It looks like something out of a modernistic Alice in Wonderland: the entrance to the German Gerena Elementary School in Springfield’s North End as you see it from Main Street. Murals in bright blue and other primary colors frame the doorway to the tunnel that runs under Birnie Avenue, but there is no sign bearing the school’s name.
The murals seem to frame an enigma. Indeed, there is an enigma connected with the school, and in particular with that entrance to it.
Why was the school built where it was, and as it was?
Gerena School, now 40 years old, is located in the heavily Latino North End of Springfield; 80 percent of the children who attend it are Latino, 11 percent are black. The New North Citizens Council also maintains an extended day care center for preschoolers in the building. In the past, a few rooms offered space for community activities, but damage from flooding left them unusable.
The school is situated in an old industrial area that was the site of metalworking, automotive and other polluting businesses for much of the twentieth century. Several of those industrial properties were sold to the Springfield Redevelopment Authority in the 1960s, then transferred to the city as one parcel; in 1972, Gerena School was built on a part of that site.
A legal complaint filed by the city of Springfield in 1999 against one allegedly polluting industry stated that petroleum, lead, arsenic and PCBs had been found on the site where Gerena School and nearby Chestnut Middle School are located today. In the 40 years since Gerena was built, as Latinos and African Americans have secured positions of leadership in the city, questions of environmental racism have taken on an historic rather than a contemporary coloring—yet it’s hard to imagine that a school would have been sited as Gerena was in a predominantly white section of the city.
A metalworking plant, boasting a tidy, well maintained exterior but reminiscent of the neighborhood’s past, is still in operation within view of the rear of the school. Also nearby is the Materials Recycling Facility, the place to which paper, glass, metal and plastic from Valley households’ blue recycling bins are trucked for sorting. The school sits near major transport arteries; Rte. 91 runs above the eastern part of the tunnel leading into it from Main Street, and a working railroad track runs over the western part of the tunnel, near the exit to the rear of Gerena and to its close neighbor, Chestnut Middle School. The roadways and tracks create barriers—and hazards—for children walking into the school, and for adults using its entrance tunnel as a connector between Main and Plainfield streets.
And, according to a state report from 2005, “Because the original building design of the air intakes [in Gerena] did not take into account the exhausts from the highways, diesel fumes were being drawn into the building.” (The air quality in the building has since been improved.)
But of most concern to parents, teachers and others in the North End and beyond is the fact that the school, which stands not far from the Connecticut River, was built under the water table, and, state records note, “interrupts an underground stream.” It also receives runoff from the roads nearby. Pumps operate at Gerena 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
All that pumping represents not only a vast expenditure of energy and the money energy costs, but a risk. What if a storm brings in water and takes out the electricity that runs the pumps at the same time?
What if it happens when students—small, elementary-age youngsters—are in the lower level, where not only the entry tunnel but other school facilities are situated?
The worst hasn’t happened yet, but there has been flooding in the past. And staff and children have had trouble with respiratory problems aggravated by dampness and mold in the building.
Though many residents in the neighborhood did not speak English, it’s impossible to imagine that Gerena School was sited in the early 1970s without a dissenting voice from someone. A longtime North End resident who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Advocate, “The neighbors were against it. Why do you put a school by railroad tracks and the highway?”
Neighbors weren’t the only ones who asked that question. So did then-city councilor Paul Sears. “I told them it was crazy,” Sears told the Advocate in a telephone interview. “It cost so much, and the kids would be under water.” Sears said he could foresee “all the situation that’s going on now from the point of mildew and mold. It was insane, next to the railroad track and under the highway.”
But he said he did not know whose idea it was to build the school under the water table.
When a water main on Birnie Avenue ruptured in 1994, 2.5 million gallons of water surged into Gerena School. Six years later, when a broken pipe covered the ground floor with six inches of water in January, 2000, water seeped onto the lower level, where the Main Street entrance is located.
And in a memo to the Massachusetts School Building Authority last January, Patrick Sullivan, director of Springfield’s Department of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management, provided this ominous description of the building’s liabilities:
“Portions of the school building are only accessible by walking through ‘tunnels,’ and consequently, when the pumping stations do not work, then water seeps in to the building through the walls and up through the floors … Loss of the groundwater pumps (by whatever means) means that the tunnel will become flooded and unusable. Of particular concern is the loss of electrical power to the groundwater pumps, which has occurred surprisingly frequently this past year. … Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene was especially troubling, since the connector to the school needed to remain open, but the possibility of tunnel flooding could have jeopardized people in the tunnel if that had occurred; luckily nothing happened.”
Luckily indeed; imagine first-graders in a tunnel with a hurricane surge and groundwater pumps not functioning. Among the upgrades on Sullivan’s wish list was a special emergency generator for the pumps. The memo continues:
“Water, and the accompanying moisture in the air, has accelerated the deterioration of many of the surface mounted fixtures within the tunnel areas, and has increased repairs of all metal based items. Many items that have been attached to the walls or the ceilings have had their attachments rusted away, and have had to be resupported.”
The school’s situation has been not only hazardous but costly. Over the last 10 years the city has spent upwards of $4 million for the repairs on those mounted fixtures, and to clean the air circulation system, replace pipes, paint water-stained walls and replace the roof. But water still stands in the tunnel after heavy rains, sometimes for days, and large water stains can be seen on some walls. Many people don’t believe the school is safe, or that it’s healthy for children prone to respiratory illnesses.
Early this year people from the North End began a movement, called Al Rescate de la Escuela Gerena/Save Our School, to get Gerena the repairs it needed, and to have the work done by local contractors so the money spent on the school would go back into the community. In February, under the auspices of the North End Organizing Network (NEON), they held a bilingual public meeting to air their demands for improvements to the school. The meeting, organized by NEON staffers Jasmin Torrejon and Destry Sibley—both of whom are fluent in Spanish and English— was attended by a dozen elected officials and generated much positive energy at the time and afterward. But once North End residents began following through by contacting the officials to ask for specific support, complaints from those who didn’t like receiving calls and e-mails began to have a chilling effect, sources told the Advocate.
In the spring, Torrejon and Sibley were laid off by NEON’s parent organization, the North End Campus Coalition, a Baystate Health-funded umbrella agency whose fiscal agent is the New North Citizens Council. Torrejon and Sibley, citing a confidentiality agreement, would not discuss the circumstances surrounding their layoff. Vanessa Otero, director of the Campus Coalition, which organizes community outreach programs for the neighborhood that includes Gerena School, was Torrejon’s and Sibley’s superior at the time; the Advocate asked her why the two women were laid off. Otero would only say that she could not discuss the dismissal because “there was an agreement that was made… It was a decision that needed to be made based on what was happening at the time.” As to Torrejon’s and Sibley’s excellent performance in organizing a meeting that generated such a strong rally of community interest, Otero said, “That’s what I would have expected from them, being the workers and the organizers that they are.”
The community members working to get the school repaired later regrouped as Voces de la Comunidad/ Voices of the Community and are now pursuing the Gerena improvement project again; Torrejon and Sibley are still involved as volunteers, busy, among other things, with conducting a survey to determine what neighborhood residents want in the way of community space in the building. And Voces’ website serves as a bulletin board and megaphone for everything from political issues to cultural events and a variety of matters of interest to the Latino community.
Can the school be made safe? “Personally, I think a new school would be a better option,” Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, state representative for the 10th Hampden District, which includes the neighborhood where Gerena School is located, told the Springfield Republican, “but the community has made it clear that they want to keep this school, and they want it repaired.”
But Antonette Pepe, a former Gerena employee and a member of Springfield’s School Committee who pulls no punches in controversial discussions, believes it can.
“If you’d asked me this question 13 or 15 years ago, my answer might have been different,” she told the Advocate. “But Pat Sullivan has taken over facilities management, and he found how the water was coming in.”
Patrick Sullivan, head of Springfield’s Department of Parks, Buildings and Recreation Management for five years now—a short time in a city with a heavy backlog of deferred maintenance—is the man on whom the hopes of those who want to see improvements at Gerena depend. On October 4, Sullivan, determined, optimistic and to all appearances unwearied, presented his plans for the building at a meeting at the school that was attended by representatives of the city, North End community leaders, neighborhood residents and representatives of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is studying air quality at Gerena. He explained that much of the water that permeates the building “is not from the water table. That’s not to say we don’t have water table issues.”
Water, he said, leaks from the abutments on Rte. 91, and through a rubber membrane under Birnie Avenue. More water leaks from the railroad track into the ceiling over the western part of the tunnel. Major excavation, he explained, is needed to replace the membrane under Birnie Avenue and eliminate the other leaks from the transportation infrastructure. The state Department of Transportation is helping to monitor the Rte. 91 overpass for leaks, which will have to be eliminated. Repairing the leaks in the tunnel, he estimates, will cost $3 million.
During the presentation, an elderly neighbor challenged Sullivan. “Make this building safe?” he demanded. “You can’t do it. I’m worried about the kids.”
“So am I,” Sullivan rejoined. “We’re going to fight for money to keep the kids safe and make this building usable.” Sullivan pointed out that updates to equipment have improved the air quality in the school. “When I started five years ago, I could not stay in this building more than 10 minutes. I have asthma,” he said. “Now I can stay in it all day without a problem.”
As for the all-important pumps that keep the building from being waterlogged during wet weather and when there are heavy washes from the roads and tracks, Sullivan told the Advocate that the school has not yet gotten the emergency generator he hoped for, but that the pumps are functioning well now. “We do monthly maintenance. We’ve upgraded five to six of them during the past year,” he said.
Meanwhile the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition and the city, prodded by concerned North End residents, have drawn in the EPA to study air quality at the school and make recommendations that will, in the words of EPA State Assistance Programs coordinator George Frantz, help the city get “the most bang for the buck” as it seeks grants for repair and improvement projects.
It will take a determined effort by the North End community to prod and support the city by turns as it seeks money and know-how to upgrade Gerena in an era of shrinking resources. But there is determination in the North End.
Jose Rosario, a Cumberland Street resident, has a son who attended Gerena when he was in the fifth grade. Rosario no longer has children at Gerena, but he is one of the 50 or 60 members of Voices of the Community/Voces de la Comunidad. He vividly recalls what the school building was like when his son was a student. “Oh, my God, I saw the floor wet,” he told the Advocate. “The air smelled bad. It was heavy. There would be problems with the lights and the tunnel would be dark.” Does he believe the building can be made safe and healthy for children? “Little by little, I think, yes,” he said, “because they are committed to fixing it.”
Why is Rosario still active on the issue though he no longer has family members at the school? “Because,” he said, “it’s not just about my son. This is a really important building for us because it allows us to get from one side [of the neighborhood] to the other. On this side you have the health clinic, the Section 8 office. On the other side is the hospital, the grocery store, the post office. You need to be able to cross. It’s about our whole community. It’s about our future, and that’s what we’re fighting for day by day.”•