In Pursuit of Urban Nature: Hiking Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace

I’m lucky to live in Boston. With its small town feel and international appeal, Boston is an amazing place to take in the arts, culture and architecture. This spring I posted a blog listing the things every Bostonian must add to their bucket list and although I had experienced everything on the list, there was one exception:  hiking the Emerald Necklace in an entire day.

Earlier this summer, my friend Cristy and I went on an expedition to explore the beauty of Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a string of interconnected parks stretching through many of the city’s neighborhoods and cultural institutions.  As any urban planner, architect, or city enthusiast would tell you, the best way to get to know and experience a city is by walking its streets. This is exactly what Cristy and I did. We started our hike across Park Street Church on Boston Common at around 11:15AM on a Sunday and finished around 5:00PM at the entrance of Franklin Park Zoo in Dorchester.

In the nineteenth century, nature and parks were idealized and venerated, an idea reflected in the landscapes of many cities across the country.  Parks provided city dwellers and factory workers with leisure activities that involved fishing, swimming and many other past times. They provided a relief from the long work day hours and living conditions.

 The power of parks and green open spaces in bringing people from all walks of life together has always fascinated me. I love walking through a park and listening to the many different languages spoken by users. No one understood this better than Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius behind this incredible cultural resource in Boston.

The father of the modern landscape architecture movement, Frederick Law Olmsted’s story is as inspiring and moving as was his vision in transforming the landscapes of America. Along with his son Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., his adopted stepson John C. Olmsted and the rest of the partners in the firm, Olmsted dominated the landscape architecture profession in America for nearly a century. Transforming people’s lives through the beauty of nature was at the core of his pursuit in improving and “civilizing American society.”

Boston Common, 1634, National Historic Landmark; Boston Landmark

Considered the most historic park in Boston, Boston Common was mentioned in town records as early as 1634. The Common was not designed by Olmsted, but it played a pivotal role in the planning of his Emerald Necklace. It was only logical we start our hike at Boston Common, after all, every visitor strolls down the Common on the way to the Freedom Trail.

The Public Garden, 1839. George Meachum, 1859, National Historic Landmark; Boston Landmark

The Public Garden was born out of the filling of the Back Bay in the nineteenth century. It is a botanical garden with formal flower beds laid out in the French Manner and artificial pond which provides for pleasant Swan Boat rides during the warmer months of the year. On its Arlington Street corner stands Arthur Gilman’s Arlington Street Church, a building worthy of looking at. It has sixteen Tiffany stained glass windows which date from 1898 to 1933.

The Esplanade, 1931, National Register of Historic Places

Once part of the smelly Back Bay, this chunk of land was transformed into a spacious park offering many activities including picnicking, kayaking, sailing, outdoor concerts and movies at the Hatch Shell. The Esplanade Association is in charge of restoring, maintaining and preserving this wonderful park.

Commonwealth Avenue Mall, begun in 1858 and continued as the Back Bay was filled in, Boston Landmark

Commonwealth Avenue Mall was America’s answer to the grand boulevards of Paris. The Mall is lined with American and English elms as well as magnolias and dotted with sculptures of noted public figures including Alexander Hamilton, William Lloyd Garrison, Phyllis Wheatley and others.

Charlesgate, Frederick Law Olmsted, 1870’s

Olmsted had intended for a grand picturesque landscape here, but as Michael and Susan Southworth of the AIA Guide to Boston write “Charlesgate is the tragedy of the Emerald Necklace.” I hope to see this landscape restore to Olmsted’s original vision in my lifetime.

Apologies for the lack of images of Charlesgate, I will take some the next time I am at the Museum of Fine Arts, but the landscape does not reflect what Olmsted intended.

Back Bay Fens, Frederick Law Olmsted, 1879, National Register of Historic Places; Boston Landmark

A fine example of the English nineteenth century romantic landscape movement.  To some extent, Olmsted original vision has been altered and rose gardens were added along with a baseball field and a war memorial, but the Emerald Necklace Conservancy has been diligently working to restore the plantings and conserve this magical park for centuries to come. Among the architectural and cultural gems along the Back Bay Fens are H.H. Richardson’s “muscular” bridge, Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, the Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children, the Museum of Fine Arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and galleries at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

The Riverway and Olmsted Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, 1881, National Register of Historic Places; Boston Landmark

This park is currently undergoing major restoration by the Conservancy. The Riverway originally linked Olmsted Park to Jamaica Pond, but a segment was destroyed for commercial purposes thereby interrupting the “flow” of Olmsted’s interconnecting system of parks.

Jamaica Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, 1892, National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmark, Boston Landmark

Jamaica Park will always hold a special place in my heart because on our hike along the Emerald Necklace, my friend Cristy and I stopped to catch our breath, admire the beauty of the lake and watch people fish and jog. We were so taken aback by the park’s beauty that I left my camera on a bench only to realize that I had done so 45 minutes later. In short, I did not find my camera but frantically asked everyone I came across at the park if they had seen it. I left my business card with a few people and continued our hike as if nothing had ever happened. Later that night, I received an email from the Jamaica Pond Boat House letting me know that my camera had been found! Joy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Stickney and Austin’s Boathouse is a National Historic Landmark and you may read more about these two architects by following these links: here and here (sorry, I don’t remember if I corrected the posts after getting my paper back from the professor). I had the pleasure of conducting extensive research on these two architects for a seminar on Boston Architecture and Planning at Boston University with the wonderful Professor Keith Morgan.

Arnold Arboretum, Charles Sprague Sargent and Frederick Law Olmsted, 1872, National Historic Landmark

One of the most beautiful parks in the city, the Arnold Arboretum is also one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious arboreta. Its collection includes more than 15,000 trees, shrubs, and vines collected from around the world and is one of the best preserved of Olmsted’s landscapes. Every Spring the Arboretum hosts Lilac Sunday, andevent that celebrates the more than 377 lilac bushes in its collection. THE FOLLOWING IMAGES HAVE NOT BEEN PHOTOSHOPPED! YES IT GETS THIS BRIGHT IN THE FALL.

Franklin Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, 1885, National Register of Historic Places, Boston Landmark

The crowning jewel of the Emerald Necklace, Franklin Park is a 520-acre masterpiece that combined “vast rustic scenery with H. H. Richardson’s architecture, Daniel Chester French sculpture, sheep to trim the grass, and a dairy for healthful refreshments.” Its design was influenced by Joseph Paxton’s “People’s Park” at Birkenhead in England. Today, most of the architecture at Franklin Park is now ruins and parts of it have been altered and replaced with a golf course, tennis courts, baseball fields and Franklin Park Zoo. I love the micro environments that Olmsted created at Franklin Park. They make me feel as if I’ve stepped from one landscape into a completely different one. I love going for jogs in and around Franklin Park, it feels as if the city is hundreds of miles away.

Walking the Emerald Necklace, I learned that the best way to continue preserving this inspiring landscape is to nominate it as a World Heritage Site. Why isn’t this system of parks already a World Heritage Site? I’m not sure of an answer, but I believe it should be!

Review: Close Distance

Raul Gonzalez, Wake up Call (On My Last Nerve), 2011 | Ink and Bic pen, 45 by 65 inches acrylic. Courtesy the artist and Carroll & Sons Gallery, Boston.

I may be too young to remember when was the last time Boston experienced an exhibition that featured the work of Latino artists living in this city or its surrounding towns. I may also be too young to remember Grupo Ñ, an experimental but now dissolved Latino art collective from the 1980′s that became an instrumental force in Boston’s underground art scene.

“Close Distance,” at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery is the first exhibition in nearly thirty years featuring the works of six emerging Boston area Latino artists “practicing across diverse media and national borders.” Curated by Liz Munsell, a local curator with DiscordiaFilms and a Curatorial Research Associate at the Museum of Fine Arts, “Close Distance” is engaging, provoking and riveting.

The exhibition is as culturally diverse and distinct as are the artistic vocabularies presented. From the site specific work of Daniela Rivera, a 2010 Foster Prize finalist to Raul Gonzalez III and others; religion, identity, pop culture, politics, and institutional oppression are all explored, commented upon and richly juxtaposed throughout the gallery and within individual works.

Vela Phelan, Witch Doctor Wrestlers, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Vela Phelan’s site specific performance-installation Deviant Idols in the Black Divine, a work  modeled after a temple and composed of “spiritual idols for a modern world” struck a chord with me. A performance artist, Mr. Phelan’s installation opened up a world of memories growing up in the Dominican Republic. Having experienced the mysticism and the commodization of Santeria and Voodoo practices on a personal level, this installation moved me in ways only the pulsating beats of African drums at a palo ceremony have.

Because of the spiritual relationship that evolves between the viewer and the artist, Mr. Phelan has decided to carry out a 5-part performance that will take place almost every Thursday at Mills Gallery. “What will happen is a bit unknown to me (and to him),” says curator Liz Munsell “but it will be a journey that takes us outside the gallery walls – physically and metaphysically.”

Referencing minimalism and the literal collapse of institutional spaces, Daniela Rivera’s Fatiga material allows for an exhilirating experience as juxtaposed with the dexterous, signature “self-taught” style drawings of Raul Gonzalez.

Anabel Vazquez Rodriguez, Visión Doble, Super 8. 2011. Film. Courtesy of the artist.

In the film Visión Doble (Double Vision), multimedia artist Anabel Vazquez Rodriguez juxtaposes paradise-like images of Puerto Rico with political demonstrations held in and around Boston’s Copley Square. The film is an autobiographical journey that transcends borders and cultural boundaries.

While Boston may not have a tightly knit Latino arts collective like New York, Los Angeles and Miami do, “Close Distance” gathers together local Boston artists who for the most part had known each other prior to this exhibition at Mills Gallery. “Because these artists are all floating in the same “alternative” spaces or artist institutions as other Bostonians,” says Ms. Munsell, “I would say that they have much common, including language and culture, that brings them together.”

With “Close Distance, I hoped to bring them together a bit more” says Ms. Munsell, whose approach to curating is not solely interesting on a formal or aesthetic level – but has social context or a theoretical framework as its backdrop. “I can already see that has happened in a major way, but the show has just begun!” she added. “Close Distance” is rich in talent and abundant in excellent work.

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Artist and Curator Talk Wednesday, August 3 | 6 – 9pm
Performance with Artists Yassy Goldie and Bru Jø Wednesday, August 17 | 6 – 8pm
These artists’ work touches on the construction of cultural identity. Their guerrilla tactics have been known to simultaneously intrigue and disorient audiences.

Vela Phelan explores the duality “ego/spirituality” through objects and actions found in his performance-installation Deviant Idols of The Black Devine. In his words “a Quest to expand the Shadow my EGO CASTS,” this five-part performance will take place at Mills Gallery Thursdays July 21 & 28, August 11 & 25 at 7pm, and as part of the Artist/Curator talk on Wednesday, Aug 3rd.