Frederick Law Olmsted, Hermann Grundel, and the Remaining Back Bay Fens

(I originally posted this article at Union Park Press.)

By now, anyone who actually cares about Boston’s 19th-century park design has already read Justin Martin’s article “A Body of Water so Foul” about Frederick Law Olmsted and the Back Bay Fens. For those of you who don’t care, or can no longer read articles longer than 140 characters due to a nervous Twitter habit, here’s the 139-character summary: thanks to poor drainage due to filling in salt marshes, the Back Bay smelled very bad by 1878. Frederick Law Olmsted cleaned it up. Yippee!

Back Bay Fens ca. 1887—Harvard GSD/LOC

Back Bay Fens in need of tidying up, 1887—Harvard GSD/LOC

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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.