Out of the Park

Helen Cox and Gloria Platt are sitting in the McDonald's on Boylston Street, a largely unbecoming stretch of road near Fenway Park. This street — with its fast-food joints, Howard Johnson hotel, adult video store, and gas stations — is an odd place to expound upon the virtues of the Fenway, one of Boston's most diverse and culturally rich neighborhoods. “Yes, this block is pretty ugly, isn't it?” says Cox, an outspoken 70-year-old neighborhood activist who has lived in the Fenway since 1958 and has earned, she says, the unofficial titles Mayor of the West Fenway and Biggest-Pain-in-the-You-Know-What in the West Fenway. “This street does look rather like Middle America.”

Platt, who raised two sons in the neighborhood since moving here in 1966, says she doesn't so much mind this gritty stretch of Boylston that connects downtown Boston to Brookline. “I'm just so used to it, I really don't find anything offensive about it at all,” she says. “This street is nothing compared to that muddy old river!”

The muddy old river in question, aptly named the Muddy River, has been a source of consternation for two centuries. It wreaked unspeakable sanitary havoc in the mid-19th century, when it essentially served as a sewage basin for the Back Bay, and in recent years has flooded often. “It seems like we've been raising money for 30 years for that damn river,” Platt continues.

There are probably no better Fenway experts than Cox and Platt, whose boundless love for their neighborhood, visual blemishes and all, is matched only by their hope to see it improved — and recognized. And they are not alone. A short walk east, in the Fenway Alliance offices on Huntington Avenue, Kelly Brilliant eagerly explains that the Fenway, with the right makeover and public relations, could soon be recognized as a cultural mecca.

“The Fenway is a best-kept secret,” says Brilliant, the group's executive director. “I don't know anywhere else in the country that has so many incredible cultural and academic institutions within walking distance from one another. The problem is, people don't realize that all these places are in the Fenway. We need to get people away from hopping off the subway, going to the Museum of Fine Arts, hopping right back on the subway, and going straight home. There is so much more to see.”

This isn't news to Fenway residents, a diverse cross-section of students, upstart single professionals, artists, and long-timers with affordable rents who can't imagine living in any other place. After all, where else in Boston can you take a morning walk through the Back Bay Fens, tour an exhibit at the MFA, grab Thai food at the Brown Sugar Café, catch an afternoon show at the Symphony, take in a night game at Fenway Park, down an after-game beer at Boston Beer Works, and, if you haven't already imploded, end the night at a club on Lansdowne Street?

The Fenway might have a lot going for it, but its residents don't expect Bostonians to suddenly start taking their humble neighborhood seriously. The Fenway is Boston's forgotten neighborhood, destined to live in the shadows of Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, and the North End.

Or is it?

In 1876, the city of Boston had a brilliant, delusional idea: Why not convert a huge land mass of water, mud, and salt marsh into a recreational park? The city engineer at the time had his doubts, declaring, “If the state of Massachusetts had been hunted over, a space combining more disadvantages for a park could not have been found.”

Still, something had to be done. The basin containing the Back Bay Fens grew increasingly rank as the surrounding population grew. The new parks commission decided to transform the mess into part of the integrated park system being planned — the Emerald Necklace, which would connect Boston to its suburbs and be accessible to Bostonians of all social classes.

It wasn't quite the Big Dig, but the project, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, took 15 years to complete. When it opened in 1895, the Back Bay Fens became Boston's new hot spot, attracting walkers, canoeists, horseback riders, and ladies in carriages along a network of bridle paths. More important, the park drew major institutions — museums, universities, and Fenway Park in 1912 — to the area.

Today, the Fens — roughly bordered by Park Drive, Boylston Street, and the Fenway — is the neighborhood's crown jewel, boasting some of Boston's most beautiful public space, including the Kelleher Rose Garden and the Richard D. Parker Memorial Victory Gardens. Still, the park and Muddy River have suffered from years of neglect and urban encroachment. “The Emerald Necklace represents the vision of the 19th century and the negligence of the 20th,” Anne Whiston Spirn wrote in her book The Granite Garden.

Fenway residents have formed grass-roots organizations intent on, among other things, improving flood control and water quality along the Muddy River and traffic circulation for cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians, and restoring damaged bridges.

“The goal is to make an already beautiful and historic place even better,” says Simone Auster, director of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, “and to reintroduce it to so many local people who forget that it's even here. The Fens is probably better known internationally than it is locally.”

That's just fine for many Fenway residents, who are more interested in tending to their plots in the Victory Gardens. The gardens run alongside the Muddy River, but the view is obstructed by thousands of shoots of phragmites, which look like thick 15-foot-tall weeds. And it is amidst this odd-looking vegetation that one of the Fens' longest-running unofficial traditions continues: Men seeking sex with men cruise the area at night, making the Fens a bizarre conflux of natural beauty and human desperation.

While many Boston neighborhoods wouldn't tolerate such activity, the Fenway has mostly looked the other way. “There is a tacit acceptance of it because it's been happening there for so long,” says Cox. “Its just part of the neighborhood.”

“This McDonald's used to be a beautiful little nightclub,” Gloria Platt tells me as we begin an informal afternoon tour of the West Fenway, the area bordered by Brookline Avenue, Fenway Park, and the Fens. Platt is 70, friendly, hip, short, and very blond, the last of which she grudgingly credits to Nice 'n Easy. “Of course, McDonald's ruined it by putting up all this fake wood.”

Platt, who seems to know the history of every building in the neighborhood, has long been active in neighborhood politics and raised her two sons here, both of whom attended the Fenway's Boston Latin School and Berklee College of Music. “I always say, 'My boys went to high school in the front yard, and they went to college in the back yard!'” she says with a smile.

Platt and I walk southwest on Boylston toward Jersey Street. To the right is Fenway Park. Like many local residents, Platt says she was glad to hear that the new owners of the Red Sox favor a plan to renovate the park instead of rebuilding, possibly on Boylston Street. “The park has always been a part of the neighborhood, and we want to keep it that way,” she says. “We just don't want it on Boylston because we have bigger plans in store.”

Those plans include an urban village — a mixed development on Boylston with a community center, at least 2,500 housing units, street-level stores and offices, and more open space.

Platt takes a left on Jersey Street, walking past the Baseball Tavern, a popular sports bar for old-time Red Sox fans. At the corner of Jersey and Peterborough, she points out the Georgian-style Boston Temple Seventh-Day Adventist Church, built in 1904.

On adjacent Peterborough Street stands the four-story brick building where Platt has rented an affordable-housing apartment since 1979. One of the strengths of this neighborhood is that it is nearly impossible to distinguish between affordable housing and expensive condominiums. Nearby at Peterborough and Kilmarnock is what neighbors affectionately call “restaurant row” — a series of restaurants, including the popular Italian favorite Sorento's and Lazy Susan Café.

A few blocks away, at the corner of Queensberry and Jersey streets, Platt ducks into King of Records (also known as the Recycling Factory), a narrow, dimly lit variety store with knick-knacks of every conceivable genre.

Noticing that the store is empty, I ask the owner, Jerry Cooper, if he gets much foot traffic. “Oh, no, this street probably has the least amount of traffic in the East and West Fenway,” says Cooper, who moved his store from Kilmarnock Street 13 years ago. “Sometimes dealers pop in, and during September and October I get a lot of students. I might as well be on vacation the rest of the year.”

After Platt and Cooper catch up on news about common friends, we leave the store and take a right on Jersey Street, stopping in front of the Brown Sugar Café, a popular Thai restaurant. Across the street is Buteco, the oldest restaurant in the Fenway.

When we reach the park, Platt and I go our separate ways. She heads home, I walk across the Fens toward Huntington Avenue, which Mayor Tom Menino renamed Avenue of the Arts in 1998. When, some residents ask, will the Avenue of the Arts live up to its impressive new name?

When Emerson student Justin Marsh looks at Huntington Avenue, the Fenway resident does not see a cultural mecca.

“I don't know who they think they're kidding,” says Marsh. “It's definitely not promoted well as a distinct area in the way that Beacon Hill or the Back Bay is. When someone visits Boston, no one tells them, 'Oh, be sure and check out Huntington Ave.'”

The Fenway Alliance would like to change that. With 18 member institutions (including the MFA, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts College of Art), the organization's vision for a Fenway cultural district is, according to its own literature, “a place where people experience the best in what American culture has to offer and afterward, linger over a fine meal, shop in distinctive retail stores, and stroll beautifully landscaped streets.”

The latter goal is slowly taking shape, with construction under way to widen sidewalks and make space for trees and acorn-style streetlights. More difficult to achieve is turning what amounts to a gritty, student-heavy neighborhood into one with streetside cafés and fine dining and shopping.

None of this dissuades the Fenway Alliance. “We're one of the great cultural districts in America,” says Kelly Brilliant. “Now we need to start looking and acting like it.”