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Judy Waters: Public parks can play a role in democracy, and Pittsfield was on track with early investment in Clapp Park

evan miller playing violin on hilltop (copy)

Evan Miller, 12, treats Clapp Park to a tune on his violin May 20 as he overlooks his friends and siblings from the top of a hill while they play at the park’s splash pad.

Clapp Park, a West Housatonic Street landmark, was founded in 1919. Mayor Bagg donated land to Pittsfield, in memory of the Clapp family. In 1920, the park was home to Sunday “amateur” baseball games, according to a 1920 parks commission report. By the 1950s, ice skating, skiing, sledding and Easter egg hunts were popular, as was enjoyment of nature.

In 1948, the Pittsfield Parks Department first promoted purchase of “15 adjacent acres” at Clapp Park. From July 24 to Aug. 15, 1951, The Berkshire Eagle reported on the purchase; the Eagle published a map showing open space along the park’s perimeter, land previously owned by the Harding estate. Donald B. Miller, Eagle publisher, purchased the land to hold it for the city, according to the Eagle.

Proponents reasoned that “It was the last available land in that area.” Residents played a role, citing “access for South Street neighborhoods.” Despite debate, park superintendent Vincent J. Hebert saw “no reason why action should be delayed.” On Aug. 15, 1951 Pittsfield voted unanimously for the purchase. Recognized by Hebert, Donald Miller, taking a loss, sold the land to the city for the remaining funds donated by Mayor Bagg, as reported by the Eagle.

Today, residents and visitors enjoy Clapp Park’s open space areas, located just south of the main athletic track, away from Route 20 traffic. Sunlight pours through branches of trees, which, over many decades, have reached full height. Residents explore a peaceful place to observe wildlife, exercise or share a view of Berkshire and Pittsfield landscape. A field of wildflowers blooms along the Housatonic River. Neighborhoods south and east of the park enjoy access.

Nearby, families gather at a Little League diamond. Closer to West Housatonic Street, Buddy Pellerin Field draws fans. Children run through the splash pad, completed in 2021, part of a park revisioning. As in the past, Clapp Park remains central to activities for all city residents and visitors, of all ages.

Visitors to Clapp Park, and to all Pittsfield public parks, find a chance to exchange a hello, connect with the outdoors, escape isolation and experience shared landscape and community. Do parks play a role in democracy? Free and open to all, public parks contribute to diversity. Pittsfield’s annual June Pride events on the First Street Common build a legacy of inclusion. Public parks can improve community life, which is often tied to civic participation.

Influential landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, born in 1822, saw public parks as inspiring places that were open to all; that benefitted the social fabric and connected natural surroundings to community. His designs included New York’s Central Park. His work remains relevant today in our era of inequality.

Public parks represented Pittsfield’s early vision to improve the city, as documented by board of public works reports. By 1907, residents praised new sidewalks at the Common. In 1913, the city added 76 acres to Onota Lake’s Burbank Park, according to city historian George Willison. By 1920, there was a small park at the House of Mercy (now Berkshire Medical Center).

Pittsfield’s post-World War II investment in Clapp Park has benefitted generations. It is one story, of many, that continues Pittsfield’s parks legacy. According to the Trust for Public Land, parks bring a “good return on investment.” Developments in the Clapp Park neighborhood include improved access to the Housatonic River, where the Mill Street dam was removed in 2020. Pittsfield’s more recent Westside Riverway Park creates an additional river link. River access is seen as key to the city’s revitalization.

Each of the city’s parks reflects a piece of Pittsfield’s history and culture. Parks bring resident participation and community preservation. This June, Pittsfield public parks will renew summer traditions, following more than two years of pandemic life. As with the Clapp Park decision decades ago, protecting parks and access to open space remains increasingly important. Public parks face challenges. They are not a panacea, but, in 2022, as democratic values are under pressure, public parks matter.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and occasional Eagle contributor. Special thanks to the Berkshire Athenaeum for providing a source for this column.

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