Bill Richard is excited. He can’t wait to show off a space that has been fenced in for nearly two years — the park named after his son Martin, who at 8 years old was the youngest victim killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
It is only an acre, but in the asphalt jungle the Seaport has become, that much open space feels like an oasis. With the sun dancing off Fort Point Channel and glass-paneled buildings on a recent afternoon, Bill — along with his wife, Denise, and daughter, Jane — gave me a tour as workers prepared the $15 million park for its official opening next Saturday.
Martin’s Park, next to the Children’s Museum, is lush and inviting. There are close to 350 trees, 700 shrubs, 9,400 ground cover plantings, and 4,400 white daffodils. Wooden benches — some carved from logs — dot the landscape. A path winds through the grounds, leading visitors up a slope across a pedestrian bridge to take in views of the water and skyline.
Kids can play on swings, slides, and a replica of a marooned ship. Or they can cool out and watch a puppet show in a mini amphitheater.
“People walk by and they think they have to pay to get in,” Richard said with a chuckle. (They won’t — it’s free to all.)
By their nature, memorials usually are somber reminders. Not Martin’s Park. April 15, 2013, was a day of infamy in Boston, but the evil we experienced then doesn’t define us now. Out of the debris, the city grew stronger. Martin’s Park is built from that newfound strength. The Richards and everyone involved in its creation have chosen to celebrate life, not mark death. Resiliency can help turn even unimaginable loss into something hopeful.
Bill Richard was standing with his family near the Marathon finish line on Boylston Street when those two bombs detonated six years ago. Jane, then 7 , lost a leg; Denise lost sight in one eye. The blast caused Bill to lose some of his hearing. Henry, the oldest child, then 11, miraculously suffered no physical harm.
Life would never be the same for the Richards. Yet that November, as emotionally spent as they were, Bill and Denise decided they didn’t want to run from their tragedy. Instead, they would create a foundation in Martin’s memory. Neighbors and friends gathered around the dining room table of the Richards’ Dorchester home to brainstorm ideas and to answer the question: “What do we want to accomplish?”
Today, the Martin Richard Foundation has given out $2.3 million to projects and programs that reflect the values Martin exemplified in his short life: sportsmanship, inclusion, kindness, and peace. It sponsors service days, gives grants to young people who want to lead change in their communities, and funds sports programs for kids with developmental challenges.
The foundation is also the inspirational force behind Martin’s Park at the Smith Family Waterfront. The city and state assembled the land, while the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation and the Barr Foundation each gave $3 million. Generous individuals and companies also contributed, including 29 donors who each gave $100,000 or more. Martin’s Park may be city-owned, but it has taken a village to build.
But why a park? Martin loved sports and the outdoors. He and his siblings spent countless hours on fields and playgrounds all over the city. Jane even drew sketches of what a playground honoring Martin would look like. They showed a bucket swing and Martin’s favorite, a jungle gym made out of ropes, known as a cosmo climber.
Versions of those drawings were filed with the City of Boston as the Martin’s Park proposal went through the planning process that would transform a forgettable lawn on the waterfront into what is sure to become one of the city’s most cherished parks.
Today, the cosmo climber is surrounded by five cherry trees, each planted in the memory of someone whose death is connected to the Marathon bombings: police officers Sean Collier and Dennis Simmonds, and spectators Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, and Martin.
For the better part of six months, the Richards have been visiting the park weekly to monitor progress. More recently, as opening day approached, they have been coming by two or three times a week to check in.
When I first met Bill in December 2016 at the park site, he seemed daunted by the prospect of raising the last few million dollars needed to get the project done. There also was the pressure to get it right. Sure, on paper, renowned landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh’s plans for the park were magnificent, but would reality match his vision?
“They took it to a level we could never have dreamed of,” Bill said last week as we walked with Denise and Jane around the wooden ship installation, which was built in Germany. “It is something we’re really humbled by to add a major project in a city we live in and love.”
Denise’s favorite feature is the slides, flanked by reclaimed granite from the renovation of the Boston Public Library. Bill loves the flow of the park. Jane loves just about everything, declaring it her favorite playground in the city.
Martin’s Park is certainly like no other open space in Boston. Van Valkenburgh is known for his work on the expansive Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. The Boston and Brooklyn parks both feature lush horticulture that seamlessly integrates with the play areas. But the smaller scale of Martin’s Park gives it an intimacy that makes it special.
Van Valkenburgh credits Bill and Denise Richard. “It was just a very simple thing. They wanted to make a great place for kids. It was just as pure in the heart as that.”
The result is that Martin’s Park will be a fun and relaxing green space for kids in the middle of the city. “I love that you will cross the channel and hear the sounds of their delight,” added Van Valkenburgh.
So many of us will always hold Martin Richard in our hearts. In a photo that was both devastating and inspirational, he is the little boy with big eyes and a toothy smile holding a handwritten sign: “No more hurting people. Peace.”
Now we can go to Martin’s Park to find not only peace but also to experience the indomitable spirit of an innocent child — running, playing, laughing as he should forever be.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @leung.