November 7, 2012

Thoughts While Planting Daffodils Along the Greenway

Planting daffodils on the Greenway.
That's Betty hiding under the
baseball cap.
This past Saturday morning, Betty and I joined a group of about 20 volunteers assisting an organization called Friends of the Greenway to plant several thousand daffodil bulbs at a site on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway adjacent to Boston’s venerable North End neighborhood.  It was three hours of work for a worthy cause.  Because planting bulbs is not especially a brain-intensive task, it gave me some time to reflect on the Greenway.

The Central Artery circa 1980.
The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is the tangible benefit of somewhere between $20 billion and $24 billion (the number varies, but always rises) spent to place Interstate 93 below grade through Boston’s financial district.  The tunnel project was completed in 2009 and the Greenway formally dedicated in October of that year.  From the time of its inception it has been a political football and a prize.  It is a story with few heroes and a lengthy cast of villains.  Placing I-93 underground was proposed in the 1980s as a $4 billion solution to the malignant eyesore that was the Central Artery, a 1950s-era elevated highway that divided the financial district from the historic North End, South Boston, and the harbor.  The thinking was that in one act of public works, Boston would gain 22 acres of parks atop the expressway as well as a new airport access tunnel.  Under the guiding hand of then-Speaker of the House Thomas P. ‘Tip’ O’Neil, the necessary billions of dollars were diverted to the project.

The Garden Under Glass, as conceived
by the Massachusetts Horticultural
There’s no point dwelling on the chicanery that went on underground (subtract the original price tag from the finished one and you get a good idea of what happened).  Instead, I’ll address what is occurring aboveground.  Originally, there was to have been a Center for the Arts and Culture, a YMCA, a Museum of Boston, and a ‘Garden Under Glass’, interspersed by parks.  One by one, the civic buildings were scrapped as a soured economy made would-be benefactors close their wallets.  (Incompetence on the part of fundraisers doubtlessly contributed to the problem.)  In the end, there were no museums, only a large, linear open space, all administered by an organization called the RFK Greenway Conservancy. (Rose, mother of John F., Ted, and Robert F. Kennedy is revered in Boston.  Naming the park the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway was an act of sheer political genius.)

Part of the five-acre garden planted
by Mass Hort.  I spent about a
hundred hours as a volunteer.
The Massachusetts Horticultural Society was to have built the massive indoor garden.  It was formally abandoned in 2008 but Mass Hort instead built something else, and perhaps superior.  Because of a decade’s worth of mismanagement, the organization was functionally bankrupt by 2008.  However, using sheer willpower, hundreds of volunteers, donated materials, and an outstanding design from Craig Halvorson, the five acres that would have been ‘under glass’ became an outdoor garden.  I know all this because, in 2008, I was one of those volunteers. The design was a stunning success; an intelligently conceived space that invited people into it. The specimen trees were beautiful, the choice and placement of perennials exciting.  Mass Hort pulled the project together for about $750,000.

In February 2009, control of all development parcels on the Greenway passed to the Greenway Conservancy, and the Conservancy’s first action was to request that Mass Hort cease all improvements to the five-acre garden and remove anything that identified the project as having been created or maintained by Mass Hort.  Mass Hort had no choice but to comply.

Here are two blocks of the Greenway
as it is today - grass and concrete.
To judge by what has transpired on the Greenway since that date, it is evident that horticulture has always been down near the bottom of the Greenway Conservancy’s list of priorities.  The emphasis has been on hardscape – straight-as-an-arrow concrete walks, fountains, and walls.  There’s a carousel and a visitor’s center.  Where there are narrow strips of gardens, they lack imagination – think boxwood hedges with interior plantings of daylilies and echinacea.  The Mass Hort garden (now ‘the Fort Point Channel Parcels’) are poorly maintained and have been ‘improved’ by the addition of sculptures.

This is what the Conservancy has
planted... sculptures.
What the Greenway Conservancy does exceptionally well is spend money on administration. It has a budget of $4.7 million of which – as critics point out – less than $50,000 is spent on plants.  Five Greenway Conservancy officials have salaries in excess of $100,000 annually.  The Conservancy also lobbies hard for more state money (they say their budget should be more like $10 million a year).  The Conservancy also dreams of grandiose plans for various sites along the Greenway.  The plans, though, are never horticultural.  Rather, they’re for pavilions by world-class architects.

The daffodils we planted on Saturday were supplied by the Friends of the Greenway – not by the Greenway Conservancy - and the project was organized by the Friends group.  However, our work was overseen by Conservancy staff, who haphazardly threw out hundreds of bulbs into spaces that could accommodate a few dozen.  Fortunately, most of the volunteers working that day were Master Gardeners who know better.

Something has to change. 
While we were planting, Betty pointed out to one staff member that delicate, slow-growing arborvitae were being engulfed by much faster-growing yews.  The staffer – ostensibly part the Conservancy’s horticultural department – just shrugged and said that the parcel’s designer wanted contrasting texture in the hedge and that it was not for him to change things.

But something needs to change, and soon.  Four years ago, Boston received a precious gift of open space.  That space is being allowed to decay into blandness because, to the organization that oversees it, the ‘Green’ in the Greenway is money, not horticulture.


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