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Hidden in plain sight

Fenway offers landmarks, culture, and play spaces all within arm's reach

Northeastern University's West Village residence; The Elephant Walk serves French-Cambodian food; The Gardner Museum is from other centuries. Northeastern University's West Village residence; The Elephant Walk serves French-Cambodian food; The Gardner Museum is from other centuries. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff (1,2); David Ryan/Globe Staff (3))
By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / March 29, 2009
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Pardon the Fenway neighborhood for feeling a little unappreciated.

It is often confused with the ballpark of the same name, where Boston's most famous franchise plays. Then there's The Fenway, a road that loops through the area and borders an open space called the Back Bay Fens. This muddies the waters even more, which is fitting given that the Muddy River flows through the Fens. The neighborhood doesn't even rate its own name; the city designates it the Fenway/Kenmore district.

"In some ways, the Fenway is Boston's secret little neighborhood," said Michael Ross, who has represented it on the City Council for nearly 10 years. "You might not even notice it if you're not looking for it."

Like its more upscale neighbor, the Back Bay, the Fenway came about when the city used landfill to claim a swampy tidal area. The process began in the 1880s, and institutions both new and established took advantage of the real estate that surrounded the then-pastoral Fens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted as part of Boston's Emerald Necklace of parks.

The Fenway begins where the Back Bay leaves off, at Massachusetts Avenue, and contains some of the city's landmark cultural, medical, and academic institutions: Symphony Hall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard Medical School, Children's Hospital, Northeastern University, and the Boston Latin School.

It also has plenty of sports history, both as the site of namesake Fenway Park, which opened in 1912, and as the place where the Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics all played their first home games - about 1 1/2 miles from the ballpark. The first-ever World Series game was played in 1903 at the Huntington Avenue Grounds, home of the Sox from 1901 to 1911. Boston Arena, now called Matthews Arena and home to Northeastern teams, hosted the Bruins from 1924 through 1928, when Boston Garden opened. The Celtics debuted at Boston Arena in 1946.

You can find a statue of baseball's winningest pitcher, Cy Young, in front of Northeastern's Churchill Hall, positioned about where the pitcher's mound was on the old diamond. Young threw the first perfect game here in 1904.

Most people venture to the Fenway from spring to September to watch the Red Sox, and that trip often includes Kenmore Square, the gateway to the ballpark.

Boston University has spearheaded the effort to scrub up the formerly grimy crossroads, and the shining example is the Hotel Commonwealth, which opened in 2003 and earned accolades for its accommodations and its restaurants, the pub-style Eastern Standard and the upscale seafood room, Great Bay.

A short stroll up Beacon Street sits one of three area locations for the Elephant Walk restaurant, which boasts a popular French-Cambodian menu and a Sunday brunch bargain. The three-course prix fixe menu is $19.95 and includes an appetizer, salad or soup, and a main course, along with orange juice, mimosa, or coffee.

If you've only read descriptions of the green of the Fenway field and want to see for yourself, the best bet is a ballpark tour, since the team has sold out every home game since May 15, 2003, and tickets are scarce. Tours are conducted hourly from the Souvenir Shop on Yawkey Way.

Ed Carpenter, a tour guide for the past four years, talked about a young man from India who gazed over the field from the right-field roof and murmured, "This is my cathedral." Carpenter asked where he developed such strong feelings for Fenway.

"My best friend growing up was a Yankee fan," he replied. "And that meant I had to be a Red Sox fan."

"People get it," said Carpenter. "Our first tour stop is on the fourth level at the State Street Pavilion, and as we walk up I tell them, you're gonna get the 'wow' view. And it never fails - more than half the people get up there and say 'wow.' "

Across Lansdowne Street from the stadium's Green Monster is the House of Blues, which inherited the space occupied by Avalon. The latest incarnation of the music club chain got off to a rollicking start last month, with the hometown Dropkick Murphys playing six sold-out shows around St. Patrick's Day. The famed Gospel Brunch is slated to

return this summer.

A short distance from Fenway Park's clamor, you enter an area of three- and four-story walkups known as the West Fenway.

"There are days when you could be in the West Fenway and not know there's a ballgame going on a block away," said Ross. "It's somewhat tucked away, a little bit of an enclave."

Marc Percuoco, 36, a Norwell native, attended nearby Wentworth Institute of Technology and lived on Queensberry Street for 10 years. After four years away, he recently returned and works as a bartender at Church, a music club and restaurant on Kilmarnock Street in the West Fens.

"The Fenway has improved tremendously since I left," said Percuoco. "The 10-foot space between the apartments and the sidewalk used to be dirt. They've put a lot of care into the neighborhood."

Church schedules a heavy rotation of live music, including national acts such as the Ting Tings. The Emergenza Festival returns Tuesday for four nights, with eight bands per show.

At the end of Kilmarnock Street is Park Drive, and the Fens. More than just open space, it includes the Fenway Victory Gardens, planted in 1942 as part of the war effort, and Roberto Clemente Field. Across the way is Simmons College, which straddles Avenue Louis Pasteur with Emmanuel College.

Emmanuel, founded in 1919 as the first Roman Catholic women's college in New England, has benefited from a partnership with Merck, and it's impossible to miss the gleaming 12-story lab building that opened in 2004 on campus. Since brokering a $50 million, 75-year lease with the pharmaceutical company, Emmanuel has begun admitting men and has more than tripled its enrollment.

Simmons has also built on its legacy as a women's college founded in 1899. It just opened one of the first green college buildings in the area. Its $17 million, five-story School of Management and Academic Building, designed to be 38 percent more efficient than a typical building of its size, allows the college to consolidate all its schools on one campus.

A bit farther down Avenue Louis Pasteur is the Boston Latin School, the oldest school in the United States, having been founded in 1635. The current building dates to 1921, with an addition in 2000. Part of school lore is that Harvard was founded so that Latin's first graduates would have a college to attend. Alas, Benjamin Franklin was a dropout.

Harvard is represented in glorious fashion at the avenue's end, where it meets Longwood Avenue. Harvard Medical School was founded in 1782, third-oldest in the country, and it moved to this "great white quadrangle" of five marble buildings and a center quad in 1906. It was No. 1 in the latest US News & World Report rankings.

Northeastern had a goal: to crack the top 100 in the US News college ratings, and it embarked on a decade-long quest in the mid-1990s. It became more selective, strengthened its faculty, and spent more than $400 million on buildings and campus enhancements. It climbed to No. 98 in 2006.

Nowhere is NU's transformation more striking than in the area of Centennial Common, just down Leon Street off Huntington Avenue. This circle was created for NU's 100th anniversary in 1998, and many of the buildings surrounding it have sprung up in the past 15 years.

The Museum of Fine Arts began in 1876 on the site of what is now the Copley Plaza Hotel in the Back Bay, and moved to Huntington Avenue in 1909. Its centennial finds it in the midst of a $500 million expansion and renovation, which started with last summer's reopening of its entrance on The Fenway after 30 years. The dramatic entry, with 36-foot-tall Ionic columns and a pair of 8-foot, 1 1/2-ton bronze baby heads called "Day and Night" by artist Antonio López García, allows museumgoers to connect with the neighborhood at the museum's back door.

A few blocks down Huntington Avenue at Smith Street is the Squealing Pig, a bar-restaurant that manages just the right blend of whimsy and comfort food, washed down with a choice from more than 100 beers. Their Tuscan fries, with parmesan cheese, porcini, and black truffle oil, are a must.

Long known as one of Boston's most beautiful spots, the Gardner Museum's courtyard remains an idyllic setting for contemplation. The Gardner came into being in 1903 as one of the first buildings on the Fens, the vision of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Lately, reminders of what is missing - 13 priceless works stolen in March 1990, some of whose empty frames still hang - have overshadowed the 2,500 works that remain.

Fittingly for an early Fenway resident, Gardner was an avid Red Sox fan. When the Sox won the 1912 World Series, she created a stir by attending the symphony wearing a headband on which she had written "Oh, you Red Sox!" In a nod to her allegiance, anyone wearing a Red Sox-branded item gets $2 off their admission to the Gardner.

And if you're named Isabella? You get in free - for life.

Ron Driscoll can be reached at rdriscoll@globe.com.

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