The Other River

Overshadowed by the lauded Charles, the Mystic is Boston’s lesser known river — but does that mean it should be less valued too?

Taylor Driscoll, Ali Dusinberre, Ellie MacLean, Chrystelle Tan

Once notorious for its industrial eyesores and low water quality, the Mystic River has recently transformed into a strong contender for Boston’s most prominent river. Flowing seven miles from the Lower Mystic Lake, the Mystic River travels through the communities of East Boston, Chelsea, Charlestown, Everett, Medford, Somerville and Arlington. Just as the Mystic has shaped each of these communities, the people who live along the water have shaped the river as well. Through expansive conservation efforts and dedicated activism, it has become an increasingly accessible and important aspect of daily life for Boston-area residents.

The Mystic River and Mystic Lakes earned A-range grades on the EPA 2018 Water Quality Report Card for the fifth year in a row, which means that the water is safe for boating. “On a normal, dry day, it’s likely to be excellent water quality, so you should feel as free to boat on the Mystic River as you are to boat on the Charles,” said Andy Hyrcyna, watershed scientist for the Mystic River Watershed Association, or MyRWA.
Encore Boston Harbor, a luxury resort and casino in Everett. Encore partnered with local conservation groups and put almost $70 million toward supporting the river before the casino opened in June, including building a living shoreline advocated for by the Mystic Watershed Association. “Encore was great, but their initial plan was to have just a concrete seawall,” said Erica Wood, communications and outreach manager at the MyRWA. “Our organization actually advocated for them to build what's called a living shoreline, basically a reconstructed salt marsh.”
Some green spaces for recreational use exist along the Mystic — but not enough. One of the MyRWA’s current priorities is expanding those spaces and making the river more attractive and accessible.
Hyrcyna said one major problem with the Mystic is that its public spaces are not well connected. “Along the Charles, you can get on a bike and bike from Harvard Square to Newton and back, and stay on a bike path,” he said. “You can't do that along the Mystic.” The organization's goal is to change that.
“We're working with state partners, municipal partners and private donors to make those public spaces, to invest in them and connect them,” Hyrcyna said. He and his colleagues hope that one day, the parks and public spaces along the Mystic will be as widely enjoyed as those of the Charles.
The Malden River Greenway in Malden. One major project the MyRWA is undergoing involves the Malden River. MyRWA partnered with Friends of the Malden River, a local conservation organization, to improve greenspaces and expand public access.“This is symbolic of how the recreational space is nice, but it's not inviting,” said Karen Buck, president of Friends of the Malden River, explaining that having waterway access creates a sense of ownership in citizens that subsequently develops widespread environmentalism.
President of Friends of the Malden River, Karen Buck, standing in front of a portion of trash she collected as part of her expansive efforts to clean the Malden River. Buck says her intention is to create a more inviting river. “A lot of neighborhoods are cut off from the river by industry, or by the T. Symbolically, they're literally on the other side of the tracks,” she said, elaborating on the fact that the most accessible and well taken parts of waterway greenspaces are primarily accessible to neighborhoods that are mostly wealthy and white.
Litter in the Mystic River. One of the main reasons that conservationists continue to fight for improved greenways is to foster a greater sense of environmentalism. "A lot of people don't know—a lot of Maldonians don't even know—that the Malden River exists… I would say that people would take better care of the river if they had access to it, because they own it at that point. And that ownership creates better stewardship, " Buck said.
An illustration of what the Malden River could become. Malden River Works is a coalition of community leaders of color, youth, environmental advocates, and government officials focused on improving the Malden River's recreational spaces, wildlife habitats and flooding resiliency. The Malden River Works was formed after winning the first ever Norman B. Leventhal City Prize, a grant for equitable resilience from the MIT Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism. "We had a public meeting on October 21, and over 100 people attended, and a lot of that came from having a very diverse steering committee," Buck said. "We handed out a survey in a multitude of different languages asking people what they'd like to see on the river and for some feedback."
A handmade sign created by Malden River Works, situated behind the factories that line the Malden River. "In addition to more accessibility, we have to show the potential of the river in order to create this desire for people, for normal people, to improve the system." Buck said. "The industries that own the land are supposed to maintain it, but they just don't. And the trash that ends up along what is supposed to be the greenspaces is unbelievable, and no one is going to walk here because of it."

Produced by students of the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2019