Parks, Lost and Found—Land&People

Who would have thought my shrivel'd heart Could have recovered greenness?"–George Herbert, "The Flower," 1633

Those who dream the dream of the East Boston Greenway envision a three-and-a-half-mile-long green ribbon through the heart of this beleaguered neighborhood–a linear park that will wind its way from a breathtaking new park on Boston Harbor to the spacious beauty of Belle Isle Marsh, a 275-acre remnant of the extensive salt marshes that once surrounded Boston.

Connecting existing parks with a landscaped path would enhance any community, but for East Boston activists, dreams represent far more than green space. Over the past 30 years, parks have figured promi- nently in East Boston's bitter history and in its continuing fight for survival. In the midst of this intensely urban and industrial neighborhood, visions of trees and grass have expressed a stubborn hope. And when the first half-mile of the greenway opens in summer 2001 in a reclaimed railroad corridor, it will mark another milestone in the neighborhood's long struggle to recover greenness.

East Boston is a working-class community that lies across the harbor from the rest of the city–squeezed between the oil tank farms on Chelsea Creek and the overwhelming presence of Logan Airport, fragmented by harbor tunnels, and crisscrossed by elevated highways. Since the 1840s, East Boston has provided a first home for successive waves of immigrants, most recently for new arrivals from Brazil, Vietnam, and Central America. Over the past 70 years, this neighborhood has endured devastating and repeated assaults in the name of progress.

Nothing caused deeper trauma than the destruction of Wood Island Park in the 1960s to make way for airport expansion. That event, says Mary Ellen Welch, a truly dauntless East Boston activist and founding member of the East Boston Greenway Council, is what galvanized community opposition to the airport and what continues to fuel neighborhood activism more than three decades later.

"To East Boston people, 'remember Wood Island Park' is like 'remember the Alamo,'" Welch explains. "It's a war cry. You don't let it happen again. It means we'll do whatever we can to maintain our physical integrity and stop airport expansion."

The Taking of Wood Island Park

Designed by the father of American landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, and opened in 1898, Wood Island Park was East Boston's green heart. On hot summer days, families headed for its cool breezes, leaving the baking asphalt and crowded three-deckers behind as soon as they entered Neptune Road–a parkway of stately elms Olmsted had designed as the approach to the park entrance. The 46-acre park at the harbor's edge had something for any taste in rest and recreation–shady woodlands, bright beaches, tennis courts, ballfields, a running track, a bathhouse, an outdoor gymnasium space for exercise classes, and picnicking areas where neighborhood people rushed early on Saturday morning to stake out a space for the entire weekend. For older residents who recently took part in an oral history of East Boston, idyllic days at Wood Island Park rank among their happiest memories of growing up. Had it survived, Wood Island Park would no doubt be considered a national treasure, standing with New York's Central Park and Boston's Emerald Necklace as part of Olmsted's enduring legacy.

The worst thing about the loss was the brutal way the Massachusetts Port Authority–known locally as Massport–the public authority that runs the airport, came to claim the land ceded to it by the legislature, which included part of the Neptune Road parkway as well as the park itself. Early on the morning of April 23, 1969, without notice, Massport officials rolled onto Neptune Road like a blitzkrieg with bulldozers, a phalanx of state police, and a troop of chainsaw operators, who began toppling several dozen of the massive elms before residents could pour into the streets to try to stop them. One of the news photos taken that day shows state troopers standing shoulder to shoulder across Neptune Road, where a snow fence has been stretched to hold back a crowd that looks on helplessly.

Fred Salvucci, who manned East Boston's Little City Hall back then for Mayor Kevin White and later went on to become the state's secretary of transportation, also tried to stop the Massport invasion, which he describes as an act of "terror" against the neighborhood. At the time, the city was challenging the taking of the end of Neptune Road in court, but that didn't stop Massport's infamous director Ed King. "It was like a military operation. They came in with 36 men with chainsaws and massacred 36 trees in five minutes. It was terrible. I still get angry today when I think about it," Salvucci says, as he gazes out at what is left of Neptune Road. "This used to be the most prestigious street in East Boston."

Today the houses that once lined Neptune Road are gone–demolished or moved from the end of a noisy runway to a less deafening location–but a remnant of Olmsted's parkway and the alley of elms remain. Curiously, while most of Boston's elms succumbed long ago to Dutch elm disease, these trees have stubbornly endured to bear witness to what has been lost.

To Mary Ellen Welch, whose roots in East Boston go back six generations, and many others, the lesson of that day was absolutely clear. "You either fight for your community or you'll be annihilated." And from the very beginning, the struggle to regain parks has been as central to the fight for survival as the never-ending battle to contain airport expansion.

The Long Fight for Green Space

"Because we lost Wood Island Park, people were more determined than ever to get every bit of open space converted into parkland," Welch explains. "Most houses have no front yard. When you step out the door, you step onto the sidewalk. We need green space to recreate, and to soften the hard concrete environment. We need plants and trees to clean the air."

The systematic fight for more parkland began in the late 1960s, according to Edith G. De Angelis, another dedicated veteran of this campaign. In her initial research, De Angelis discovered that East Boston had far fewer park and recreation facilities than other neighborhoods in the city. Then Welch, De Angelis, and other neighborhood activists, armed with maps from the city redevelopment authority, began a walking survey of the entire neighborhood. The aim was to identify all areas that could conceivably become parks and open space.

"I remember poring over those maps," recalls De Angelis. "We wanted waterfront parks all around the community and a walkway through the center. That was our vision." When the group began advancing these ideas, De Angelis says, politicians, key decision makers, and even people in the neighborhood were skeptical, to say the least. They were told it would never happen.

The ongoing struggle between the neighborhood and Massport seems to figure somehow in almost everything related to the East Boston Greenway. If Massport director Ed King had had his way, the Belle Isle salt marsh today would be an oil storage facility serving the airport instead of the valuable public reserve that will anchor one end of the greenway. When East Boston and the neighboring community of Winthrop got wind that Massport had purchased an old drive-in movie theater on part of Belle Isle marsh, they mounted a campaign in cooperation with environmental groups like the Sierra Club to preserve the wetland. The area was ripe for airport expansion. Stopping King cold here, says De Angelis, was a big victory for East Boston.

Piers Park, at the other end of the greenway, is further testimony to the neighborhood's ferocious determination and remarkable staying power. Not long after the airport gobbled up Wood Island Park, neighborhood park advocates such as Welch and Edith De Angelis began eyeing some of the Massport-owned piers on the East Boston waterfront. In a community with little vacant land, they imagined, the unused piers might offer space for park development and also reconnect the neighborhood with the harbor. Although East Boston is surrounded on three sides by water, the airport, the piers, and industrial development on Chelsea Creek had literally walled the neighborhood in.

As Mary Ellen Welch recounts the saga, discussions about making a park on one of the piers–which began in the 1970s and involved the city, the neighborhood, and Massport–dragged on for years. The process threatened to bog down entirely when the neighborhood's arch-enemy Ed King, who had been replaced as Massport director after a long political fight, got elected governor in 1978. No one has ever tallied the number of meetings neighborhood activists attended as they pursued the dream of this park, but it ultimately took 15 years and an act of the legislature to get Massport to come up with the money and get on with the construction of Piers Park.

The six-acre park, which neighborhood advocates helped plan, may be the most beautiful park in Boston–not only because of its spectacular setting surrounded by water and sky but also because Massport in the end spared no expense on the park's design, which includes brick walkways, high-quality landscaping, and top-notch appointments such as ornate Victorian lamps. The pavilion near the end of the pier pays tribute to the neighborhood's immigrant history in a series of carved stone panels, decorated by a local artist with designs from each culture that came to call East Boston home.

Rail to Trail

As for the rail corridor now being transformed into a stretch of the greenway, King and later Massport directors had designs on that, too. As the confrontation between Massport and the neighborhood escalated in the late 1960s, King finally agreed to meet with community representatives at the rectory of Holy Redeemer Church. What Welch remembers most about the encounter was King's candor about what parts of East Boston he had slated for airport expansion. She remembers King pointing on a map to the rail corridor. That, he said, was where a new harbor tunnel to convey people to the airport would surface.

A new tunnel or any of the other Massport schemes in the rail corridor would have further fragmented the neighborhood. Its conversion to a greenway is sweet indeed, because the linear park will help knit the neighborhood back together. When the first half-mile of park opens this year, it will connect the waterfront and Piers Park with the dense city streets of the neighborhood's interior.

The greenway effort has attracted neighborhood newcomers as well as veteran activists. Mary Ellen Welch's family, who came to East Boston in the same Irish migration as the ancestors of Boston's Kennedy clan, goes back six generations. Lauri Webster first moved to the neighborhood six years ago, because a new job with the city required a city address. Although she no longer works for the city, she still lives in the neighborhood with her East Boston-born husband and their child.

"When I first moved into East Boston, I was struck by how isolated we are from the water," says Webster, who was trained as a landscape architect. "There's little connection." When she heard about the greenway, she and her husband thought it was a great idea. "We wanted to be involved. We want to be able to use it."

Those scouring East Boston for park and recreation space had long talked about possible reuse of the old rail corridor–a spur that once linked the East Boston piers with the main line of the Boston and Albany railroad. But in part because of the substantial obstacles, nobody seriously pursued the idea until a national philanthropic foundation came on the scene and gave the project the boost it needed. In 1994 the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund (LWRDF) chose Boston as one of seven cities to receive funds to assist in developing urban parks. The foundation's grants brought the real estate expertise of the Trust for Public Land to each city and also funded local organizations to partner with TPL. In Boston, TPL recommended a grassroots nonprofit group, the Boston Natural Areas Fund (BNAF), which worked on protecting natural areas and developing community gardens.

In their grant proposal, TPL and BNAF outlined plans for developing two linear parks at opposite ends of the city–the East Boston Greenway and a second in another rail corridor along the Neponset River that would link 19 natural areas, or "urban wilds," into a larger system. LWRDF staff judged the Neponset project to be a good bet, recalls Valerie Burns, the director of BNAF, because many of the pieces were already in place. East Boston, however, seemed a long shot because the proposed greenway involved not only the 1.2-mile abandoned rail corridor, which constitutes about one-third of the length, but also land owned by several other parties, including Massport. Although East Boston was included in the initial grant, continued funding would depend on demonstrating significant progress.

This time, however, the neighborhood did not have to battle 15 years to gain another patch of green. The idea of the East Boston Greenway seemed to catch fire, attracting wide support within the neighborhood and influential allies beyond it.

"This has been the most magical story I've seen unfold," says Nancy Kafka, program director of the Trust for Public Land's Boston office. Funding from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund enabled TPL to hire Kafka to spearhead land acquisition work on the East Boston Greenway and other Wallace-funded projects. After working with the community to create a land protection plan that identified all of the parcels needed to create the greenway, she began contacting the owners of each parcel.

Greenway Gains Momentum

The first big break came in 1995 when Kafka approached Conrail, the company that owned the abandoned rail corridor, to ask if the railroad would be willing to sell it. When Conrail's director of community relations, Tom Egan, heard how Conrail's right-of-way figured in the larger plan for the greenway, he began to make the case within Conrail that, instead of selling the land, the railroad should donate the mile-long corridor "to give something back to the community."

A few months later, East Boston Greenway proponents took Boston Mayor Thomas Menino on a tour of the old rail corridor. Menino also was taken with the vision of transforming it into a park. When he offered to help, Valerie Burns suggested he contact Conrail and urge them to convey the land so the greenway proposal could become a reality. The mayor's letter provided valuable extra momentum.

In August 1995, Conrail announced that it would make a gift of the corridor on the condition that TPL accept the land and take on the environmental liability without prior testing. Although these conditions entailed some risk, TPL agreed, and later testing found nothing save the contaminants typical of railroad rights-of-way, such as coal ash and creosote. In another stroke of luck, funds for cleaning up contaminated sites soon became available through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Massachusetts Highway Department. TPL was awarded $500,000 to do what was needed to make the East Boston Greenway and Neponset River Greenway safe for reuse as parkland. In 1998 the city formally acquired part of the rail corridor and a small adjacent parcel from TPL for Phase I of the greenway; the following year, construction got under way.

"Our vision is coming true," says De Angelis. "What a magnificent thing–a beautiful park at one end with a greenway accessible to all leading to a wildlife reservation. If you are at Belle Isle Marsh or Piers Park, you can't believe you are in the inner city."

Within a short time, the project judged "a long shot" had taken wing. Pleased with progress, the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund has renewed its support for the East Boston effort. By summer 2001, the first half-mile of the greenway will be ready for walkers, cyclists, and roller-bladers, as TPL works to continue assembling the remaining pieces that eventually will connect with Belle Isle Marsh. The only part of the proposed route that might prove difficult is the segment that runs across Wood Island Bay marsh on Massport property. So far, the airport has been refusing access for a public path.

Now that the greenway is moving ahead, Mary Ellen Welch has no doubt that the entire plan will become a reality. Once the other pieces are in place, proponents will take on Massport. "We've learned how to network and work for open space creation. If there is any reluctance," she vows, "we will get it to happen."



Land & People, Spring, 2001


Writer and journalist Dianne Dumanoski has been reporting on environmental issues since Earth Day 1970. She is co-author of Our Stolen Future, which describes the impact of the proliferation of man-made chemicals on humans and animals. Her essay "Rethinking Environmentalism" appears in Our Land, Ourselves: Readings on People and Place, an anthology published in 1998 by the Trust for Public Land.