The last week of May, the sun was shining one day and the kids at Hay-Mac were running around the school playground that fronts on Purchase Street.
They were shouting and screaming the way only kids at recess can do. But the striking thing about the scene was the play area itself.
The brightly-colored red and blue equipment was an oasis in the gritty neighborhood that surrounds the Sixties-era school that sits just under Interstate 195.
On Friday, they held a dedication for a new, even better playground at Hay-Mac. It’s handicapped accessible so now all the neighborhood kids — including ones that are physically challenged — can easily use it. It has slides and monkey bars, sturdy swings and an accessible swaying seat area, all done up in a cheery navy blue and lime green.
Since they’ve improved the playgrounds at Hay-Mac, I don’t feel depressed every time I drive by. There was a time years ago when that playground, with a rusty old swing set and slide, was one of the bleakest scenes in the city.
At the dedication, the mayor was there with his traveling announcement podium and so was Pia Durkin, just days before she departs the city she never completely bonded with. Both of them have put yeoman’s effort into turning around this most struggling of New Bedford schools and it should be appreciated. While Hay-Mac is certainly not there yet, there are signs that scores and performance are starting to improve.
At the dedication, the school's dynamic new principal, Tammy Morgan, said the schoolyard is just one element in turning around, not just Hay-Mac, but the surrounding neighborhood itself. “We want our school to be a cornerstone of the community,” she said.
That, of course, is the best sense of a neighborhood elementary school — a place the area residents can use to the max, not just the classrooms but the entire facility. To get an idea what that’s like, think of activist Buddy Andrade who has long used the Gomes Elementary in the South End for a neighborhood basketball league and community events, even political debates.
Pat Sullivan of the Community Development office, says there’s more improvements coming for Hay-Mac, including a resealed basketball court, and a fence to prevent the balls from going out on busy Purchase Street. The federal government — that’s right, the much-rebuked place we pay our taxes to — has funded these important improvements in the inner city. And there’s plans for more at Hay-Mac — benches and picnic tables; and a walking track and portable soccer nets for an adjacent school field that has long been fenced off from the neighborhood. The non-functioning barren field, a true no-man’s land of a school yard, is emblematic of why Hay-Mac has so long struggled to connect with its adjacent low-income neighborhood.
Of all the troubled school buildings in New Bedford, and there are many, Hay-Mac may have been the most challenged. The 1970s school planners somehow thought it was a good idea to have its front entrance face the underpass of an elevated highway. So for the average resident of the nearby Ward 3 neighborhood, it has always appeared like there’s no way inside this building — a grade school like a fortress to its neighbors.
And yes, it’s not the only school in New Bedford where little thought was given to how important the design of a school building is to its surrounding neighborhoods. Even in a middle-class section like the far West End, the Carter-Brooks Elementary appears like a decaying light industrial building — temporary plywood, little signage or plantings, no one playing on its fields from one end of the day to the other.
And then there’s the brand new elementary school in the South End, where the building committee and the mayor let the neighborhood down by refusing to spend an extra $2 million. That relatively small amount of money would have provided the new Jacobs Elementary School with enough land to front onto Brock Avenue.
So the city spent almost $37 million for a school that is hidden from most of its own neighborhood and is short on outdoor playground space. Yes, the city is struggling with taxes but the extra $2 million over a 30-year bond would have been more than a bargain.
The otherwise first-rate Jacobs has inspiring science and technology labs, dozens of electronic pianos to encourage kids in what should be a first-rate music program. But making the actual school a visual focal point in its neighborhood would have helped the entire peninsula understand that this school is a heart beat for this section of the city.
New Bedford has made great strides understanding how important urban design is to the success of neighborhoods and to the city itself. The hurricane barrier walks, the redesigned Route 18, the trees being planted in scores of urban neighborhoods.
But we’re not there yet. In too many instances, New Bedford still thinks of itself as not good enough, not able to do things first-rate. When the truth is we really can.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times.