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Our Urban Oases

by Michele D.  Maniscalco
Thursday Oct 29, 2015

Our Urban Oases

Among the South End's many charms is its abundance of green spaces where residents and visitors can relax quietly, exercise, socialize and play or watch sporting events with friends, children and dogs. With over two dozen parks, playgrounds and sports fields spread across the neighborhood and the constant influx of new neighbors flocking to live here, I offer a guide to some of the South End open spaces. Many enjoy basic maintenance from the Boston Parks and Recreation Department in cooperation with devoted friends groups that clean, plant, and raise funds for their cherished open spaces.

Established in the 1850s, the elegant twin parks, Blackstone and Franklin Squares, flank Washington Street between West Newton and West Brookline Streets in the heart of the South End business corridor. Divided into quadrants and studded with benches with stately Victorian-style fountains as their centerpieces, the two parks are officially designated as "passive use" parks but see a variety of lively activity. Asian seniors welcome the morning with Tai Chi in Blackstone Square, fitness groups from nearby colleges do calisthenics and the children's fitness group Reimagine Play holds classes in Blackstone. South Enders and their dogs socialize in Blackstone in the early evening year-round. Both Blackstone and Franklin have served as venues for special events, such as Washington Gateway Main Street's Summer Soulstice and the annual Halloween Festival in Blackstone Square. Franklin Square was the site of the summertime Boston StrEATS food truck festival. According to Stacen Goldman, executive director of the South End Historical Society, Blackstone Square is named for William Blackstone or Blaxston, the first English settler in Boston, and Franklin Square is named for that illustrious son of Boston remembered for his contributions to nation-building, diplomacy, science and kite-flying.

Peters Park, between Berkeley and Waltham Streets and Washington Street and Shawmut Avenue, offers athletic fields and recreational areas for South Enders of all ages, sizes and breeds. It stands on the spot where George and Sadie Peters, a Lebanese immigrant couple who were prominent in the Lebanese and Syrian community of the former New York Streets enclave, lived before their home was destroyed by fire in the 1970s. Dedicated in 1976, Peters Park is one of the first public parks to be dedicated to Arab-Americans. Peters Park boasts a little-league field that is home to South End Baseball; a basketball court; a Tot Lot; gardens and a dog recreation space. Joe Wex, for whom the dog park is named, enjoyed every aspect of the park, watching little league games, shooting baskets and playing with and training his family's foster puppies. When neighbors lobbied the city for a dog run at Peters, Joe Wex led the pack. Sadly, Wex passed away during the dog run's approval process and did not get to see it open in 2007.

Titus Sparrow Park, on West Newton Street between Columbus Avenue and the Southwest Corridor Park, is named for a longtime resident of Durham Street who was devoted to the sport of tennis and used it as a vehicle to promote recreation and fitness for children. He helped found the Sportsmen's Tennis Club and its low-cost tennis programs for kids and was the first African-American umpire of the United States Tennis Association, officiating at the Davis Cup and the U.S. Open. Naturally, Titus Sparrow Park features a tennis court in his honor, and the Friends of Titus Sparrow Park sponsor many family-friendly activities, such as their summer concert series, Halloween and Christmastime parties and a children's music and art program over the summer.

James Hayes Park at the corner of West Canton Street and Warren Avenue honors an early-20th century Irish immigrant and founder of an ongoing dynasty of five generations, some of whom still live on West Canton Street. Hayes taught his children early on to keep their street tidy and successfully petitioned the city to plant more trees and increase city services to the neighborhood. His civic-minded example inspired his son Christopher to found the Neighborhood Watch program. Hayes Park was developed initially in the early 1970s on the former site of the Warren Avenue Baptist Church, which burned in 1967, then redesigned and rededicated in 1987 through the efforts of the Friends of Hayes Park. The park has a small play area with climbing structures and sand, a large, round center garden featuring the bronze sculpture, "West Canton Street Child" by the late artist, Kahlil Gibran, and seating around the perimeter.

Harriet Tubman Square at 450 Columbus Avenue salutes the venerable abolitionist who led hundreds of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era. Anchored by two sculptures, one a contemporary work by a Dorchester artist and one created in 1913 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, with bronze paving stones depicting aspects of the Underground Railroad. While Tubman never lived in Boston, she stayed in the South End on her visits to Boston.

Ringgold Park at Ringgold Street between Waltham and Hanson Streets, is very family-oriented, with an interactive fountain designed for play, two areas with play equipment and a half basketball court. Ringgold Park was developed for recreational use in the 1990s on an abandoned city property that was the former site of the Franklin School, which had burned down many years earlier. The Friends of Ringgold Park raised funds and lobbied for redesign of the park, adding the interactive fountain in 2011 and the play areas in 2014.

Hiscock Park at 168 West Newton Street was developed in the 1970s from a vacant lot that had become a dumping ground for garbage. Neighbors appealed to the city and the BPRD developed the picturesque little oasis. Hiscock Park was named for its unlikely benefactor, a homeless man named Eldred "Max" Hiscock who, with help from a neighbor, established a savings account and upon his death, bequeathed his modest nest egg to fund the park. Hiscock Park received another makeover in 2005 with a grant from the Trust for Architectural Easements.

The South End has welcomed several new parks in the few years, including:

Frieda Garcia Park on Clarendon Street across from the Back Bay-South End MBTA station offers children's play equipment, greenery, seating and mosaic murals by local artists. Dedicated in April 2013, Frieda Garcia Park received initial funding from John Hancock Financial Services and is maintained with funds from the Friends of Frieda Garcia Park. The park's name honors the longtime South End resident and community activist who founded Alianza Hispana and served as executive director of United South End Settlements for 20 years.

Childe Hassam Park, on Columbus Avenue near Dartmouth Street, stands on a former gas station site and was first converted to a park in the 1970s through the generosity of former owner Mark Goldweitz. However, without organized stewardship, the park deteriorated over the years, and in the early 2000s, a group of neighbors organized to renovate the neglected and locked little park. After years of persistent appeals to the city, the group, now known as the Friends of Childe Hassam Park, got the city to help transform the space into a manicured and landscaped venue for visual and performing arts. Named for the renowned, South End-based impressionist whose best-known work is the 1885 painting, "Rainy Day", Childe Hassam Park was ironically dedicated on a rainy day, April 26, 2014. A bas relief by local artist Reno "Ray" Pisano graces the entry to the park and "Ad Astra", a joyful bronze sculpture by the late South End-based sculptor Kahlil Gibran is a focal point of the open-air art space, which hosted a summer concert series with co-sponsorship from the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association.

Dartmouth Green was a similarly neglected lot on Dartmouth Street behind the McKinley School on Warren Avenue when the parcel was acquired by Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) when it merged with the South End Lower Roxbury Open Space Land Trust (SELROSLT) in 2012. BNAN Outreach and Engagement Coordinator Dana Chepulis met with neighbors to solicit ideas for the transformation of the space, and the resulting pocket park includes picnic tables and seating, carefully pruned shade trees and raised garden beds.

Watson Park is a brand-new addition to the South End's wealth of green space. Located at the corner of Milford and Taylor Streets, Watson Park consists of several Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) owned parcels that were not being put to use. Residents rallied and appealed to the city to revitalize the area, and after years of effort, their wish came true when BPRD received title to the land in mid-October. A friends group is now forming around the park, which is named for the father of a longtime Taylor Street resident. For further information on the Friends of Watson Park, please visit http://eightstreets.blogspot.com/2015/10/welcome-to-watson-park.html. The date of the dedication ceremony has not yet been announced.

Armed with this abridged guide to the South End's natural gems, go out and explore while the weather permits!

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