I am trying to pinpoint the moment I went from being a critic of the Rose Kennedy Greenway to an evangelist. Was it when the first gourmet food truck rolled into Dewey Square in 2010? Was it when Janet Echelman’s mutable, magical rope sculpture soared above Congress Street in 2015? Was it when the cool 3D printer churned out free plastic roosters in Chinatown for the Year of the Rooster in 2017? Whenever it was, Jesse Brackenbury probably had something to do with it.
Brackenbury, 46, who leaves his post as director of the nonprofit Greenway Conservancy next month, has helped transform the 17-acre linear park from a windy wasteland to a vibrant public space through big ideas and sheer force of will. When he arrived at the conservancy as chief operating officer in 2009, he was greeted by a Boston Globe headline, “Call it the Emptyway,” lamenting the lack of life in the park that replaced the demolished Central Artery. By 2019, the Greenway counted 1.6 million visitors, staged 400 free events, and had busted Boston’s stodgy reputation for timid public art.
I admit that early on I was one of the chief carpers. I complained in these pages in 2009 that the Greenway was “hot, unshaded, and vacant.” Sure, the gardens and lawns were a big improvement over the six-lane elevated highway — what wouldn’t be? The flora was thriving, I wrote. “But how about the fauna; the people?”
Today you would never call the Greenway empty, even in the teeth of a pandemic. That’s not to say the year-long hollowing out of the downtown hasn’t left its mark; the conservancy’s earned income — from the food trucks, the carousel, the Trillium beer garden — went from $1.6 million in 2019 to $350,000 in 2020. Brackenbury says that private philanthropy has held up, but the Greenway’s success is closely tied to office foot traffic and tourism — a challenge for the next director, who is expected to be named soon. Brackenbury will become president and CEO of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation in New York.
The Greenway has long been plagued by its multitude of masters: the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which owns the land; the conservancy, charged with maintenance and programming; the Legislature, which begrudged its funding; and the city of Boston and various neighborhood and civic groups. The competing interests encouraged literal buck-passing: Everyone wanted a world-class park, but no one wanted to pay for it. “The most significant thing I’ve done, though not the most fun thing, was finally stopping the annual squabbling and putting the park on a solid footing,” Brackenbury said in an interview.
Credit for breaking the logjam, Brackenbury said, goes largely to Governor Charlie Baker, who was a founding member of the conservancy’s board. Baker felt the Greenway’s corporate abutters weren’t contributing their fair share, given that the assessed value of properties one block off the park had soared to $7 billion. So in 2017 Baker “engineered a crisis,” said Brackenbury, threatening to cut off funding unless other parties stepped up. Brackenbury never knew if feverish behind-the-scenes negotiations would pan out, and his staff was starting to look for the exits. “It was a difficult period,” he said.
In the end, the negotiating parties — Mass DOT, legislators, the influential business group A Better City, and others — created one of Boston’s only two Business Improvement Districts, where more than 60 property owners contribute $1.5 million a year toward the conservancy’s roughly $6 million budget.
Another difficult moment for Brackenbury came in 2019, when the conservancy switched vendors for a maintenance contract, cutting ties with WORK Inc., a Dorchester firm that employs individuals with disabilities. WORK Inc. filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which is still pending. But Brackenbury said he feels “totally vindicated” since the new vendor, Block by Block, maintains the park for a competitive price and formed a partnership with Best Buddies, also employing persons with disabilities. In 2020, Best Buddies of Massachusetts named Block by Block its Employer of the Year.
The Greenway is now 17. In its youth, it always seemed to be suffering an identity crisis: Should it be mostly passive open space, or full of activity? For Brackenbury, a confirmed urbanist, the choice was clear. “We embraced the fact that we are close to the edges” of buildings and traffic, he said. “We weren’t a Beaux Arts park or an escape from the city. Why not have 400 public events a year?”
And the people came.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.