Love That Dirty Water

Robert Fleming Gourlay, an eccentric Scotsman banished from Canada as a seditionist, arrived in Boston in 1843 seeking a cure for an epic case of insomnia. In five years, he'd managed just two hours of sleep. Trying to “beguile the watches of the night,” he wrote, he'd struck upon a visionary idea: Why not build a new town on the marshes and mud flats that separated Boston from Cambridge? And why not build a dam to create a fresh-water river basin encircled by park land?

Gourlay published his ideas in a pamphlet, which he submitted to Governor George Nixon Briggs, titled “Plans for Enlarging and Improving the City of Boston, Being Studies to Illustrate the Science of City Building.” Alas, Briggs and the rest of Boston's elite apparently dismissed Gourlay's nocturnal brainstorms as unrealistic.

No surprise there. It was neither the first nor the last time the city's ruling class ignored or messed up a fine idea. Indeed, the story of the Charles River Basin and its riverbank park land, which meanders from Watertown Square to Beacon Hill, stands as a 150-year history of visions realized and half-realized, visions deferred and visions desecrated. In other words, business as usual in Massachusetts politics.

No major renovations have been made to the Basin's parks in 50 years. Along the 17 miles of green space, used by as many as 20,000 people on a warm summer day (that is, not the Fourth of July), you will now find only six public toilets and a grand total of 21 picnic tables—and an annual average of 28 walkathons, 34 road races, 43 Hatch Shell concerts, and among the largest crew regatta and canoe races in the world.

But big plans are afoot for the Charles River Basin and its heavily used park land. This spring, the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) will publish a master plan calling for over $31 million in renovations over the next 20 years. Meanwhile, a Swiss-born planner who now lives in Newton, Renata von Tscharner, has founded the Charles River Conservancy, a private group seeking to raise private money. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a goal for all of the Charles to be “swimmable” by 2005.

Grand visions, though, tend to collide with puny reality. The MDC's master plan is just that—a plan. It's up to the Beacon Hill bunch to fund it. Swimming in the Charles would mean a host of new responsibilities for the already over-burdened MDC. Established Charles River “friends” groups like the venerable Charles River Watershed Association are casting a wary eye on von Tscharner and her nascent group, with the usual turf battles expected.

And then there's the MDC, which manages all of the park land around the Charles. John Winthrop Sears, commissioner of the MDC from 1970 to 1975, says the biggest question is whether the MDC's employees “have the training and the assets to take care of this extraordinary area.” More money, whether from the government or private donors, isn't necessarily the answer.

“I never saw a dollar bill take a beer can out of the river or off the banks,” says Sears.

Like everything else of intrinsic value in the Boston area, the river and its green space were taken from the Indians. According to Karl Haglund, an intense but soft-spoken senior planner at the MDC who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Charles River Basin, the Algonquins settled in the area 6,000 years ago, calling it “Mushauwomuk”—which translates to “where there is a big river.” By 1690, the English had persuaded the Algonquins to deed away all their claims to the river and the land around it.

For the two-mile-wide expanse of water that then separated Boston from Cambridge, “river” was something of a misnomer. Salt-water mud flats rose and ebbed with the tides in Boston Harbor, and marshes dotted the banks.

From the start, settlers saw the Charles as a moneymaker. The first mill dam—an earthen structure that forced water through a paddle wheel to provide energy for milling—was built near what is now Watertown Square in the 1630s. More mill dams sprang up along the river, rickety toll bridges criss-crossed it here and there, and by the nineteenth century “two prisons, three coal-burning power plants, and numerous shabby commercial and industrial structures” occupied the river's frontage, according to Haglund. An 1849 report by the Boston Board of Aldermen described the still-unfilled Back Bay as “nothing less than a great cesspool, into which is daily deposited all the filth of a large and increasing population.”

The filling of the Back Bay began in the 1850s, and some of the city's most prestigious addresses were quickly built upon it. Haglund says that during the late nineteenth century construction of the lovely row of brownstones along Bay State Road, a tree-lined street tucked between the river and Kenmore Square meant to replicate the tony Back Bay, builders boasted that sewage from the buildings would be dumped directly into the Charles River, just like they did on Beacon Street.

It was then that the next great visionary of the Charles River Basin, Charles Eliot, began his work. Eliot enjoyed a distinct advantage: As the son of the president of Harvard and a former apprentice to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, he belonged to the city's ruling elite. Having lost his mother when he was nine years old, the young Eliot was tortured by recurring depression and drifted through Harvard unable to settle on a career. A post-graduate tour of European cities, during which he studied their layout and planning, imparted in him a passion for landscape architecture.

Eliot visited Europe in the late nineteenth century, as democracy and a stable middle class began to emerge on the Continent, and those changes created a revolution in the creation of public spaces and public monuments. Revolutions and riots had toppled monarchies, whose most dramatic public spaces—the palace grounds, sprawling gardens—had been built for the glorification of the monarchy. As nations became democratic, so did their public spaces. They had to. The people demanded the green spaces and playing fields that had once been the sole province of the nobility. The nobility, eager to keep their heads, complied.

Eliot and Sylvester Baxter, an amateur scholar and a writer for the Boston Daily Advertiser, persuaded the legislature in 1892 to found the Metropolitan Park System, the forerunner of today's Metropolitan District Commission. The next year, Eliot and Baxter issued a report recommending that thousands of acres of property be preserved as park land throughout greater Boston and along the Charles River Basin. (Although Olmsted was one of Eliot's mentors, Eliot and Baxter took the lead as the MDC promulgated its plans.)

For its day, the report was a best-seller: They had to print 9,000 copies. The state legislature liked the idea and with Eliot and Baxter in the lead, large tracts of land were purchased with state and municipal money and converted into open-space preserves: Beaver Brook reservation on the Waltham-Belmont line; the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton; Revere Beach; and the Middlesex Fells in Medford and Stoneham. Eliot and Baxter created most of what are today the MDC's most beautiful reservations.

“At the heart of Eliot's vision for the derelict spaces along the rivers and shores,” Haglund says, “was the tidal Charles River Basin, extending nine miles upstream from East Cambridge and Boston's West End. The basin, he predicted, would become the 'central “court of honor” in the metropolitan district.'” The land was owned by “semi-public” institutions (hospitals, cemetery commissions, the U.S. Army), industry, Harvard College, and a variety of businesses. Within three years, the Metropolitan Park Commission and the Cambridge Park Commission had acquired almost the entire 17 miles, turning it into the park land the public uses today. Fifty years after poor Gourlay's prophetic plans were ignored, Eliot's vision became reality.

Eliot, alas, died before he could enjoy the result of his vision. Visiting park land in Hartford, he fell ill and died in 1897 at age 37. As what had been a shantytown of polluting industry became verdant open space, three of Boston's most prestigious institutions decided to move to the river banks: Harvard (from Cambridge), MIT (from the Back Bay), and Boston University (from downtown). At the time, most of the land along the river was privately owned, and the big universities simply bought it up. For a time, some envisioned man-made islands built in the middle of the Basin: for a “civic cathedral,” for MIT's campus, for a World War I monument. Those visions, fortunately, died on the drawing board.

But the water—salt-water mud flats teeming with raw sewage and rising and falling with the daily tides of Boston Harbor—remained a problem. Up stepped another visionary, James Jackson Storrow of Back Bay, the wealthy scion of one of Boston's finest families. An investment banker and business partner of Henry Lee Higginson (the founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Storrow would later spend four years in Detroit helping out a fledgling auto company named General Motors.

A lover of the river who in 1885 had captained Harvard's crew team, Storrow led a campaign to dam the mouth of the Charles. By 1910, an earthen dam with a pair of locks at what is now the Museum of Science was finished. The dam stabilized the water level from Boston to Watertown, eliminated the salt-water mud flats and marshes, and created the Charles River Basin we know today. After his death, Storrow's widow donated $1 million to widen the riverbank and create the Storrow Embankment, also known as the Esplanade, on the condition that the state drop its plans for a highway running alongside the river. State officials agreed, and the Esplanade was dedicated in 1936.

While the state was agreeing that no road would be built, the City of Boston was paying a New York City traffic consultant to map out a plan for just such a roadway. By 1946, Governor Maurice Tobin, in his State of the State speech, called for construction of the so-called Embankment Road “immediately.” Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston Pops (already well-known for its summertime Esplanade concerts), joined the fierce opposition. In April of 1948, legislative leaders locked Massachusetts House members in the House chamber and did not let them leave until approval of the road was given—which it was, by a one-vote margin. The legislature, deaf to irony, named the road that cut the city off from the river and its park land James J. Storrow Memorial Drive.

That, for the next half century, ended the days of the urban park land visionaries. While the MDC improved the Basin's parks here and there, unintended consequences always arose. Bicycling, for example, was banned on the Esplanade until 1960, when eminent Boston cardiologist Paul Dudley White (he was President Dwight Eisenhower's physician) convinced the MDC to allow a trial of this particular kind of cardiovascular exercise along the riverbank. It would be another decade before bicycle paths were completed. Former MDC commissioner John Sears, an iminence grise in Boston's public life who lives a brief walk from the Esplanade at the foot of Beacon Hill, recalls the best of intentions gone awry. “As soon as I built the bike paths, I was rewarded by collisions between cyclists and pedestrians.”

Unintended consequences rule public planning. Anyone who has ever dodged rollerbladers while taking a walk along the river—or spread out a picnic blanket atop a patch of bare dirt where grass used to be—knows the park land along the Charles River Basin needs help. It is used and abused.

The MDC master plan calls for “substantially more support” from the private sector and suggests the creation of a “friends” group, like the enormously successful Friends of the Public Garden. But the river already has several such groups, and it could prove dicey trying to get the existing groups to ease Renata von Tscharner's Charles River Conservancy into the mix. As in all of Massachusetts public life, there is turf to defend. Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, the largest such group in the country, says diplomatically, “Our mission is to protect, preserve, and enhance the health, beauty, and accessibility of the Charles River and its watershed. But we are also intimately concerned with recreation and accessibility.”

The Charles River Watershed Association boasts an impressive track record. When the group began in 1965, Zimmerman says, “the Charles River was arguably the worst river in terms of sediment and water quality in the United States. It was certainly as bad as the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, which actually caught on fire. The history of the Charles River is the history of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and we suffered for it.”

By 1979, however, you could swim safely in the river from Hopkinton to Waltham, and, according to the association's water quality tests, the Basin (from Watertown to Boston) was actually considered swimmable on 59 percent of this past summer's days—compared to 19 percent just four years ago. (Case in point, former Governor Weld's infamous dive into the river in 1996, after which samples showed bacteria levels at least twice what's considered safe.)

The watershed association has earned its political power in the conservation world, and von Tscharner, as she launches the Charles River Conservancy, wisely heaps praise on the group. “Now we need to work on the park land—that's the next frontier,” she says. The conservancy's chief advisor, Brookline planner Catherine Donaher, says the conservancy “is in the thinking and conception stage, working on finding the right role and the right set of collaborators.” (The Central Park Conservancy in New York City, a model for von Tscharner's group, has raised $233 million of private money in 20 years.) Von Tscharner herself says, “Boston has a history of private philanthropy for cultural institutions. Well, the river is also a cultural institution, and it deserves that philanthropical attention because it needs it.”

Von Tscharner, who worked as an urban planner in Bern, London, and Paris before opening a consulting firm called The Townscape Institute in Cambridge in 1979, got an unusual gift for her 51st birthday: a wet suit. Now she can windsurf on the Charles in the summer, winter, spring, and fall. But what she wants most of all, von Tscharner says, is “to re-evoke the grand vision” of Charles Eliot, Sylvester Baxter, James Jackson Storrow, and Robert Fleming Gourlay.

'On this waste,” Robert Fleming Gourlay wrote in his 1844 pamphlet, after surveying the stinking mud flats separating Beacon Hill from Cambridge, Bostonians “may form a city surpassing all others, either in ancient or modern times.”

It took people with connections, money, and influence to make real the dreams of the complex and sleepless Scotsman. By 1915, the magazine Landscape Architecture wrote: “Our interest in Gourlay lies not in what he accomplished, but in the extraordinary accuracy of his prophetic vision and the wisdom of his recommendations. Of them we say again and again: 'If Boston had followed that advice, it would have saved millions of dollars yesterday,—it would be a better city today,—it would not need to spend millions tomorrow to undo what has been done.'”

More than 150 years of the same old Boston story. The task of cutting through the politics and the turf fights seems best left to those who have not only a grand vision, but the ability to turn it into reality. There's no shortage of visionaries today for the Charles River Basin's park land, the gem of Boston's open spaces. It remains to be seen how long they are on grit.