NEW BEDFORD — A vacant lot that once housed two historic homes in New Bedford's Abolition Row neighborhood is springing back to life with new purpose.

The City of New Bedford and the New Bedford Historical Society are creating Abolition Row Park on the site, located at the corner of Seventh and Spring Streets. An official groundbreaking took place Friday at the site, and although the morning began with some spotty raindrops, the sun began peeking out from behind the gray clouds in a sign that the future was bright for a site that was decimated by a 2009 fire.

"This is a phoenix of a site, almost literally," Mayor Jon Mitchell said at the ceremony, referencing that devastating fire. "And for a city that prides itself on historic preservation, it was something that had to be addressed and had to be turned into a positive. That's what's happened here, but it took a long time."

Abolition Row Park was a labor of love for Historical Society President Lee Blake and the rest of the organization. Blake said that once completed, the park will feature flowering plants and cherry trees, a gazebo, benches, and educational kiosks so visitors can learn about the abolitionists that lived in the neighborhood in the 19th century, including Frederick Douglass. She says there are also plans to have special events in the park.

"It'll have a nice plaza by the gazebo, so people can speak there, because we'd really like to carry on that whole oratory tradition of Frederick Douglass," Blake said. "And we are working for a Frederick Douglass statue."

State Representative Antonio Cabral, a former public school teacher, spoke about how the park can go beyond just being something nice to look at while taking a walk or enjoying a nice day.

"As an educator, I undersand the importance of giving any new space or program academic value," Rep. Cabral said. "Overall, this project is unique, but I think it's one that is fitting."

Cabral also used the opportunity to mention the connection between the slaves who came through New Bedford in the days of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionists who arrived to ferry them along, to the plight of immigrants in today's political climate.

"This is equally important for us to also understand what this community has become," he said. "The diversity of this community, the richness of this community and what makes New Bedford thrive. Some of that, yes, is the immigrants and the new immigrants that arrive here every day, every week, every year. And we want to make sure that this is a welcoming community."

Other dignitaries on hand included Su Lok of The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, which is a large benefactor to the project, as well as Jubi Headley of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which provided a $40,000 grant to help get the project started. The Demoulas Foundation and other donors have also contributed to the park's creation.

"This project talks about history, but it also takes land that isn't being used and re-energizes it, revitalizes it," Headley said.

Educational kiosks and symbols erected in the park will tell the story of New Bedford’s role in the Abolitionist Movement and the Underground Railroad. Local school children will aide in the creation of a Monarch Butterfly Pollination Highway within the park, correlating to the Underground Railroad and the city residents who created a highway to freedom.

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After addressing those in attendance, Mayor Mitchell and Representative Cabral took part in unveiling the official signage for the park, and then joined school children from Our Sisters' School and North Star Learning Center in planting the first flowers in Abolition Row Park.

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"It's beautiful to have green spaces in the inner city like this one will be, but the message that this particular green space will carry, it will be fantastic for all of us," Cabral said.

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"Places that forget their identity or neglect their history are places that aren't alive, but that's not the case here in New Bedford," Mitchell said. "We embrace our identity, we embrace our tradition and we build on it for a brighter future."

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