An occasional column about city life
Each December, I pay the piper after hoarding donation envelopes and non-profit pitches during the previous months. In the 2019 giving season, as I went through my envelopes, I found one addressed to the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy. I pondered it, felt a bit sad, and cast the envelope aside empty.
Earlier, when I received the ask from the Greenway, I saved it because I had every intention of contributing to a favorite Boston site. I felt the Greenway had finally redeemed itself after a woeful start 10 years ago. At that time, having gone through the grueling Big Dig project for years and years, I couldn’t imagine how a ribbon of freed land would finally emerge above the Central Artery/Tunnel. Even more unimaginable? The land could actually become a park and not a parcel for developers or gold-rushers. Actually, the gold-rushers got there first.
Soon after the Greenway opened in 2009, the Boston Herald ran a series of articles about Nancy Brennan, the new executive director. Brennan’s chief accomplishment at the time was landing an astronomical non-profit salary, $185,000, as well as insuring her minions were similarly larded by six-figure salaries. One of those direct reports was Jesse Brackenbury, then-Greenway COO.
The stories about Brennan in the Herald were damning because it became clear the Greenway was out on a limb despite all its state contacts. Clearly, the organization was not skillfully protected by one of the many slithery sharp “governmental affairs” public relations agencies littering this town. Brennan continued to flop in the public eye like a newly-caught snapper until she finally gave up, exhausted, and moved to the West Coast for a new job in 2012. The Greenway Board named her lieutenant, COO Brackenbury, to succeed her. In 2016, Channel 5 reported executive director Brackenbury’s salary had jumped to $217,000 per year.
Life went on. The Greenway grew in community estimation and eased into the neighborhood, taking risks with its art installations and public benefits such as a hand-carved colorful carousel, food trucks, and a beer garden down by Rowes Wharf. The Greenway was safe and becoming the benefit promised when the Big Dig chewed up downtown. Columnists such as the Globe’s Yvonne Abraham wrote celebratory paeans. The greenery and gardens also looked impeccably maintained. And when the Carolyn Lynch Garden on the Greenway – a bountiful gift from the late philanthropist – opened in 2018 near the North End, I truly thought I had found urban Xanadu. So, earlier this year, when I received the pitch to donate to the public space, I carefully put the envelope away to fill at year’s end.
However, once again, the Greenway tripped all over itself. Last October, it fired WORK Inc., a worthy Dorchester non-profit and the state’s largest employer of people with disabilities, in favor of Block by Block, a Kentucky for-profit company, to handle all the gardening and caretaking along the 1.5 mile Greenway. Amazingly, brazenly, crazily, the Greenway let go of one local business that seemed to be doing a very good job for 10 years in favor of another company located outside of Massachusetts. Block by Block’s sole local credit is maintenance of Downtown Crossing.
Last October, when the Boston Globe rightly poked into this situation, executive director Brackenbury made no bones about the money issue. As he brashly told reporter Brian MacQuarrie: “I applaud (WORK Inc.’s) work to help people with disabilities. At the same time, we are spending taxpayer dollars and need to spend them wisely.” This pronouncement came from a non-profit executive with a salary well in excess of $200,000.
Then, Brackenbury got into a public tiff with James Cassetta, the president of WORK Inc. who had this reaction to the firing: “I’m disgusted. It was an absolute shock,” said Cassetta to the Globe, “I’ve never been as upset about anything in my career.” Countered Brackenbury also in the Globe: “This isn’t a matter of we fired WORK Inc. This is a matter of we made the best management decision to choose a competitive price for crucial services as fiduciaries of the park,” Asked whether the Greenway discriminated against disabled workers, Brackenbury said, “I’m not sure I should dignify that with a response.”
Depressing to know the Rose Kennedy Greenway – representing a famous family that championed the disabled while putting the bravest possible face on every bad situation – is still plowed under by crummy public relations.
Monica Collins, a long-time writer about Boston, lives on the Waterfront with husband comedy writer Ben Alper and dog Dexter.