Tales of a wild place: On summer Sunday, people reflect on Springside Park's unmet potential

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PITTSFIELD — This critter wasn't in the brochure.

The white chicken that ran in front of Amy Baczek and her dog Samson in Springside Park isn't one of the species listed in a handy pamphlet about the urban tract.

Wrens and orioles, yes.

"A chicken? In Springside Park?" Baczek asked. Samson was surprised as well.

"I had to jump on him, he was so intent on it," she said of her dog's pursuit of the chicken, which got away, minus a few feathers.

That's one of the stories people shared Sunday about a place that's offered a call of the wild in the heart of Pittsfield to generations of residents for over a century, on high ground northeast of downtown.

Sometimes, too wild. In April, young people carrying BB guns threatened others in the park. A parent, Breanna Santiago, told The Eagle her 8-year-old daughter had a BB gun pressed to her face and thought the weapon was real.

"She's having nightmares, saying 'Mommy I can still feel the gun on my face,'" Santiago said. Groups of teens numbering from 20 to 40 were said to be prowling the more than 230-acre tract and harassing people.

Though the park offers a rare amenity to the city, and is home to popular and well-used areas, questions about its safety bedevil Springside, which appears to dampen wider public use.

But at the same time, allies are stepping forward. Work supported by a roughly $45,000 donation from Mill Town Capital continues this summer to improve trails, trail markings and stream crossings.

Caroline Holland, a managing director for Mill Town, said youth members of the Greenagers group have been working since July 1 on the project, which includes construction of kiosks that will help direct people to use of park trails.

"They're not complete with all their work, but they're making progress," Holland said of the Greenagers crew.

The area is a maze of trails, some popular with mountain bikers. Others lead to remote areas, including camps set up by people without homes. One such camp sits not far from where umpires call "play ball" for Little League games.

And since the 1960s, members of Friends of Springside Park have convened regular park cleanups. The group has long advocated to keep the park a "natural resource for the enjoyment of all people," according to a brochure. That work includes maintenance throughout the area as well as cultural programming.

Even so, public concern about what happens deep within the park — at least when the place isn't buzzing with visitors, as it does Tuesday night for mountain bike races — may keep people away.

John Martin walked in Sunday from the North Street side with his daughter and his boxer-pitbull mix, following a route he took years ago as a child. They stopped at what may be the park's oldest playground, with one structure shaped like a centipede and another like a snail. Martin remembers playing on the centipede. Its sentimental appeal has limits.

"It would be cool if they built a new playground up here," Martin said. "I never really see many people out here. They could make it nice, really do something with it."

Not so nice is drug use in the park, and the camp sites of homeless people, he says, gesturing east across an empty ballfield towards a distant treeline.

On Sunday, Baczek saw a young male deer, with budding antlers, in a meadow. But she's also come across empty bags of heroin and, near Rotary Park off Springside Avenue, a syringe.

"They're empty, luckily," she said of the bags.

Big but hidden

Over the years, people who live on nearby streets have found ways to make the park their own — like Martin and Baczek, both of whom come with their dogs.

Despite its size, the irregularly shaped park has limited frontage on city streets, since it only reaches a short stretch of Benedict Road to the east and never touches Crane Avenue to the north.

Linda Pope was standing Sunday inside an open air garden enclosure at the Hebert Arboretum, located near the Springside House off North Street.

These well-tended grounds, part of a former private mansion, are what most newcomers first see of Springside Park — and it's impressive.

Past the teaching gardens and up a rise, a view opens to hills south across downtown Pittsfield. A grove of red spruce lies thick with fallen needles and cones, beside the park's "Lilac Walk," now in the off-season. From here, paths twist away heading into the park.

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Martin remembers good times, as a kid, playing at the pond along Springside Avenue. Today, that pond is choked with cattails, producing only a trickle of water across a stone spillway.

Frog patrol

But that was plenty of water for Isabella Wick and her little brother Antonio, who goes by "Boo-boo." There were in full Huck Finn mode Sunday afternoon, barefoot and toting a white plastic bucket that by day's end held several frogs.

"They love coming here," said Saboorah Vargas of Pittsfield, a family friend. "They come every weekend and they don't like to leave."

Isabella Wick, 10, scouted the frog lair with net in hand, passing up the chance to collect the remains of crayfish littering one boundary marked by raccoon prints.

"We just call it `the pond,'" Wick said, when asked for her nickname for the place. Aside from all the vegetation in the former pond, this spot is one of the best-tended in the park, with freshly cut lawn to the west, including an expanse with an open-sided structure housing tables and benches.

Vargas' father, Larry Jones, shot videos of the mud-splattered kids with his phone and took pleasure in hinting of creatures that lay unseen, perhaps thinking of his adult daughter's snake phobia.

"Daddy, stop scaring them!" Vargas said.

Over several hours Sunday, the busiest place in Springside seemed to be Rotary Park, a well-equipped playground near the corner of Springside Avenue and Grove Street.

Michelle Porter was sitting with a friend, Erin Manson, as children played around them.

That playground is about as far, however, as Porter will venture into Springside.

"This is the best part of it," she said of the park. "I haven't been up there for a while."

By that she means the woods on the other side of the Little League field, home to one of the places people without homes camp.

The April incidents involving BB gun attacks fed Manson's fears.

"That's questionable," she said, when asked if she views the park as safe. "I don't exactly want to take my 5-year-old and my 2-year-old to a park where someone's going to shoot a BB gun at them."

At the same time, she appreciates the fact that the park's wildness provides a natural refuge close to the city. She'd like any future management to respect that value. "Not over-develop it," she said.

But on a sunny day with temperatures in the 70s, Manson was delighted to be at the edge of the wild.

"I just stopped working on Sundays. So this is a treat for me to be in the park," she said.

Amanda Obert watched her 3-year-old son, Jeremias Ramos, toggle between the play area for toddlers at Rotary Park and the structures for older children, clutching a stick in one hand and a Sheriff Woody figure from the "Toy Story" movie franchise in the other.

Obert said she feels safe in the playground, especially when the nearby field is active. "When there's a game here, there's a lot of cars." She was aware of the BB gun incidents.

"It's pretty scary, the stuff that goes on nowadays," Obert said.

While a small building offers toilets at Rotary Park, the doors were locked Sunday. People said the facilities had been vandalized.

"Which ruins it for everybody, which seems to be what happens around here," said Bernie Potts, visiting the playground with his toddler daughter, Sadie.

"To be able to count on citizens to not vandalize the city's property seems like a high expectation," he said.

Like others interviewed Sunday, Potts said the sprawling park could see increased use, but that would take a change in public perceptions of its safety. "When I tell people I come to Springside Park, they say, `Oh, that park?' It's a nice area. It would be a real shame to have people be afraid to come here."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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