Ghosts of East Boston’s Past (and Present)

Originally published at Union Park Press, December, 2010.

Alas, poor Olmsted; I knew ye well. Actually, I didn’t get a chance to know most of his parks as he designed them. By the time I was born, half of the Back Bay Fens had been filled in, the Riverway, Olmsted Park, and Jamaica Pond were suffused with car exhaust, Franklin Park had been repurposed a dozen times over (occasionally by guerilla artists), and Wood Island park had been paved over by Logan Airport. Now, according to the Boston Globe, East Boston is in the midst of a kerfuffle about a new park on Neptune Road… which used to be the entrance to Wood Island.

Take a look at the aerial view of Neptune Road and you can still see remnants of Wood Island Park left from its razing in 1967-69; fragments of an elegant tree-lined road with center islands. You’ll find some of Boston’s last surviving elms there, somehow resisting Dutch Elm Disease without the doting care lavished on the elms on the Boston Common. What you can’t see is the neighborhood that used to be there, which was destroyed along with the park. The story of the neighborhood’s demise (including removal of several families by U.S. marshalls) is detailed at Open Media Boston and Looking Backward.

Now, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) wants to build a new small “buffer park” along Neptune Road by the Wood Island T stop.  The site is the size of city block, and is bordered by Bennington Street (and the Route 1A elevated highway) Vienna Street, Frankfort Street… and Martin Forgione, resident of sole remaining house in the neighborhood at 406 Frankfort Street. The Globe quoted Mr. Forgione as saying this at a December 7 Massport meeting in East Boston:

“You walk down my street now, you’ll find condoms, sometimes you find syringes. I’ve had vagrants sleeping across the street from me for weeks,” he said. “You’ve got two pathways going through that area [in the plan for the site]. What do you think is going to happen in a couple of weeks? I’ll have every dog in East Boston. I’ll have everyone that wants a picnic. I have it now.”

Ignore for a moment Mr. Forgione’s questionable assertion that having a formally managed park next door would be less desirable than the vacant lot he has now. Take a look at him in the Globe’s picture; he’s old enough to remember the neighborhood before Massport took it apart. Heck, most toddlers could remember some of it; Massport demolished the last Neptune Street house in 2008. You can see the video here or below.

Why on earth should Mr. Forgione trust Massport? Why should he think that Massport wants anything other than to force him out of his home? It would be a hard sell even if Massport hadn’t taken down all his neighbors’ houses. And clearly, Mr. Forgione—and East Boston—have plenty of problems an isolated park sandwiched between an elevated highway and airport parking lots won’t solve. A glimpse of Wood Island’s remnant elms will only go so far.

One East Boston problem a park *could* solve is how East Boston residents could travel between Bremen Street Park and Constitution Beach without risking life, limb, and equanimity on busy Bennington Street. Massport had talked with East Boston residents about a connecting greenway, known as the Northern Service Area Edge Buffer, that would use some airport land—a plan supported by many residents. On November 30, Massport held a meeting with East Boston residents and reveled the Neptune Road connector as an alternative to that connector, according to the East Boston Times-Free Press.

Now, instead of a network connecting East Boston’s parks, the neighborhood might get a teeny tiny isolated parkette that could possibly one day connect to a path to the ball field a block away. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that path, though;  one resident of the next street to the east, Laura Modica, was quoted as saying, “I don’t want people in my backyard… I’ve got people wandering around there now, as it is.”  Between Modica and Forgione’s comments, it sounds like there are a lot of people in East Boston looking for somewhere to go.

What can Massport do? Its past behavior—up through 2008—certainly doesn’t make the Wood Island neighbors trust them. And Massport will always be tempted to stop discussion with vague post-9/11 “security concerns” if anyone suggests that East Boston could use Massport land—which is exactly what Lowell Richards, chief development officer for Massport, did at the December 7 meeting, according to the Globe.

Two neighbors have given the opinion they’d rather have vagrants wandering through their yards than let Massport build a park next to their houses. If I were a Massport public relations staffer, I’d think long and hard about what Massport is trying to achieve in East Boston, and why. Massport has budgeted $2.8 million for the Northern Service Area Edge Buffer in 2010-12, according to the FY2010-14 Capital Program dated on May 20, 2010. It would be nice if Massport could spend it giving East Boston a connection between two popular parks, instead of just making Mr. Forgione feel even more isolated. He’s suffered enough.

Gardens for Everyone

Originally posted at Union Park Press.

When you think about going outdoors in New England, it’s easy to imagine strapping on hiking boots and clambering up the stunted piles of rocks Yankees call “mountains,” leaping over burbling brooks, or chucking boots, pants, and skivvies altogether and rushing into the frigid ocean waves. But some people never get the opportunity to do that. A granite curb can look like a mountain if you’re in a wheelchair, and beaches are made of quicksand when you’re on wheels. How can you get outside, even to a park, when there are obstacles everywhere you go?

You get rid of the obstacles. For example, the Fenway Special Needs Garden was recently re-dedicated to service as a community garden. The Northeastern University student chapter of American Society of Civil Engineers (NUASCE) first built this accessible garden of wheelchair-level beds in Boston’s Fenway Victory Gardens in 1999, and refurbished it last summer; you can see pictures of the process on the NUASCE web site. It isn’t the only accessible garden around; there are wheelchair-level raised beds at the Fresh Pond Community Garden at Neville Place in Cambridge, for example. But the Fenway Victory Gardens are on display to thousands of tourists who stroll through the place every year. The Special Needs Garden gives passers-by an opportunity to see that people with physical challenges can get outside and tend a garden.

For people with limited sight, there’s the Pappas Horticultural Center at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown. Students can enjoy the scent and touch of plants, and raise specimens for the school’s annual flower show. As the Perkins site puts it, “…children who often must depend on others gain pride and self-esteem from taking care of another living thing.”

Of course, sometimes children don’t want to care for another living thing; sometimes they just want to mess around and play. There are two wheelchair-accessible playgrounds in Boston: Mission Hill and Harambee Park. Beyond Boston, there is an accessible treehouse at the Institute for Developmental Disabilities in Assonet. You can get to the top of a treehouse even if you can’t walk. Imagine how that must feel for someone who is almost always sitting down.

As for those quicksand beaches; check out the “swimming, sand and sunbathing beach wheelchairs” available at Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) swimming spots and parks. They won’t warm up the water for you—or make skinny-dipping legal, alas—but they will let people who cannot walk get to the water, and borrowing them is free for the asking.

There are obstacles to getting to Boston’s green space if you cannot walk or see, but if we think about it, there are methods to conquering them. The trick is to actually think about the obstacles—and the people who just need a way to get around them.