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What does the future hold for Franklin Park?

To talk about the park — its strengths, benefits, and, yes, shortcomings — is to talk about Boston, in all its complexities.

Franklin Park, with distinct pockets of personality nestled within, serves many different purposes for many different people.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Louis Elisa is on his morning walk, an amble around Franklin Park shortly after a cold autumn dawn.

On this day, the 73-year-old retiree’s route curls around White Stadium and past the ruins of the long-defunct bear cages and onto a knoll that offers stunning vistas of the downtown skyline. Slashes of sunlight cut through the trees.

He lives across the street from the park, and his four daughters, all now adults, basically grew up here. In the 1970s, Elisa was among the cofounders of the Franklin Park Coalition, which aims to restore and preserve Boston’s largest open space.

In this moment, he is taking in what the park has to offer. There are people out walking their dogs, a couple joggers. A track team stretches on a ballfield. Nearby, a few people practice Tai chi. Elisa greets each passerby with “good morning.” He talks about the serenity of finding quiet solitude in the heart of the city, the importance of clearing one’s head.

“It serves a lot of people’s needs,” he said of the park.


Louis Elisa, co-founder and former president of the Franklin Park Coalition, paused for a portrait at one of his favorite spots during his morning walk at Franklin Park.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

But most recently, the park made headlines as the backdrop for a particularly brutal and senseless act of violence: the stabbing of 91-year-old trailblazing educational legend Jean McGuire.

Getting your arms around the present and future of the park presents a surprising challenge. Designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 19th century, it is the crown jewel of his Emerald Necklace, a 7-mile system of parks that dots a diverse array of neighborhoods and whose significance Olmsted himself likened to his most famous achievement, Central Park in New York City. Franklin Park dangles on the western endpoint of that chain, positioned at the geographic heart of the city, where it touches Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, and Mattapan.


This general plan for Franklin Park from 1885 features text in which famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted laid out his vision for a country park adorned simply with paths, natural ledges, and native plantings, trimmed not by lawn mowers but by grazing sheep. Franklin Park never fully achieved Olmsted’s original vision, but evolved to feature a woodland preserve and open fields, as well as a zoo, public golf course, pedestrian and bridle paths, a stadium, and other recreational facilities.Norman B. Leventhal Map Center Collection

To talk about the park — its strengths, benefits, and, yes, shortcomings — is to talk about Boston, in all its complexities. It’s a bustling place. There are quinceañera photo shoots. Backgammon games with money on the line. Cornhole competitions. Beers or a joint in a parking lot after a round of golf. People-watchers watching people. The park, with distinct pockets of personality nestled within, serves many different purposes for many different people: an oasis of sorts in a traffic-clogged city that, for many, doubles as an extension of their homes. A civic stage on which demonstrations against systemic racism have coalesced in recent years, along with annual cultural celebrations, concerts, and the like. And, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, it provided a much needed reprieve from cabin fever.

Change is on the horizon: The city in coming weeks is moving ahead with an action plan that will lay out improvements here for the next 20 years. These crosscurrents place Franklin Park at an inflection point, with decisions ahead that will determine the next chapter of the park’s life.

The city’s action plan for the park will be funded with $28 million from the sale of the Winthrop Square garage. Rickie Thompson, the current head of the Franklin Park Coalition, said the money represents the largest cash injection for the park in his lifetime. And since it is much beloved, there is no shortage of opinions about what city officials should change, renovate, or scrap.

The city has yet to publicly announce what details the plan will include, but the process is guided by four main ideas: amplifying “magnet” destinations in the park’s four corners; rethinking car, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic in the park; “activating” the park’s edges to create a stronger link between the park and the neighborhoods surrounding it; and unifying the park physically and ecologically.


Zoo curator Daniel Harkins said good morning to Yvette the sun bear with an apple and a high five at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo on April 2, 1929. When the zoo opened in 1912, the pens were state-of-the-art.Globe Photographer/Globe Staff

The 485-acre expanse is a vast and multifaceted world unto itself. On its northeastern edge, near Seaver Street, are the ruins of the bear dens that have sat defunct for decades.

Southwest of there, in the Playstead section of the park, stands White Stadium, which seats 10,000 and was once the site of Black Panther rallies and concerts, including a performance by Sly and the Family Stone. These days it still showcases Boston Public Schools football games and track meets. Head south from there, and you’ll hit Overlook Ruins and the Elma Lewis Playhouse, named after the founder and director of a performance school who, among other things, launched a concert series in the park in the 1960s.

The Hues Corporation performed at White Stadium in Boston on July 7, 1974.Bill Curtis/Globe Staff

The Franklin Park Zoo sprawls over 70-plus acres on an eastern flank of the park. A short walk south of there brings you to the William J. Devine Golf Course, one of the oldest public courses in the nation that boasts a diverse group of regular players.

Schoolmaster Hill, once home to influential poet and transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, overlooks the course.

A 65-acre woodland area known simply as the Wilderness fills in a western swath of the park.


In the park’s southern wedge between Morton Street and American Legion Highway lies Scarboro Pond, a popular spot for walkers and picnickers.

Abigail Thomas (left) and Natalee Barber of the Northeastern University track team ran sprints on a path in Franklin Park.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Over in the park’s southwest corner, between Circuit Drive and Morton Street, stands the 13-acre Shattuck Hospital campus, carved in the 1950s out of a tree-shaded meadow. The facility has long provided essential medical care and social services to people experiencing homelessness or battling addiction.

Here, in the heart of Boston, the politics of open space can be at times sharp and difficult. Last year, that meant strained conversations involving race, policing, and quality-of-life in the area, including what to do with droves of dirt bikers and loud late night parties.

There was less neighborhood chatter about those issues this past summer, but the recent attack on McGuire, who was assaulted while walking her dog in the park at night, has rocked the communities that utilize the space and triggered other hard discussions.

At the same time, the city is weeks away from revealing the action plan. “The plan sets forth a vision for the park,” the Boston Parks and Recreation Department said in a statement, and will detail “steps that can be taken to enhance maintenance and stewardship, expand programming, and define capital improvements.”

There is $28 million currently allotted for the plan — $5 million for park maintenance and $23 million for projects — but that figure is likely to increase in years to come, with future fund-raising efforts — both private and public — expected to boost support for some of the plan’s initiatives.


The park’s fans have plenty of suggestions for how to improve the current state of Olmsted’s masterpiece. In the wake of the assault against McGuire, calls for more lighting, more call boxes, more surveillance cameras, and an increased police presence in the park have grown louder.

Some people think Circuit Drive, which encircles the interior of the park, should be shut down to vehicle traffic. Others protest such a move as disastrous, arguing that would only make traffic worse in nearby areas, many of which are neighborhoods of color. Others contemplate a compromise: maybe shut down the street only on certain days?

Some park users talk about the need for better maintenance of the park.

For some advocates like Thompson, the wish list includes a rehab of the original site of the Elma Lewis Playhouse in order for it to become a performance venue again, complete with a plaque that honors its namesake.

Meanwhile, the future of Shattuck Hospital has already stirred controversy, with some advocates pushing for the campus to be reclaimed as parkland.

Murals adorn some of the seventeen sleeping cabins in the parking lot of Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, providing housing to those experience homeless, mental illness or addiction. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Currently, that part of the park has offered a part of the solution to conditions at Mass. and Cass, the epicenter of the city’s opioid and homelessness crises. Miles away from the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the campus of Shattuck Hospital is now home to more than 50 formerly homeless people who are staying there, a development that has sparked its own political debate.

And concern over crime is not a new phenomena for the park. In the 1970s, the park fell into disuse, neglected by the city, a fact that many neighbors today chalk up to structural racism. Newspaper clippings from the time are filled with anecdotes of fear of assaults and robberies.

But conditions improved — the Globe reported in the late 1980s that crime was “extremely low” in the park — and today finds the space a vibrant and well-used gem.

Still, the violence earlier this month hung heavy on the minds of folks visiting Franklin Park.

“Even before this, people used to say, ‘Make sure you have a bat with you,’ and I’ve seen people walking here carrying a bat or a big stick,” Latoya Johnson, 45, said recently, before gesturing to her mother, 68-year-old Betty Johnson. “But the other day after the stabbing, she was walking without me and had to put rocks in her pockets.”

On his morning walk around the park recently, Elisa had some grumbles. There is some silt and mud buildup on the pathway around White Stadium that he would like to see removed. There is also some invasive growth on the edge of the woods he would like to see hacked away.

Early morning sun hit the Old Bear Dens at Franklin Park.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Nowadays there are no bears in the old animal pens tucked into a northeast corner of the park, just beer cans, the detritus of a party from the weekend that Elisa could hear from his house. He shakes his head. This place, after all, is supposed to offer a respite; plus, with no lighting, the spot poses risks for late-night revelry.

“I will be saying something about that,” he said.

Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.