Wednesday, June 01, 2011 • 10:22 AM Comments ()

Preserving and Enjoying Boston's Franklin Park

posted by Jacquinn Williams

Franklin Park—the jewel of Boston’s Emerald Necklace—has a storied past. Spanning over 120 years and 500 acres, this historic landmark was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1880s. It is the place where the Duke Ellington orchestra’s latest tunes rang out at the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park, one of the first places where golf was played in the US and the site of a zoo exhibit that dates back to 1912.

Elma Lewis and Duke Ellington

Elma Lewis along with Richard Heath were two founders of Franklin Park Coalition (FPC)—a small group of staff and concerned neighbors—tasked with advocating for and maintaining this beautiful park.

FPC was founded in 1974 to expand community participation in park stewardship, a mammoth task since the park is the city’s largest green space and it contains the largest historic forest in Boston. Located in the heart of Boston’s communities of color, the park has many diverse park users. FPC bridges the differences of age race, ethnicity and class, by bringing the surrounding community together for action as park advocates and stewards. Through a woodlands restoration campaign, FPC has worked to restore the woodlands for the present and future generations to enjoy. This goal remains true to Olmsted's intent of creating a typical New England forest that provides respite from the crowded, noisy, and gritty urban environment. A breathtaking 65 contiguous acre woodlands known as the Wilderness is the result of his efforts.

Wilderness picnic area

Getting people into the park is critical to making it a vibrant and well cared for place. A range of events such as the Birds & Bards Festival, Weeds as Feed foraging walks, performances held at the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park and other seasonal festivals keep the park busy all year long. On May 14th, FPC held the Bike and Kite Festival to celebrate spring’s arrival, drawing about 1,000 families to the park. Children were able to get free kites and borrow bikes at the park and run and play with their friends and loved ones.

Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park

In its heyday, the Kite festival drew as many as 30,000 people for kite-flying, face-painting, pony rides, and live music, according to published reports. Kite Festival founder, Boston quilt-maker and visual artist Clara Wainwright, went on to found Boston’s First Night celebration seven years later.

Kite Festival in the 1980s

Over the summer, FPC holds its signature performance series: Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park. Each Tuesday in July, young families and summercamps can bring children to daytime concerts and later bring their friends to the evening concerts at 6:00pm. Dancing under the stars while singing your favorite tunes is allowed. Joining in to tap your feet and nod your head to jazz, funk and world music is a must. This August, Playhouse will feature selected short films from the Boston Latino International Film Festival.

Another cultural offering is coming up on June 11th from 10am-12pm. That is the date of the final park history tour in a series of three led by historian Julie Arrison and supported by a grant from Mass Humanities. The tour focuses on the early history of Franklin Park Zoo, the ruins of the Overlook Shelter, and the Wilderness. Julie became involved with FPC through a volunteer day. She was so intrigued by the old Bear Dens cages, a former zoo-exhibit, it became the subject of her graduate thesis and the impetus for two books about the park. She now generously volunteers her time to inform the public about the history of Franklin Park.

History Tour of Zoo-Chester French statues

Frieze on the Old Bear Dens

In addition to arts and culture offerings, the park is truly a fitness destination. It’s the perfect place to cross country ski, bike, hike or run. There’s a premier cross country course and a two-mile walking loop for people to enjoy. Thousands of walkers take advantage of this urban resource during warm months from early morning to late evening.

Walkers on the Loop Path

From gathering with friends for a barbeque—the only park in Boston where you can—to enjoying the spectacular view from Schoolmaster Hill, Franklin Park is a space for everyone to take pleasure in. With three playgrounds, four tennis courts, a well-tended municipal golf course, basketball courts and baseball fields, there is certainly something for everyone because, after all, this park belongs to everyone.

Schoolmaster Hill

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