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New bridge paves way to slice of city

Brown students take a standard route to neighboring Fox Point. Walk down Brook Street, maybe stop at Bagel Gourmet, wonder if anyone ever shops at the "Lion's Eye." And then the buck usually stops at Wickenden Street. Rarely do students walk beyond the hardwood warmth of the Coffee Exchange or the stick-to-your-shoes dance floor at Fish Co., a little down the road.

But past these familiar Fox Point haunts, on the other side of Interstate-195, lies an 18-acre park as steeped in history as the University itself. And now thanks to a brand-new bridge off the southern end of East Street that opened last week, nearby India Point Park feels even closer to home for Fox Point and College Hill residents.

In September 2005, the wobbly, 34-year old, eight-foot wide version of the bridge was demolished. It was dangerous, forcing travelers to "walk under two highway underpasses with broken glass and pigeons," said Marjorie Powning, co-chair of Friends of India Point Park, a community group that works to improve and maintain the park.

For the Friends of India Point Park, preserving the park's beauty is crucial to the city's aesthetics and economics.

In "The Creation of India Point Park," a 2002 essay, author Francis Betancourt wrote India Point was a major Atlantic trading post in 1680 and earned its name in the late 18th century as a result of John and Francis Brown's successful trade with the East Indies producing "a booming waterfront."

In 1974, the scrapyard and shipping docks at India Point were transformed into the park - Providence's only expansive shorefront public property.

Until it was converted into an official city park, India Point was peppered with small, industrial operations. Clam gatherers, steel workers and sailors docked in and out of Narragansett Bay, with India Point Park as a nexus. Today, the park is a recreational ground that hosts the city's Mexican Soccer League games. Powning said the games often draw as many as a thousand spectators over the course of the weekend.

On the west end of the park, the docks house the Providence Community Boating branch that Powning praised for "bringing in inner-city kids and teaching them sailing and orienteering."

The 14.5-mile East Bay Bike path finishes at India Point Park, where a newly paved concrete underpass was just opened for bicyclists. Still under construction is a 50-foot-wide bike lane on the aging Washington Bridge, which takes I-195 travelers to East Providence over the Seekonk River. Currently, bikers who commute to work by the bridge must navigate narrow lanes, right beside whizzing cars. David Riley, the other co-chair of Friends Of India Point Park, said when the bridge is renovated, most likely within three years, the entire south side will be transformed into a continuation of the East Bay Bike Path. The path will exist as a "linear park," similar to the current India Point Park Bridge, adorned with grass and flowers, and away from motor vehicles. When completed the state's three major bike paths - the other two being the Washington Secondary Bike Path and the Blackstone Bike - will all intersect at the park, Riley said.

One of the longest standing political debates in the area, on both the state and local levels, has concerned the future of the now-defunct Shooters night club, which stands at the head of Narragansett Bay on the west-end of India Point Park. Bought out by the state in 2000, contractors are angling to build condominium high-rises while community activists like Riley and Powning lobby for low-rise waterfront-themed development, which they argue would be more sensible.

"This view is seen by 10 million travelers a year going to Cape Cod ­­- not including commuters," Riley told The Herald. "Tourism is the second-highest industry in the state."

In June, Mayor David Ciccilline '83 and the city of Providence hosted a neighborhood charrette at which residents voiced their ideas about the Shooters land parcel. The overwhelming public response was to keep the land public and develop a marina or waterfront restaurant, which would add to the prosperity of the area without blocking the view of the Bay.

In Providence, the capital city of the Ocean State, Powning lamented, "you can't find an affordable place to sit by the waterfront and eat fried clams."

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