Charlesgate Alliance Working to Reclaim Lost Neighborhood

By Dan Murphy

When Parker James and Pam Beale formed the ad hoc Charlesgate Alliance in February, their mission was to piece back together a city neighborhood lost to the construction of the Bowker Overpass more than half a century ago.

“We are one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, and we are endowed with demographic, cultural and institutional riches,” James wrote of the area that abuts the Back Bay and Fenway and runs adjacent to Kenmore Square. “We have been ignored in the past, but no more.”

Venerable landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted designed the neighborhood and its Charlesgate Park as the “crown jewel” and key-link uniting the Charles River Esplanade, the Emerald Necklace and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall together into a single-park system.

In the 1960s, the erstwhile Metropolitan District Commission planned to transform much of the Emerald Necklace into a highway between Boston and Providence. The state razed Charlesgate Park to build the Bowker Overpass – an essential link to a highway that was never built: The overpass was subsequently constructed in 1965 and 1966 – the same year it became illegal to use public parkland for highway construction.

“As part of this process, the City of Boston transferred ownership of the park to the state,” James wrote. “Since then, the Commonwealth has allowed park to fall into increasing disrepair.”

James wrote that the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which has jurisdiction over the park itself, is “profoundly underfunded,” and thus, the Charlesgate Alliance now hopes to forge partnerships with non-profits and foster cooperative relationships with DCR and the Boston Parks Department in an effort to revitalize the park.

Besides sponsoring a recent Charlesgate Park and Muddy River cleanup, Parker said the group’s short-term goals include developing the notion of Charlesgate as a neighborhood.

Medium-term goals include creating safe, pedestrian friendly, public areas, improving Muddy River water-quality and helping public agencies like the DCR and MassDOT maintain and improve the park, James wrote.

As for long-term goals, James said the group intends to restore the park, to create a “fully integrated” Charlesgate neighborhood and to establish the Charlesgate Alliance as a “solid, enduring” organization.

Meanwhile, James said the Charlesgate Alliance has launched a Web site at charlesgatealliance.org and recruited more than 100 members to date, including Sam Wertheimer, who has emerged as a key leader in the organization; Jamie Cornell, who is leading the fundraising effort; and Joanne Meirovitz, who developed the group’s Web site. Key allies at the institutional level include Karen Mauney-Brodeck of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, Margaret Pokorny of the Garden Club of the Back Bay and Herb Nolan of the Solomon Foundation.

Also, James said the Alliance has reached out to Charles River Watershed Association, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Friends of the Public Garden, the Esplanade Association, the Fenway Civic Association, the LivableStreets Alliance, the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay and the Solomon Foundation about potential partnerships to date and hopes to make inroads to other existing organizations in the future.

“We have also reached out to our elected officials,” James wrote. “State Sen. Will Brownsberger, Rep. Jay Livingstone and City Councilor Josh Zakim have been very helpful. We are hopeful that the Walsh administration will support our endeavors as well.”

Looking forward, James said the Alliance would host an “inclusive design process” this fall, with events including   “Walk Around Charlesgate Park” beneath the Bowker Overpass on the north side of Commonwealth Avenue (weather permitting) on Saturday, Sept. 16, from 2 to 4 p.m., as well as “Talk About Charlesgate Park” in the first-floor common room at 91 Bay State Road on Tuesday, Oct. 10, from 7 to 9 p.m.

“We will host a series of other design events over the course of the winter 2017-2018, and hope to emerge with practical (i.e. fundable) plans to improve the park starting in the spring of 2018,” James added.

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