Remarks by Bill Walczak

Annual Meeting of the Friends of the Public Garden

April 29, 2014

 I want to start by thanking Shawmut Design and Construction, a billion dollar company started in Dorchester and now located in the South End, which cares deeply about the City and in helping to improve life for Bostonians. It’s been a great company to be part of, and they allow me to do the work I do on behalf of the company to help our city.

I came to Boston back in 1972 for college.  Maybe it was growing up in a very overdeveloped section of NJ that gave me my love of urban parks.  All I know is that when I arrived here as an 18 year old college student, I was blown away by the beauty of the Boston Parks system.  Or, shall I say, of the potential beauty of Boston’s Parks. For clearly they had fallen on hard times.

But the assets were there. What we needed was action. I was part of a large group of Bostonians who took things into their own hands.  Hanging out in Peabody Sq. in Dorchester at the old Englewood Diner with a group of Codman Square activists in 1974, we decided to take on the tiny Peabody Square park next to the diner, and, after failing to get the then Parks Commissioner to take down an ugly chain link fence surrounding the park that had been hit by a car, and put dirt and flowers in the ancient horse trough, we had a few drinks and decided to do it ourselves on a Friday night.  Amazingly, nobody questioned a group of people taking down a fence around a park on Dorchester Avenue in the dark or filling the horse trough with dirt and planting flowers.  A few months later, I ran into the commissioner, who said, “you see I got that fence down.”  I didn’t have the heart to tell him how it really happened. 

In 1975, As a 20 year old student at UMass Boston, I applied for and received a 30 day appointment to work the summer in the Boston Parks.  I was asked where I wanted to work and chose Hemenway Park, a deteriorated park near where I lived, with a big hill that had more glass than grass.  There were 4 people assigned to the park that summer, but I was the only person to actually show up to work.  I took on the hill with a lawn mower and one Friday picked up 4 huge barrels of glass and moved the barrels up to the top of the hill so a Park truck could more easily get to it.  I was worried that the punks who hung out at the park would roll the barrels down the hill over the weekend, so I went to the Dorchester regional Park HQ at Town Field, and asked the foreman there, Mr. Doherty, if he could get the barrels picked up.  He asked me to go up to Ronan Park, where numerous complaints to Mayor White’s office resulted in the wholescale placement of 30 Park workers there to pick up the mess, and to ask the dump truck there to pick up the barrels.  When I arrived, I found about 15 workers, mainly leaning on their rakes, and nothing in the dump truck except two people — the driver, and his assistant driver.  I told them I was sent by Mr. Doherty to ask them to go up to Hemenway Park and pick up some barrels, and the driver said, “We’ve been ordered by the Mayor’s office to be at Ronan Park; we ain’t gonna go nowhere else.”  I left despondent, but thought about the Mayor angle.  On my way back to the Town Field HQ, I went into the old Town Field Tavern and dropped a dime in the pay phone and called the Mayor’s office.  In my best fake brogue, I said, “Me name is McCarty, and I’m up here at Hemenway Park and there’s a bunch of barrels filled with glass up here. Them kids will throw them down the hill this weekend; can ya get a truck up here to empty them today?”  A few minutes later, I walked into the Town Field Parks HQ just as Mr. Doherty was hanging up on his call from the Mayor’s office.  He turned to me and said, “Go up to Ronan and tell them guys to pick up the barrels at Hemenway Park. The Mayor’s office wants it done now!”

I went back to Ronan Park, and went up to the guys, still sitting in the empty truck with workers still leaning on their rakes, and said, “Mr. Doherty sent me.  The Mayor’s office called and wants you to pick them barrels up at Hemenway.”  The driver turned to the assistant driver and said, “We ain’t gonna get no fu**in’ break today.”

A year later, I wrote a grant proposal while at UMass Boston that gave me money to organize a work program at the Dorchester Court for probationers that could take on the messes that our parks had become.  The Dorchester Court Alternative Work Program allowed judges to sentence people convicted of crimes to “community restitution” by working in parks and open spaces.  I loved that job!  It gave me an entire crew of workers to take on restoration projects of neglected parks, including Franklin Park, the Dorchester North Burial Ground and dozens of community parks in Dorchester. It’s now a state program working out of many courthouses. One of the places we were asked to clean up was Savin Hill Park, a place with a gorgeous view of the harbor, Blue Hills and downtown that unfortunately was blighted by the glistening of thousands of shards of glass caught in-between brambles that made much of the park unusable. Kids would steal cars, set them on fire and push them off the cliff at the center of the park.  But, despite that, it was an inspiring place, and I found a house to buy adjacent to the park.  With a couple of neighbors, we organized a park friends group and asked the City for help with cutting the grass, the best way to eliminate bramble.  I was informed that the park was a “rustic” area, and that their focus for cutting grass was limited to ball fields.  Thus started three decades of neighbors cutting the grass at the top of Savin Hill Park.

I mention these stories to describe the chaos of the times, and what Parkies had to do to reclaim parks in those days.  The 70s and 80s were a tough time in Boston. The city was clearly falling apart, and the Parks system was an example of how far it had fallen.  But one of the things that has made Boston great over the centuries is its ability to reinvent itself, and its large number of thoughtful, caring residents.  Across the city, residents took on the responsibility to both restore adult control over the parks, and to become their advocates.  The Friends of the Public Garden was one of the first groups to organize, in 1970, and this effort led to a citywide organizing effort supported by Tufts and the Boston Globe that resulted in the creation of the Boston GreenSpace Alliance. Over the past 30 years, the Park movement has matured, with dozens of advocacy and friends groups, with membership of these groups numbering in the thousands, all across our city.  Our parks certainly look better than at any time since the 70s.

Park advocates don’t mind cutting the grass, running the clean ups and even programming their parks, and the residents of THIS community have even taken on restoration of these parks and their works of art, spending millions of dollars in the process. 

But we are not where we need to be.  In the 70s and 80s, nobody seriously referred to Boston as a “World Class City.”  But the city has prospered greatly over the past 25 years, and nobody considers world class to be pretense anymore.

But a world class city deserves a world class park system, and we do not have that.  Though the Common is clearly a destination for most visitors, it needs more attention – it’s the closest thing we have to a Central Park, accommodates hundreds of events and millions of people, but, to quote your report, “is falling far short.” Or, as Liz Vizza quoted a recent visitor, “The Common is the oldest park in America….  And it looks that way.”  There needs to be a better way to ensure that our world class city has a world class system of parks and open spaces. 

During the 80s and part of the 90s, I had the pleasure of serving on the Parks Commission during a period of vision and achievement, largely due to Justine Liff.  Her vision, and the key here is that she had a vision for the Park system, was summarized in a Boston Globe column by Justine in 1998.  The details are not as important as the fact that there was a plan based on a vision of having a world class park system. 

For the future of our park system, last summer’s campaign for mayor was instructive in two major ways.  The first was the amazing turnout for the Parks forum in Franklin Park.  The hundreds of people who crowded the conference room and the hall outside the room created an impression on all the candidates that Park advocates are numerous, know that they have clout, and are willing to use it.

The second was the candidates’ finding through all the meetings with voters, that every community wants a change in the way the city and their neighborhoods are developing, and that this problem can be solved through an excellent master planning process in every neighborhood.

Regardless of how you feel about the tenure of our now former Mayor, the change to new leadership represents both a generational shift and a generational opportunity to change the way we do things.  This is the opportunity for Parkies to further organize ourselves and re-make the way we work with the city.  Mayor Walsh has indicated his willingness to look at new ways to operate City government, and it is essential that Park Advocates take him up on that offer.  NOW.

The Friends of the Public Garden are showing the city the way to make this happen.  We have learned that we don’t get what we need or want unless we have a plan for it. The publication of the Friends’ Strategic Plan for 2014-2018 is the template for the future of park advocacy. Partnership means more than knowing how to get your trash picked up after a clean up; it means that we work together, plan together, and achieve together. 

It’s Time for a new partnership.

Community groups need to be engaged in planning that includes not just commercial and residential development, but what that development means for open space and other social needs. With all the development going on in the Downtown, (or do we now call it Mid-Town?), it is likely that Downtown’s population will exceed that of Charlestown within 10 years.  Are we planning how that will affect the Common, and what other open spaces are needed to accommodate such a large population?

The new partnership will mean that Every park will have an engaged friends group, that meets with public officials, and helps to link the park to local schools and youth groups where children can learn about nature and open space, have community service projects that teach about animals, insects, plants and trees, and helps build a sense of ownership. 

There needs to be annual planning events in the spring that connect residents to park officials so that the residents can weigh in on the condition of the park and coordinate with police for crime prevention activities.

We need to choose the best possible parks commissioner.  In my tenure on the Parks Commission, Justine Liff was a superb commissioner, a leader who was passionate about our parks and open spaces, who harnessed the business community for the benefit of green spaces, who led efforts to improve historic parks and cemeteries and raised money to see this accomplished.   We need someone like Justine, a person capable of leading a renaissance in our appreciation of green spaces, who can choose the best managers for the Parks Department, and who will ensure that the Mayor always has parks and open spaces on the top of his list…  Who will work with DCR to develop shared seasonal plans, share ideas on making Boston the leading city for open space planning and use, and to look for ways to coordinate and partner on new initiatives.  We should have a Park Rangers program that is second to none; programs that integrate the arts – – how about an art exhibit at the MFA for art based on Boston’s parks and open spaces as a way to promote our treasured spaces?  We should have competitions for public art to be placed in our parks. 

Any and all of these things are doable. The arts community has built and funded an advocacy group that links together artists around the city and state to ensure that the arts are in the forefront of the decision-making process.  They are natural allies, but we need to have the infrastructure to allow alliances to be built, and advocacy to be strong.

This is a new day.  We have emerged from the days of guerilla action on behalf of parks, to a day where we are on the precipice of building an outstanding Park system. There can be a new partnership between our governmental leaders and our neighborhoods about creating a world class park system.  We have the ideas and the ability to pull this off.  What we need is the leadership and the infrastructure to make it happen.

Thank you.