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The Greening of Boston

It’s hard to believe, but the Esplanade, celebrating its 100th year, was once panned as a visual dud. Is there a lesson in that for today’s Greenway debate?

(Department of Conservation And Recreation Archives)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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As the sun set on July 4, 1910, pleasure craft bobbed between the Harvard and Longfellow bridges, and thousands of Bostonians gathered on the banks of the newly dammed Charles River, in anticipation of a fireworks display billed as bigger than anything that had been shot off over Boston Common in previous years.

Streaks of color lit up the night sky for two hours over the region’s newest park, prompting the Globe to declare that “no program was ever given by the city where so much was enjoyed.’’

Tonight, a century later, hundreds of thousands will gather along the same park — then called the Boston Embankment, and now known as the Esplanade — to celebrate the nation’s birthday with a time-honored blend of fireworks, cannon blasts, and the music of the Boston Pops.

Today, the Esplanade is widely considered one of Boston’s great treasures, a ribbon of green extending for 3 miles between the shimmer of the Charles and the bustle of the city. It draws millions of residents and tourists a year, an inviting place to walk, run, or rest along the water.

But that same park, despite the success of its inaugural fireworks display, was deemed a disappointment in its early years. It lacked shade trees, recreation facilities, and refreshment stands, and it seemed to go nowhere. The lack of visitors was lamented by Boston’s mayor, John F. “Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald, who considered it a failure. “Instead of being able to count the people using the [Esplanade] on the fingers of one hand,’’ he lamented, “the count should be by the thousands.’’

Now, a century later, a new Boston park is the subject of similar criticism and hand-wringing. This long, narrow stretch of green, also criticized for its lack of shade and amenities and its sparse attendance, is named for Honey Fitz’s daughter: the Rose Kennedy Greenway.

The Esplanade, like the Greenway, was clearly an improvement to Boston’s cityscape. Before the damming of the Charles in 1910, the river receded twice a day to reveal fetid mud flats, polluted by the runoff of sewers, slaughterhouses, and upstream factories.

The Brahmins who populated Beacon Street’s red-brick row had a love-hate relationship with the Charles. It was a backyard feature to be admired during high tide, but it was shunned at low tide and avoided especially in the summer, when the mud flats cooked in the sun.

A succession of dreamers and civic leaders imagined that the tidal flats might be flooded and improved, the river lined by more than the back alley of Beacon Street. The movement gained momentum at the turn of the century, and the Legislature authorized a massive public works project to dam the Charles, permanently flood the mud flats, and create a park on the banks for the benefit of the masses.

The result, completed by the state on June 30, 1910, proved an engineering marvel but a visual dud. The Charles River, swelled by the dam and bracketed by new seawalls, was derided as a vast, uninteresting bathtub.

The early Esplanade was a 2-mile-long sidewalk lined with grass and scattered shrubs, above a granite seawall and below the service entrances of Beacon Street. The only break in the seawall served the Union Boat Club, not the public. The park lacked amenities and petered out beyond Massachusetts Avenue. It was far from the “crowning glory of our great park system’’ that Metropolitan Park Commissioner Joshua B. Holden had promised during construction.

Still, it was not a total failure. Some businessmen extended their commutes to walk the river. Families strolled after church in Sunday finery. And on the hottest nights, West Enders sought refuge from their stifling tenement apartments on the embankment, even sleeping overnight on the grass.

But civic leaders found it lacking, and the park was vacant for hours and even days at a time.

A succession of improvements helped, including tree planting, a concert series, and the erection of a refreshment pavilion. But the park remained a magnet for criticism through much of the 1920s.

After the death of James J. Storrow, an investment banker and philanthropist who had championed the dam and park project at the turn of the century, his widow let it be known that she would donate $1 million to improve the lagging Esplanade, if the government matched it with comprehensive planning and investment.

The resulting $4 million project concluded in 1936 and gave the park playgrounds and plazas, beaches and boat landings, designed by leading landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff. Known as the Storrow Memorial Embankment, it became widely known as the Esplanade and was widely considered a success. It included a broad lawn for Arthur Fiedler’s summer concerts and a niche for the first public sailing program in the country, Community Boating.

The years of riverside bliss that followed were jarred by a fierce Beacon Hill battle over a plan to pave a highway along the Charles and over the Esplanade, to serve midcentury commuters (and voters) who were moving to the suburbs.

In a concession, the Legislature allowed the parkland eliminated by the road project to be rebuilt on fill on the other side of the new Storrow Drive, hiring Shurcliff, now approaching 80, for the design. The result enhanced his 1930s plan with an expanded lagoon, multiple paths, and a series of footbridges, albeit separated from the city by the six lanes of Storrow Drive.

“In some ways, this design is even more appealing than the original,’’ said Linda M. Cox, a longtime Esplanade advocate and cofounder of the Esplanade Association, a friends-of-the-park organization. “But what’s been lost is the intimate connection with the neighborhood.’’

The same postwar era that produced Storrow Drive led to creation of the Central Artery, also known as the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway, an elevated interstate highway slashing through downtown Boston. The Greenway, the park that replaced the rat-friendly shadows of that elevated highway, officially opened on Oct. 4, 2008, after nearly two decades of sometimes-conflicting, often-lacking state, local, and private planning about what should fill the space created by plunging the Central Artery underground.

Along the way, the Greenway became bundled with expectations that it would knit together the neighborhoods and the harbor disconnected by the highway, and that it would stand as one of the greatest urban parks built anywhere in a century. What opened instead was a work in progress, a partially finished canvas of concrete and grass that has been a touchstone for civic debate.

“The folks at the state, going years back — I’m talking about a decade — promised Disneyworld and the Champs Élysées, and for those of us on the conservancy who made no such promises, I think it was oversold,’’ said Peter Meade, the former Blue Cross Blue Shield executive who is chairman of the Greenway Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the state-owned Greenway and raises money to enhance it.

Meade defends today’s Greenway, saying its earliest critics — some of whom derided the park as the world’s most expensive median strip — need to revisit to see not just the new landscaping, but also the children playing in the Rings Fountain, the vendors peddling creative fare, and the weekday farmers’ markets that draw office workers from the Financial District. Up next, according to conservancy executive director Nancy Brennan: wireless Internet access, more benches and other furniture, and more programs.

“If you look at anything that Olmsted wrote, parks are always evolving; they’re always becoming is the word I think he used,’’ Meade said. “The Esplanade didn’t come with the Hatch Shell, it didn’t come with Community Boating. The Common didn’t come with playing fields and tennis courts. And Franklin Park didn’t come with the zoo and the golf course. All of these things take some time.’’

On the Greenway last Sunday, children lined up to ride a carousel, skipped through the fountain, and played on the grass.

“It’s so convenient, and the grass is like perfect,’’ said Serge Duchesne, 37, a Montreal tourist who discovered the park while making his way to a hotel near Faneuil Hall and who played there with his girlfriend and 2-year-old son.

Yet the next Greenway section over was vacant, a “Please curb your dog/children play in this grass’’ sign standing out against an empty lawn across from the Boston Harbor Hotel.

The Greenway is a chain of pocket parks, and they are unevenly used. In one, a group of women lazed in a loose circle near High Street, but the four parcels nearest to South Station were occupied only by pigeons and Greenway Conservancy groundskeepers.

The grass between Haymarket and the North End was so empty that Amy and Gabriel Villablanca of London hesitated before sitting on it, wondering if doing so was allowed. But the couple, both 25 and living in Boston temporarily, said they have come to treasure the Greenway, and not understand why it is so sporadically used.

“I quite like this spot here, because the water drowns out the sound of the traffic,’’ Amy said.

By contrast, on that same warm day on the Esplanade, the grass was full and the paths packed. Every bend along the Charles revealed more people: picnickers tossing a Frisbee by the Hatch Shell; girls in bikinis staring at their smartphones on a shared blanket near the Fiedler footbridge; a group of middle-aged Japanese tourists resting on a bench, one sipping a tall can of Budweiser. Kayaks and gondolas plied the waters of the intimate lagoons, and sailboats and Duck Tours crisscrossed the broad river beyond them.

“I love it here. I go running and I just go to relax and sit under trees,’’ said Hillary Hall, 29, who works for a financial firm and was strolling along a paved path with the pink parasol she had picked up during a vacation to Florence. “I like the water, and I like the open spaces. I think it’s good for your brain and your overall well-being.’’

Three dozen people shared the first dock downstream from the Harvard Bridge.

“We call this ‘street beach,’ ’’ said Roc Hargrove, 27, a software project manager from Cambridge who bikes over regularly to meet friends there. “This is kind of our favorite spot, to watch the boats and the pretty girls,’’ he said.

Like several others interviewed, Hargrove had not even considered visiting the Greenway. “I don’t even know what the Greenway is,’’ he said. “Wait, is that the new like — where is that?’’

And Rob Perry — a 35-year-old restaurant worker who walks the Esplanade daily, often with his nose in a paperback — said he prefers the Esplanade because of the shade and the water.

“The breeze on the water reminds me of home,’’ said Perry, a Cape Cod native. As for the Greenway, he said, “the more they develop it, the more user-friendly it’ll be. Right now it’s still out in the blazing sun. There’s no trees or anything.’’

Karl Haglund, the author of “Inventing the Charles River,’’ said it took generations for the goal of visionaries like Storrow and Charles Eliot, a 19th Century landscape architect, to be realized with the Esplanade.

The Esplanade is now “absolutely at the heart of the understanding that Boston residents have of their city,’’ Haglund said. “I would expect the Greenway to go through a future very much like the Esplanade . . . that it will go through a series of changes over decades, in the same way that the Esplanade has. I would say that the Esplanade ought to be a positive role model for the Greenway, that it does take time to create a landscape and a program agenda that satisfies the residents and the people who come to the park.’’

But the Greenway will also have to find its own way, looking to the Esplanade as an inspiration, but not necessarily a model, parks officials say.

“I don’t know that I’ve got any advice for them,’’ said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the Esplanade. “But I do think, to be fair, we’ve had a century to get it right.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.

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