The Southwest Corridor Park, known by many as a peaceful escape running through the center of bustling Boston from Jamaica Plan and Roxbury to the South End and Back Bay, was recently chosen as the “Best Secret Garden” by Boston Magazine in its 2020 Best of Boston issue.
The magazine admits the park “isn’t exactly a secret,” as it is used by many to commute, play, or just enjoy some fresh air. However, a lot of hard work from volunteers and organizations goes into keeping the park beautiful and enjoyable for all.
It’s a real team effort and many hands go into helping out with the different sections of the park, but the Sun spoke with Franco Campanello, President of the Southwest Corridor Park Conservancy (SWCP), as well as Jennifer Leonard, Chair of the Southwest Corridor Park Management Advisory Council (PMAC). The SWPC looks after the portion of the corridor from Harcourt St. to Northampton St. in the South End, while PMAC advocates and advises all sections of the corridor.
The two organizations “seek to work together seamlessly,” Leonard said, to “help channel the energy of users, friends, and volunteers into active stewardship,” according to the Southwest Corridor Park website.
Campanello said that the SWCP’s portion of the corridor was not always so inviting. When he lived on Holyoke St. “right on the park” in the 1990s, he adopted a plant bed outside the dog park. “I enjoyed making it look pretty good,” he said.
After four years of maintaining his small area, he moved to California. When he returned to Boston and moved near Claremont Park in 2003, he started taking care of the park outside his house.
At that time, he said the corridor “looked like an abandoned parking lot” with “invasive trees, dead zones; half the shrubbery had died, and the other half were on the way out. There were grass areas that had lost all living material. It became a small sand lot,” he said.
He said it took three years just to remove the invasive trees that had grown in the park, with the help of Betsy Johnson, who was on the Prudential Project Advisory Committee, (PruPAC).
“She got on the PruPAC board and arranged for the park to get mitigation funds for the expansion of the Prudential Center,” Campanello explained. “That was the original source of revenue.”
Campanello became president of the SWCP in August of 2008. “The first thing I did [was] I realized that people were not going to give money to the park to restore it unless they saw that someone cared for it,” he said.
He connected with social services organization Boston Cares to set up monthly park restoration projects. The seed money from PruPAC was used to build fencing “at sensitive areas” that allowed the plant materials to grow without being “trampled on.”
SWPC had become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which allowed it to raise money. In 2010, Campanello was a realtor with Coldwell Baker in the South End, which he said gave him access to everyone who lived and owned property in the South End and St. Botolph area. “We designed a card and sent about 1000 letters out to people asking for money,” he said, and received about $10,000.
“That was absolutely a great surprise to us all,” Campanello said. “We didn’t know there were that many people in the neighborhood who cared about the park.” Every year since, SWPC has reached out to the community asking for donations, except this year because of the virus.
“I always thought it was a crime that such good property had gone to waste,” he said of the original state of the park. “There isn’t a lot of green space in the City of Boston,” he added, and here was a “perfectly good green space that was completely neglected.”
So far, 86 trees have been planted and Section One of the park between Camden St. at Northeastern University and Harcourt St. at Copley Place, there are 60 different species of trees, a number of hedges, and more than 400 species of plants, Campanello said.
Campanello, who said he’s “been a gardener as long as I remember,” has taken gardening classes at the Arnold Arboretum, at a community college on Long Island, and various other places. As a former science teacher as well, he said his interest in horticulture really helped him dig into these planting and restoration projects.
He said that more projects are still on the horizon for the corridor, including the grass strip between the sidewalk and street at Harcourt St “that was just a dead zone—not even grass, just weeds,” he said. “Starting in April, we cut it in half and put a stone path in and started really planting on Memorial Day.” A “wall of flowers” is now planted, including purple and yellow daisies, ironweed, and Jo-Pye weed. “It’s really quite stunning,” Campanello said. Shrubs, grass, and a mix of annuals and perennials were also planted to keep it looking great, even in the winter.
Campanello also said that restoration of the corner pieces at West Newton St. is also in the works. He said there is a “lot of dead material, open space, and weeds,” and work will continue on that section for the next two years.
“Hopefully there are plans afoot for the Northampton Green,” Campanello added. He said that part of the area is where Martin Luther King resided when he lived in Boston, adding that it is hopeful that restoration of the park will happen when other construction is done and they can figure out how to get water to the park for the new plantings.
Aside from the active planting, PMAC works alongside SWPC to orchestrate community events in the park as well as rally volunteers to help with the planting and the upkeep. Jennifer Leonard said that PMAC’s mission includes “advising, advocacy, and action,” which includes running youth and family programs every year.
Many would argue that maintenance and public safety are key factors in the upkeep of a healthy park. Leonard said that the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) provides a “majority of the maintenance,” such as grass cutting, hedge clipping, and snow shoveling. Since the MBTA owns the land, they are responsible for trash pickup and other repairs that may be necessary.
Leonard said that while the “network of volunteers who do hands on work falls under [SWPC],” many of those members are also members of PMAC, which oversees the volunteer work and ensures open communication around issues of maintenance and upkeep.
As far as public safety goes, Leonard said PMAC partners with other groups and agencies, including state and city officials, to ensure that the park remains safe. Volunteer safety is also emphasized, she said.
“We look at what we can do to advocate for bigger services and solutions around who is doing things around addiction and recovery,” she added.
“Our membership overlaps in terms of conversations,” she said. A conversation may be started at a PMAC meeting, opened up to a broader network of people, and be brought back. As an advisory group, this is the structure that is typically followed by other parks throughout the city, Leonard said.
Some of the community events orchestrated by PMAC include a children’s garden at Jackson Square by the Mildred Hailey Apartments, which has been going on for several years but is not active this summer due to the virus.
PMAC also runs a mini-grant program in partnership with Northeastern University that supports youth and family programming in the Southwest Corridor Park, “nurturing the next generation of park leaders,” she said.
In the South End, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) has organized the painting of a mural by children as well as last year’s round of garbage can and electrical box paintings in the park. United South End Settlements has also held a paint night for people to come out to the park and paint on canvases, and Boston Explorers, headquartered in Jamaica Plain, has used the park as a place to bike and explore.
Many residents and neighbors have shown interest in contributing to the Southwest Corridor Park in some way over the years, and a large network exists to help ensure it stays welcoming for years to come. From neighbors pitching in, to college and corporate groups coming out for large volunteer days, those who have gotten involved in the betterment of the park “love our story,” Leonard said.
“I think everybody who touches the park just loves the story.”