drive it very fast. Children swimming at a beach where the water gets deep more quickly than your average beach, and children walking a quarter mile on a road where people routinely drive 60 miles per hour, that’s something of a wash as far as safety goes if you ask me. 

Insult to injury, Medina said, is the fact they got this grant to get rid of the beach because of the people who use the beach. 

“This is just a cut and dry situation,” she said. “There’s plans and promises that were made on our backs and we didn’t know about it.”

I thought this was a good quote also. 

“This I can’t walk away from because it’s happening in my backyard and it’s so emotional and it’s not right.”

In a memo to the City Council, Augustus said the Worcester Housing Authority is prepared to unlock the gates once the project is complete—once there’s no more beach and no reason for the gates to be locked in the first place. The WHA made that promise to the City Manager, and I bet they’ll keep it. The promise they made to their own residents about a key to the gate locks, however…

You may be thinking so what, it’s just a beach. Understandable. And there is one right down the road, albeit a dangerous road, especially for young children. But this comes back to what I was talking about in the first paragraph about the way that racism and classism factor into the decisions a city government makes. The value judgments city officials made in this instance are made in a whole lot of instances all the time. 

Even way back when they made the decision to shutter the beach, the call was it just wasn’t worth it. It would cost too much money to make the amenity safe, so just put up some signs warning people not to go in, lock the gate to the nearby housing development, and let fate handle the rest. If the city truly valued the input of the residents who want this beach, and saw the beach as something that added value to the city, they may have over the course of the past few decades put together a plan to make the beach happen. They didn’t. The money went to other things. No small part of it went to economic development incentives that make the city more expensive to live in for the folks who use the beach. The project itself can easily be seen as an effort to “clean up” a property that city officials feel is “blighted.” It is not blight, however, to the nearby residents.

And this isn’t the first time the city has demonstrated a disregard for access to swimming and recreation for working class Worcester residents. The issue of Hillside Beach is one easily connected to the community pools, which were systematically shuttered and demolished in the late 2000s. The city went from eight pools to one, which still exists at Crompton Park. Seven, at Holmes Field, University Park, Beaver Brook Park, East Park, Kendrick Field, South Worcester Playground and Tacoma Street Playground respectively, were demolished at a cost of $1.1 million in 2009.

So yes, Hillside Beach is dangerous, perhaps more so than your average beach, though there’s been no effort made to get rid of the beaches at Lake Quinsigamond or Bell Pond, where drownings also routinely occur, and since the late 2000s there’s been fewer and fewer places to swim for city youth.

What I’m saying is the beach could have been made less dangerous. It could have been preserved as a resource for the community and adequately staffed. Instead it was left in disrepair for decades with a few warning signs that amount to ‘swim at your own risk,’ and it remained, in that state, a resource for the nearby community, albeit a more dangerous one than it could have been. City officials are quick to call the beach dangerous and slow to acknowledge that the Lakeside Apartment folks still use it and appreciate it.

At the end of the day, it’s an issue of equity. This beach is not getting replaced with another beach. A boardwalk is not a suitable replacement if you were to ask any of the families at Lakeside. I for one would be pissed if my beach got replaced with a boardwalk. And if we’re being real, I’d probably still try to swim there but I am also very dumb.

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If you pay attention to Worcester city politics you may have noticed there’s been a ton of stuff about the cops in the past few days, and don’t worry, I’m getting to it all :-). For now, read this absolutely outstanding piece from Brad Petrishen over at the Telegram about all the racist incidents the police department has investigated despite the chief saying he’s never seen an instance of racism in his department. I talk a lot of shit on the local press but I can’t hold a candle to the work Brad does; he is a true treasure to have in this city and what we in the biz like to call a real deal muckraker. The story is only available to subscribers so you’ll have to figure out a way to read it. Definitely don’t message me or email me for advice on how to do that I definitely won’t tell you how to do that.

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