On a beautiful Friday afternoon on the edge of autumn, the historic old William E. Carter Playground was introduced to the new millennium in a ribbon-cutting ceremony led by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun.
Hundreds gathered along Columbus Avenue in the midst of Northeastern’s campus to hear the dignitaries, athletes, students, and Bostonians praise the transformation of a city landmark. And yet the audience paled in size in comparison to the many more who have been making use of the renovated 6.5-acre facility ever since the builders and their equipment withdrew last month. Children and students played on the edges of the park throughout the ceremony, as if acting out the themes of recreation and renewal that Walsh and Aoun were citing.
Northeastern committed $108 million to the project, including $82 million for maintenance over the next 30 years, and by surrendering its Camden parking lot the footprint of the park was increased by 25 percent. Its updated features include two football and soccer fields that can also be used for baseball, softball, lacrosse, and other sports; one of the fields will be covered with a temporary bubble in December, to enable play throughout winter.
There are also five tennis courts, open recreational space, and a “tot lot” area with equipment for children with disabilities that was dedicated Friday to Northeastern graduate Victoria McGrath, who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and died in a tragic accident overseas in 2016.
“There are people that talk, and people that do. The mayor and the president, they’re doers,” said Victoria’s father, Jim McGrath, whose family oversees a foundation in her name. “Maybe Victoria can reflect God’s light and love on the children that are going to benefit.”
The park is named for Sgt. William E. Carter, an African-American veteran of the Spanish American War and World War I who was killed in action in France in 1918. In the 1950s the players who shot baskets at Carter Playground included Martin Luther King, Jr., a Boston University graduate student who was remembered for playing in street shoes rather than sneakers. A decade later, King led the 1965 civil rights march to the Boston Common from Carter Playground.
“Both of these legendary figures,” said Walsh of Carter and King, “would be proud to know what this park looks like today, and what this park stands for today.”
Local teams and athletes have access to the park, which continues to be run by the City even as the university takes responsibility for its maintenance. Northeastern students and their club teams will also benefit from access to the facilities. While the players of Northeastern’s soccer club were running laps around the new field during a recent practice, they were greeted with high-fives by local kids from South End Soccer – a scene representative of the relationship between the university and its city, according to Sean McIntyre.
“I’m extremely excited about these new fields for club sports, because it represents a massive improvement in the quality of our training,” McIntyre, a fifth-year soccer player, told the audience. “Carter leaves us several levels higher than where we used to be.”
The ceremony amounted to a milestone renewal of the park’s history and traditions. Some 90 years ago the park was littered with rocks and grass, which did not prevent teams of high-school-aged football players from drawing large crowds at the expense of their sore and scratched knees. Satchel Paige, the legendary baseball Hall-of-Famer, once pitched at Carter Playground. In winter the park was converted into a natural skating rink.
Aoun and Walsh were intent on crediting each other.
“He said, ‘Let’s dream together,’” Aoun said of the mayor. “His vision was very simple. He said, ‘This community needs recreation. I’m not happy with what we have, let’s do it better.’ That was his challenge.”
Walsh, in an interview, cited Northeastern’s financial commitment to the park.
“This is about the growth and advancement of the school, which in turn benefits the community who has been fighting for this for so long,” Walsh said. “What that allows us in the city to do is make investments in other places.”
The star of the day was the facility itself. The pristine turf fields were set off by bright boundaries of white, red, blue and yellow, denoting the variety of sports to be served. The speakers stood in the center circle of one of the fields, against a backdrop of Back Bay skyscrapers set off by the cloudless blue sky. To their right the commuter and subway trains rolled by, much as in the old days when young users of the park would gather by the platform and wave at the passing riders.
The rugged past had given birth to this immaculate present. For the teams of young athletes from the university and the city who filled out the audience on Friday, the story of renewal was of secondary importance. They were simply looking forward to their next game.
Greg St. Martin contributed to this report.