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The Hartford Courant

It Took A Village To Build This Park

By Bessy Reyna

July 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

At 10 p.m. on July 10, I sat at a Mexican restaurant in Willimantic, surrounded by friends who live there. The conversation was a lively blend of Spanish and English with occasional bursts of enthusiasm that reached other customers. I noticed them turning to look and smiling as if in agreement. They might have heard us talk about the importance of voting and community organizing and the arts, which are major concerns for my hosts, activist Juan Manuel Perez, Eastern Connecticut State University Art Professor Imna Arroyo and Selectman Yoly Negron.

They are long-time residents of Willimantic who don't just live in the city. They love it. I asked them to tell me five good things about Willimantic. That simple request evoked a torrent of responses. They praised a theater group housed in a former bank; the arts magnet school that is developing; the vibrancy of Eastern Connecticut State University; the all-volunteer Third Thursday Street Festival. It is presented May to October with multiple stages resonating with sounds of merengue, folk or rhythm and blues; with local restaurants and churches providing ethnic food; and with more than 80 vendors and organizers providing fun and safe programs for all ages.

Just last month an estimated 5,000 people came to enjoy this festival.

Another source of Willimantic pride, which these three and scores more had a hand in creating, is the Julia de Burgos Park at Jackson Street and Terry Avenue.

Some years ago, in a conversation about what could be done with the land there that was covered with the decaying ruins of a 1988 fire and situated in the middle of an otherwise vibrant neighborhood, Juan Perez and Sandy Taylor, of Curbstone Press, came up with the quixotic dream of establishing a park.

What separates Willimantic from many communities are the many people working together to transform such dreams into realities. Susan Johnson, who was a member of the board of selectman and the Natchaug-Willimantic Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, wrote the resolution for the town council to approve a grant, and the NRZ became the umbrella organization for the park project. Johnson was delighted with the many levels of participation in making this park a reality. "The phenomenal thing was that every single level of government was involved, from the federal [through the Quinebaug-Shetucket Heritage Corridor Inc., which administers federal funds] to state [through the NRZs] to local [board of selectmen]. Individuals donated money and labor, and Paula Stahl donated the design."

Stahl, a University of Connecticut student of landscape architecture, designed a mini-amphitheater with a brick circular performance area and a semi-circle of tiered walls serving as steps and seating. The rest of the park is a manicured lawn with a few trees and benches and a flowering shrub border.

Not many towns in the United States have a park named after a poet. Julia de Burgos was a revered poet whose work was virtually unknown outside Puerto Rico until the recent bilingual publication of "Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos." Edited and translated by poet Jack Agueros, it's published by Curbstone Press, which is another source of Willimantic pride and located across the street from the park.

Since the September 2001 opening of the park, hundreds of people have attended programs, and I and other writers have had the wonderful experience of presenting our work to the very diverse Willimantic audience. As I performed in the twice-monthly summer poetry and music series, the tantalizing aroma of dinners cooking in nearby homes would waft by. I could see people walking to the park carrying lawn chairs and families lounging on blankets or sitting by the picnic table.

There were books for sale, and the children who played in the park kept the ice cream vendor very busy.

I had been in Willimantic for five hours on that beautiful summer night without hearing a police siren or seeing anyone whose appearance might intimidate or concern me.

The Willimantic I experienced and learned more about at dinner was very different from the image of the heroin town I had been reading about.

I hope more people will go to Willimantic, enjoy a meal at one of the many ethnic restaurants and visit that park. It was built with the love of the entire village.

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