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Lawrence Harmon

A park that is the muscle and bone of the city

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / May 5, 2010

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WHILE THE city’s movers and shakers try to breathe life into the downtown Rose Kennedy Greenway, Bostonians are living it up in another linear park — the roughly 4 mile-long Southwest Corridor Park — that runs from Forest Hills to Back Bay. It’s a nice stretch that suits urban gardeners, dog walkers, bicycle commuters, and kids eager to escape the confines of abutting housing projects.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the park’s official opening. But most activists mark the 1972 decision by former Governor Frank Sargent to cancel construction of a multilane highway through the area. The highway was meant to connect the urban core of Boston with the southwest suburbs. Instead, it united Greater Bostonians in opposition to the I-95 extension.

The Southwest Corridor is a backyard for thousands of Bostonians. In his recent analysis of what is wrong with the barren Rose Kennedy Greenway, architecture critic Robert Campbell wrote in the Globe that “people actually living, not just visiting, is what makes a great public space.’’ Only then, he wrote, can a linear park become “tissue of the city.’’ The Southwest Corridor Park, however, is not just tissue. It’s muscle and bone.

Many of the city’s leading politicians and activists — Barney Frank, Ann Hershfang, Mel King, Byron Rushing, and Fred Salvucci — honed their reputations in the 1960s struggle against the Southwest Corridor highway. The antihighway activists steamrolled the transportation bigwigs of the day with precise research and data. That approach — surly and scholarly — has become the Boston standard for resisting overreaching developers.

The Southwest Corridor Park is three distinct, but connected entities. The eastern section that runs through the South End is a garden corridor with nicely-trimmed hedges, butterfly gardens, and beautiful punctuation marks like the red bud tree in West Rutland Square. The western section reflects the civic-minded residents of Jamaica Plain, who understand political clout. During the past two years, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation has spent more than $1 million to construct four new playgrounds and upgrade a skating rink in this section. The central section in lower Roxbury attracts many children and young adults to its basketball and tennis courts. It’s a little shabby in parts, but it should benefit soon from upgraded lighting and new programs, including outdoor movies, according to DCR commissioner Rick Sullivan.

“We’re trying to do equitable improvements,’’ he said.

Volunteers along the corridor make up for erratic state funding. In 1990, there were 13 state workers dedicated to the upkeep of the park. Today, there are four. The volunteer effort picked up steam in 2004 with the formation of the nonprofit Southwest Corridor Park Conservancy. Unlike the Greenway Conservancy, which uses paid staffers, the Southwest effort is strictly a labor of love. Dan d’Heilly, one of the volunteer directors, was examining cracks in concrete bulkheads above the Orange Line tracks and counting missing basketball rims along the corridor on a recent morning. He’s big on both accountability and Web design. That’s why you can go to the group’s website and click on any of 24 South End plots along the corridor to find out the name of the volunteer who tends it and their wish list for improvements.

The conservancy’s biggest fear is the corridor’s faulty irrigation system. Many sections of pipe are closed off. There is enough water for the spray parks and 12 community gardens, said Sullivan. But nature will need to cooperate to sustain the vegetation along the way.

“The corridor is two droughts away from collapse,’’ said Franco Campanello, a South End resident and president of the conservancy. These days, the weapon of choice along the corridor is a garden hose.

The people responsible for the success of the Southwest Corridor are as much old combat buddies as do-gooders. That’s visible in the plaque at Roxbury Crossing that features a photograph of a railroad embankment marked with “People Before Highways’’ in huge letters. About 100 heroes of the 1960s antihighway movement are listed there.

The Rose Kennedy Greenway is part of Boston’s highway history, too. It owes its creation to the depression of the Central Artery. But it is still looking for its homegrown heroes.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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