One of Boston’s best urban oases is the Rose Kennedy Greenway. In the relatively short time since the completion of the infamous Big Dig, the Greenway, which shadows the Expressway now underground, has quickly earned the reputation of being one of the most innovative spots in all of Boston.
Innovation is about more than just next-generation technologies and installations of public art. Don’t worry, though, the Greenway boasts both. When it comes to maintaining an open space in the heart of an urban environment, innovation must be sewn in the soil and cultivated just like the vegetation growing in each section of the park.
I was lucky enough to meet up with the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy’s executive director, Jesse Brackenbury, for a comprehensive tour of the Greenway. We began our stroll at the North End parks, nestled snugly between New Sudbury Street and North Street, and ended in Chinatown some two hours later.
The Greenway is split into two sections in the North End, each on either side of Hanover Street. They, like every piece of the park, reflect the neighborhood they’re adjacent to. The North End is Boston’s Little Italy and therefore, with its box shrubs, fountains and cafe-like seating, is engulfed in a European atmosphere.
But the North End park also plays a significant role in keeping the Greenway 100 percent organic. Across the street, behind the specialized North Bennet Street School is a garage that’s ground zero for the Greenway’s horticulture.
“I think that great cities across the countries and around the world have vibrant public art scenes.”
There, in what could easily be mistaken for a back aisle at Home Depot is where the Greenway horticulturists create their own compost tea.
And no, it’s not for drinking.
The homemade brew is essentially the Greenway’s secret sauce. It’s what keeps the grass healthy, the flora vibrant and the vegetation lively. We found horticulture foreman Anthony Ruggerio hard at work, tinkering with one of the pressure gauges used to spray the tea over all of the plant life so that it continues to thrive.
“Not only is it a new public park, but to say that we’re maintaining this space 100 percent organically, that’s pretty fascinating,” said Ruggerio. “There’s a lot of people who think it’s hokey and the fact that we can manage this public park in an urban environment with a lot of adverse conditions at play, and do it successfully is only solidifying the idea that this is a viable way to maintain things.”
In order to concoct the tea, Ruggerio and his horticulture staff first have to create compost. To do that, they pull together recycled Metro newspapers and scraps of food donated by the nearby famers market. They throw in worms – which they also recycle by enticing them out of the vermicast with watermelon (yes, apparently worms are watermelon fiends) and dropping them in a new batch of shredded paper and old rinds.
The worms inoculate the soil, or “boost up the biology,” as Ruggerio puts it, and create a fertile environment to allow certain kinds of organisms to grow.
They may add a little molasses to spark bacterial growth, oats and humic acid for fungi, or fish extract for protozoans. Depending on which part of the park they want to enrich, and what kind of plant life they endeavor to grow, each batch of compost tea is a slight variation of the last.
“That’s the thing with organics,” continued Ruggerio. “It’s not a bandaid statement to say ‘this always gets this.’ We can tweak different ingredients and brews for certain situations.”
Added Brackenbury, “In a way it’s kind of like brewing beer.”
The homemade compost is then put into a massive tea bag and steeped in a customized vat of off-gassed city water. Boston’s municipal water supply is spiked with chlorine as a disinfectant. And while this is necessary for clean tap water, it’s not so good for growing greenery. So they literally pump air into the water – think of blowing bubbles in your chocolate milk, only in a massive tub of water – and the chlorine is released out of the water and into the air.
Right now, the horticulture staff is focused on building up the fungal population, so they’re experimenting with a tea that’s laced with alfalfa meal.
“One of the great things about maintaining the park organically is that we have fantastic horticulturalists,” said Brackenbury. “The passion and the knowledge are well on display.”
When they spray the compost tea throughout the Greenway, they use equipment that, to the untrained eye, appears to spray chemicals, non-natural fertilizer and other pesticides.
To help squash this notion and promote their commitment to staying completely and absolutely organic, they routinely erect signage that makes it abundantly clear that the parks are safe for engaging with and pose no health risks whatsoever.
At this point, we bid Ruggerio adieu and continued on down the Greenway.
The next section of the outdoor space is something of a problem for Brackenbury and his team. It’s bisected by a ramp that brings vehicles up from the tunnel below.
A stipulation for the creation of the Greenway post-Big Dig was that three of these ramp parcels must somehow be covered, though with what is unclear. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has already hosted one community meeting to crowdsource ideas, though nothing’s come into fruition yet.
There is, though, a fence around the ramp parcel that showcases pieces of photographic art, though it’s hardly enough.
“You’ve got those nice parks there and then you’ve got something that totally divides you – physically divides you east-to-west and psychologically divides you,” posited Brackenbury. “This is such an incredible opportunity. Your sightline is right down Faneuil Hall, like two blocks from the Freedom Trail. The promise of the Big Dig and promise of the Greenway was very aspirational and this is one of the few remaining pieces on which something could happen.”
Referencing the serpentine BP Pedestrian Bridge in Chicago’s Millennium Park, Brackenbury envisions, for example, a foot bridge that could not only offer people unparalleled views of the Boston, but become a destination of sorts as well.
There’s also the potential for public art installations and engaging attractions, not unlike the Greenway Carousel at the Tiffany & Co. Foundation Grove we passed by.
The Carousel was used only seasonally for four years but the Greenway became its permanent home when a Conservancy donor, over 90-years old, found sentimental value in it. When it opened, Brackenbury told me, the woman said it was perhaps the happiest day in her life.
Due to the Greenway’s high foot traffic volume and location in the heart of downtown Boston, food trucks often vie for customers come lunch time or, really, anytime.
But it’s a friendly competition for foodies, if one can even refer to it as such. More than anything, the conglomeration of food trucks is a collaborative effort more so than a cutthroat one.
Each truck works together in a delicious symbiosis in this specific area of the Greenway, known as the Wharf District Park system. Together they comprise what Brackenbury suggests is the second largest cluster of food trucks in Boston outside of Dewey Square, where the same mutual relationship between food trucks is enjoyed.
As we wait for the acclaimed porchetta, we took a look around. There’s a small stage that extends from the ground by the nearby patio seating. Underneath it is a vault where maintenance equipment for the fountain, one of six on the Greenway, is kept. They couldn’t put it completely underground because of the tunnel below, though it turned out to be a good problem to have with the resulting stage.
This allows for additional Greenway programing, more so of the musical variety.
“We’ve done 300 events,” estimated Brackenbury. “Adding food trucks, Wi-Fi, etc., those bring people here for a short period of time.”
But when we crossed the street and I asked him what the free-standing rectangles are that surround the next two sections of the park, the conversation turned to public art.
They’re called light blades, he explained (see: below), and they illuminate at night, usually during the winter when the darkness descends upon all of us in the later afternoon, and can display some 16 million possible colors. One program the Conservancy ran was undertaken in tandem with a local art collective in which the latter hacked the system so that if people texted a certain number from their mobile device, it would trigger an electrifying show of light from the blades.
And they contained a number of Easter eggs, (an intentional hidden message); for example, if someone texted ‘Red Sox,’ the blades would flash red and blue.
Given Boston’s status as a historical epicenter of the country, many of the works that adorn the cityscape have a majestic aura about them. They’re typically of the bronze and marble variety and often depict pivotal situations of yore as well as the people who behind them.
But on the Greenway, art is contemporary and by keeping it fresh, and temporary, it serves to draw people back time and time again.
The Greenway has become Boston’s go-to destination for public art. From Shinique Smith’s abstract expressionist mural, slated to be installed in mid-September, to Janet Echelman’s free-flowing aerial sculpture in 2015, to two-day-long exhibits like FIGMENT Boston, public art is one of the major drivers of engagement for the park.
“Public art is a way to bring people and change their perception of the space,” explained Brackenbury. “By making them temporary, they keep coming back. And I think that great cities across the countries and around the world have vibrant public art scenes.”
But despite the fact that the Greenway is teeming with thought-provoking artistry, there’s still plenty to be had on regions of the park where it’s noticeably absent.
“Not only is it a new public park, but to say that we’re maintaining this space 100 percent organically, that’s pretty fascinating.”
We continue on through the Fort Point Channel parks, which don’t contain nearly as many pieces of outdoor furniture or any innovations or public art. These parks are more traditional in that sense, but the diverse herbage is striking.
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society helped plant this park back in 2008, when the intention was to completely shelter the parks in a greenhouse-like structure that was to be known as the Garden Under Glass.
Financially, the Garden Under Glass was not adequately supported and the project was nixed. But the remaining plant life and open grass provides a space for people looking to escape the hustle and bustle of even other sections of the Greenway.
Admittedly, Brackenbury thinks more public art and various park improvements can be done here. And already, the ball is rolling.
We made our way up to a group of maintenance workers installing exactly what Brackenbury thinks this slice of the park needs – furniture.
But this is no typical piece of furniture. With the bushes shorter than usual in prior expectation of the Garden Under Glass, sunlight beams down on nearly all of the space, perfect for a solar-powered bench.
The workers are laying a cobble foundation for one of many of the city’s Soofa benches – a piece of furniture that harnesses sunlight to allow users to plug in their mobile devices and charge it fully. Because there are no other pieces of furniture, nothing to clash with it aesthetically, and an abundance of rays, the Soofa is a logical choice for the Greenway and one that reflects its dedication for clean technologies and cutting-edge urbanism.
As we proceeded on to Dewey Square, it became clear that everything the Greenway stands for culminates here. There’s art, there’s food trucks, there’s a bustling farmers market and there’s even a demonstration garden. We weaved in and out of the garden, which was built with the single purpose of showing people how they can utilize outdoor space in their own yards.
The garden is hardly just for show, however. The fruits and vegetables harvested there, Brackenbury guessed some 200 pounds worth at this point, are donated to United Way Catholic Charities or Lovin’ Spoonfuls.
Just a few years ago, though, Dewey Square was completely unrecognizable from what it is today.
In 2011 the Occupy movement exploded in Boston and Dewey Square was the focal point for the demonstration in Boston. People camped out for months on end. People lived in the tented community and, by doing so, rendered the park completely trashed.
On a December Sunday at 5 a.m., police raided Dewey Square and evicted the occupiers. By 11 a.m. the subsequent Monday, Greenway staffers had already reclaimed the lawn, picked up the trash and begun sewing seeds for future plants.
I frequent the Dewey Square farmers market and therefore make the mistake others do too in thinking that this is the southern terminus of the Greenway. In fact, it extends further into Chinatown. And so we proceeded onward.
The Chinatown Park is the most underdeveloped section, if one could refer to it as such. It’s peculiar in that it’s longer and narrower than its accompanying parks but still is able to reflect the culture of the surrounding community. It contains a serpentine walkway edged by bamboo within bright red sculptural elements and a unique fountain that suggests a waterfall and shallow riverbed.
Surrounding the park is a slew of residential and commercial developments like the Radian. Radian is working alongside the Greenway to bring more programming to the park, but the surrounding buildings, not yet under construction though it’s only a matter of time, will surely influence the park in some form or another.
This is a rather new phenomenon the Greenway’s experienced. Prior attempts to develop along it have been met with staunch opposition from the mayoral administration.
Remember when Don Chiofaro publicly sparred with former Mayor Tom Menino over the right to convert the Harbor Garage in residences?
Now Chiofaro is putting out renderings of what could be a project of the same caliber, all the while capturing the imagination of Bostonians and the current administration.
But in Chinatown, only Radian has taken shape at this point.
“Nobody’s talking about this yet but they will,” said Brakenbury as he pointed to a number of dilapidated structures aching for a remodel. “Those conversations weren’t happening with the previous administration but now they are.”
Only time will tell, I suppose.
Though development will act as the catalyst for a number of changes surrounding the Greenway, some of which will seep into the programming and events upon it, the Greenway will continue to be an accessible space for all of Boston to enjoy. It already fills so many voids in the city and will continue to do so as peoples’ wants and values perpetually evolve.
The imminent future of the Greenway is contingent not only on real estate development but on the participation of you and me. The Conservancy prides itself on crowdsourcing ideas from the Boston public and putting putting their own spin on it. For public art in particular, Brackenbury contends the concepts generated in community meetings were some of the best they’ve ever had proving they’re hungry for more.
That notion extends to all facets of the Greenway and they’re committed to providing everyone the best possible experience they can. To accomplish this, they need your help and input.
Want to enjoy a food truck competition in all of its gluttonous goodness? Know of an artist whose works reflect the principles of the park? Maybe the idea that’s cooking up in your mind right now is so profound and dynamic you’re not ready to share it with us. But do share it with the Conservancy. The Greenway was created by Boston, for Boston, and will only continue to innovate as long as you do as well.