EAST PROVIDENCE — While the firing of City Manager Peter Graczykowski drew the most headlines, the decision of the East Providence City Council to keep Rose Larisa Memorial Park in Riverside named as is at its meeting Tuesday night, Nov. 5, generated the most discussion during the evening.
The Council voted against a resolution presented by Ward 3 representative Tommy Rose by a narrow 3-2 count. Ward 4’s Chrissy Rossi, who represents the Riverside area, and At-Large Councilor Tracy Capobianco, who resides in Riverside, joined Council President and Ward 1 rep James Briden in the negative. Mr. Rose and Ward 2’s Helder Cunha supported the resolution, which called for the location to be renamed Crescent Park.
The roots of the issue stem back to a decision a former City Council made back in January of 2002, when it decreed the 10.6 parcel adjacent to Narraganset Bay be named Rose Larisa Memorial Park in honor of the deceased community activist who joined a group of concerned citizens in spearheading a movement to keep the land in the hands of the public.
Mrs. Larisa, who passed in 1999, along with five others — Gail Durfee, Jobelle Aguiar, Richard Lund, Linda McEntee and Robin Peacock — were at the forefront of acquiring the land where the Looff Carousel sits as well as where the Shore Dinner Hall once rested.
As is often the case in these kinds of matters, the devil is in the proverbial details of who and how events came to pass.
Mrs. Larisa’s son, Joe, just so happened to be the City Council President at the time of the naming decision. He was part of the majority in the 4-1 vote to name the park after his mother.
Tuesday, Mr. Larisa spoke in opposition to the name change, saying he did so with “great sadness and disappointment.” He also urged the Council to “respect, defend and protect the integrity of memorials of the city.”
In two separate comments to the current Council, Mr. Larisa defended the original decision by his Council and termed his mother as the “person most responsible” for saving the land now known as Rose Larisa Park.
Mr. Larisa said she, with significant help from Mrs. Durfee, drove the effort to seek state, federal and private funds necessary to purchase the land and keep it out of the hands of developers. In supporting his stance, he also read a letter penned by Mrs. Durfee in 2002 backing the decision to honor his mother.
“I beseech you,” Mr. Larisa said to the Council, “not to undo history.”
The Council didn’t, despite the prodding of Ms. McEntee and Ms. Aguiar as well as the daughter and grandson of Mrs. Durfee among others.
Ms. McEntee told the Council “it wasn’t just one person or five or six people” who helped save the carousel and dinner hall from developers. She said it was a community effort.
Like Mr. Larisa, Ms. McEntee took to the podium twice Tuesday, the second time countering a claim made by the former Council president that his mother had led the fight for some six acres of bayside land to remain accessible to the public. Ms. McEntee stated the original agreement to preserve the signed by the group of five residents called for 7.9 acres of land adjacent to the water be kept available to all.
Other claims and counterclaims were made by those for and against the name change.
Ms. Aguiar said most of the community had no knowledge on the Council’s impending decision to recognize Mrs. Larisa back in 2002. She said the move was done “after midnight” after most had left the meeting. If they had known, she continued, they “would have been there.”
Ms. Aguiar added, “I don’t care what’s on a rock. I’ll always call it Crescent Park.”
Ms. McEntee, in reference to a sentiment her name and that of the four other notable activists be recognized in a more significant way, said, “We’re not fighting for a plaque or a statue. We’re fighting for Crescent Park.”
Said Karen Bodell, the daughter of Mrs. Durfee who only passed away in the summer of this year, “Speaking on behalf of my mother, she wanted it to be named Crescent Park.”
Some members of the public to speak in opposition to the name change included Tom Riley, the Canvassing Commission chairman who is often vocal on other city matters, and former Council President Bruce Rogers. Both called a possible change “disrespectful.” Mr. Riley said “to bring it up now doesn’t feel proper” and that the matter should have been decided back in 2002.
In voicing her opposition, Mrs. Rossi said she felt a name change would be like “stealing from the dead” and that it “didn’t sit well” with her. Mrs. Capobianco expressed similar sentiment while noting her opposition. Mr. Briden, who was a former City Solicitor of East Providence while Mr. Larisa led the Council, did not make a comment explaining his opposition.
Mr. Rose, who initiated the discussion with the resolution, said all he and supporters of the name change were trying to do was “right a wrong.” He added, “No disrespect to Rose Larisa, but there were many other people involved in saving the park and carousel.”
Mr. Cunha simply stated he did not support or believe in naming memorials after people while noting he would vote in favor of the name change.
— Photos by Alex Watrous