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Downtown View: Parks, Pools, and Democracy

Rachael Ringenberg takes her one-year-old daughter to the Esplanade as much as she can. They head for the Lee Memorial Wading Pool, across Storrow Drive from the signs, “If you lived here, you’d be home now.”

Rachael says the Lee wading pool is ideal. It’s not as crowded and chaotic as the Frog Pond, which she thinks better fits kids older than her toddler. The Lee has two sprays that the little children love.

Moreover, Rachael, who lives on Beacon Hill, says she likes the place because she meets families from many other neighborhoods—Charlestown, the North End, the West End, Cambridge and the Back Bay.

The only problem? The pool is closed. The broken chlorinator has been on backorder, said S.J. Port, spokesperson for the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, the agency that owns the Esplanade. The larger swimming pool next door has been closed probably since the late 1970s—no one I spoke to knew or could remember.

Now, inquiring minds might wonder how it came to be that a facility such as these 1950s pools in the heart of a dense, hot city would be closed. Inquiring minds might also ask what could be done about such a situation.

While the answer to both questions is money or lack of it, other movements are taking shape that might influence this matter.

First is Esplanade 2020, the Esplanade Association’s vision for the park. That plan expressed guiding principles for the park’s ongoing development and maintenance. One principle is that the park should be accessible to people from all walks of life and all parts of the city. The Lee Memorial Wading Pool, even in its decrepit, incomplete state, seems to speak to that principle of bringing many parts of the city together.

Another principle in Esplanade 2020 calls for providing “modern facilities for modern uses throughout the year” and for upgrades that would “accommodate 21st-century activities and uses that cater to all people.”

That means that the Esplanade 2020 committee has a vision for that part of the park, with a completely renovated swimming pool and pool house serving both the pool and the adjacent playing fields, said Sylvia Salas, the Esplanade Association’s executive director.

They hope to create an accessible water park, for want of a better word, for all ages, with artistic, playful elements, perhaps a beach, maybe a landing with kayaks for rent. Sounds pretty good. So what’s stopping them from moving forward on that?

It’s first getting the Eliot Memorial renovation completed, the improved Hatch Shell café up and running and then making a serious plan for the pool area, said Salas.

What might prompt them to move forward more quickly than usual is Mass Eye and Ear’s proposal for an underground parking garage and changing roadways. Another prod toward speed is the reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge. If that part of the Esplanade, also known as Charlesbank, is going to be disrupted anyway, why not do it all at the same time?

DCR contributes funds to new projects on the Esplanade, and does most of the maintenance, but its responsibilities are state-wide and it has suffered from funding cutbacks. The Esplanade Association has taken up much of the slack for DCR’s downtown, riverside park, and, luckily, it has been exceptionally good at raising money, for lack of money is always the big bugaboo.

Other pools are not too far from Charlesbank. The Mirabella Pool is a handsome city pool on Commercial Street, but it is closely identified with the North End and doesn’t draw as much from other neighborhoods. MGH’s luscious outdoor pool at the Clubs at Charles River Park is another facility just across Storrow Drive from the Lee pools. But it can cost up to $2,000 a season for swimming privileges for a family of four.

All kinds of facilities like these are needed in any city, but we need more. “Parks are great equalizers,” says Salas. “They are the most democratic space we have.”

We should be proud to live in Boston, whose citizens act unafraid of democratic spaces, while people who live in gated communities appear to be terrified. If Bostonians were fearful, we wouldn’t turn out in such huge numbers for the Fourth of July. We wouldn’t be mixing it up on our busy sidewalks or strolling through the Common or along the Greenway. At our best, our citizenry values public spaces and feels comfortable mixing it up with everyone—rich, poor and in between. We might be grumpy, surly and complaining, but, in most discussions, I hear everyone insisting that Bostonians from all walks of life are entitled to beautiful, well-functioning places. Realizing the Esplanade Association’s vision for the Lee pool area, and indeed for the Esplanade itself, would contribute toward the feeling of fellowship across neighborhood lines and provide access to entertainment and pleasure.

Meanwhile, Rachael and her daughter are in luck in the short term. DCR expected to receive the back-ordered part at the end of last week and hopes to install it immediately. The wading pool might already be going again by the time this column appears.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

2 Replies to “Downtown View: Parks, Pools, and Democracy

  1. Matt, you have given me way to much material. The Racoon situation was especially alarming. Racoons will become agressive when confronted. Fortunately, no resident, tourist or unknowing child got in the path of this sick, probably rabid animal. A possible solution to shutting down the food source would be for building owners to provide heavy duty trash recepticles with lids. The city should also join in this endeavor. We are all too aware, of the influx of traffic during the Summer and for that matter , most of the year. This is a positive for obvious reasons.However, trash filled streets and overflowing trash recepticles are not only unslightly but create a health hazard. The Parks are woefully underserved when it comes to trash recepticles. Litter has no place to go but on the ground. What's the point of creating a world class City, if it can't be kept clean? Eliminate the rodent, racoon food source, before some unfortunate victim makes the local News.

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