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Cambridge parks.

Henry D. Yerxa, President of the Park Commission.
This year we celebrate the anniversary of the incorporation of Cambridge as a city; we consider what Cambridge is, what Cambridge shall be. In the strength of the intellectual life of the seat of Harvard University we have great faith. We believe, too, that the political life of our city stands as an example of the success of a steady struggle for good government. If such be the truth, is it not worth our while to dwell for a time upon the outward form of our city, to learn what can be done to make Cambridge a fitting home for the life toward which many men look as toward that which is strong and good in our civilization?

Only after a city reaches that stage of existence when some parts at least have become crowded, does the realization of the need for open spaces make itself convincingly apparent. Indeed, it is only in the great European cities that we find the ideal development of lands given over to the use of the people, —in such vast centres as Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, and London. Elizur Wright has even said, in a description of London's magnificent parks, ‘London would go crazy without them.’ That Cambridge itself is becoming crowded is proved by the fact that an entire ward might be laid out with a population of one hundred people to the acre, while smaller districts are still more densely populated. Such being the condition, we cannot but ask ourselves what efforts we have made to give to every man, especially to those who are living under the least favorable circumstances, opportunity to breathe pure air in the midst of natural beauty, a privilege which should become the birthright of every dweller in an American city.

It was not until 1892 that any special exertion was made to enlarge the public grounds. In that year, a committee of five [120] was appointed by the late Hon. Alpheus B. Alger, then mayor, to consider the subject of parks. To General Hincks, the chairman, a strong man, eager always for the welfare of Cambridge, and especially earnest in his desire to take advantage of the possibilities of the city in this respect, thankfulness for our awakening to the needs of Cambridge along present park lines is largely due. In November of 1892, the report of the committee was rendered, and it showed how easily we had let the years slip by, and with how little we had been satisfied. In Ward One, we had Cambridge Common, Winthrop Square, Arsenal Square; in Ward Two, Broadway Common; in Ward Three, no open spaces; in Ward Four, Washington Square, Hastings Square, and River Street Square; in Ward Five, again, there was no open space. Fresh Pond Park, begun by the wise foresight of Chester W. Kingsley and his fellow-workers on the Water Board, had already been somewhat developed, and the esplanade of the Charles River Embankment Company, near Harvard Bridge, was in process of construction.

The inadequacy of these grounds was most evident. East Cambridge, for instance, with its fifty-five people to each inhabited acre, had not a single breathing-space. Consequently, so strongly was the need of persistent and lasting effort for the development of the park system felt by the city government, urged by Mayor Bancroft in his inaugural address, that in August of the following year, 1893, Rev. John O'Brien, George Howland Cox, and Henry D. Yerxa were appointed park commissioners, and since that time they have labored diligently to make Cambridge what all wish the city to be. Of course, the commission has been obliged to struggle with the difficulties of a city well on the road to a permanent form, not with the easier problem of laying out grounds with freedom of choice, as had been, of late, possible in some of our Western towns, organized by men from older cities,—men wise enough to see what the future bore in her hands. Yet, notwithstanding the difficulty, all have been ready to employ their wisest thought in building the earthworks of Cambridge. They have realized the permanency of the result of such endeavors; that parks will not wear out, that though bridges, public buildings, water-works, sewers, and pavements must be replaced, ‘earth work,’ as President Eliot has well said, ‘is the most permanent of all the works of men.’ They have known what breathing-space means to the [121] people, to hard-working men, to weary mothers, to little children. They have not forgotten what Rev. D. N. Beach, whose loss as a citizen of Cambridge we so deeply regret, would call the transcendental aspects of the park system. Neither have they lost sight of the fact that parks are a good municipal investment for Cambridge. They have remembered that Baltimore, that Buffalo, that Boston, have all been able to show that their great parks, through the increased valuation of the surrounding territory, have already begun to pay for themselves. Though the sum to be expended by Cambridge during the next fifteen years will probably be about $2,000,000, they feel sure that, in time, through financial returns alone, the city will be the gainer from this improvement.

From the report of 1892 it was easy to see where work was most urgently needed. That our present public grounds, planned in days when few in this country realized as many do to-day what parks may be, needed much improvement was perfectly plain to all, and instead of a barren space of ground, hardly more than a trodden desert, ornamented with a flagpole and a few trees planted with little consideration of the whole effect, we are to have, under the wise direction of the noted landscape architects, Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot, plots which shall be, for all, true retreats from the busy hum of city life. On Broadway Common this process of change may first be watched.

Of this proposed improvement Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot say: ‘This small public ground contains two and six tenths acres. At the present time it is so cut up by cross-paths that its appearance is ruined. Neither is its present arrangement well adapted to serve the comfort of the women, children, and babies who frequent the place in summer.’ The plan provides convenient diagonal paths, while it preserves a considerable breadth of central lawn. For the children it suggests a gravel playing-space 150 feet long, placed near the Broadway boundary, so that a sunny exposure may be had. Seats placed here under a vineclad arbor will command the playground and the lawn, while the arbor and a dense shrubbery behind it will afford some shelter from north winds.

The want for additional public grounds was seen to be most urgent in Ward Two, Ward Three, and also in Ward Five, in which, though the population is scattered as a whole, there is a crowded locality. [122]

After much deliberation, for the relief of East Cambridge it was decided to centre all effort in the development of the river front, not only because desirable land was unattainable elsewhere, but because the opportunity of enjoying the river could then be given to the inhabitants of the most crowded portion of our city, into which residents are continually coming from Boston, and where, without doubt, the history of the larger city in its successive stages is to be repeated. This stretch of water front lies between the West Boston and the Craigie bridges, opposite the Charlesbank, and occupies about one half the distance from bridge to bridge. The sea-wall is already constructed. Filling is in process. In time, this East Cambridge embankment will be to Cambridge what the Charlesbank is to Boston; and that the Charlesbank is of service to Boston no one can doubt who considers that the attendance, during last summer, was somewhat over 1,000,000; that on summer nights it was not unusual to find as many as 10,000 people assembled there.

In Ward Two, a tract of twelve acres off Cambridge Street, to be known as Cambridge Field, has been set aside as a permanent open space. Sodding has been done; nearly all the shrubbery plantations are finished; all the trees are planted. Until the weather became too cold, the portions of the field which are finished made a popular resort. During the summer evenings and Sundays the walks have been crowded. Since cold weather set in, whenever practicable, the field has been flooded for skating. It is in this Cambridge Field that our citizens are for the first time to see a reservation of land improved from its very beginning, as the modern investigation of municipal needs has made possible, improved so as best to meet the needs of those people in the midst of whom the land lies. In no case is the satisfaction of the desire for beauty neglected, but, in addition to this, the lands have been so laid out that Cambridge Field will furnish a sporting-ground in both winter and summer for boys and men; an outdoor gymnasium for girls; a sand-court, where small children shall be allowed to play; and, most important of all, a central building. This central building or shelter is to serve as a meeting-place, and a refuge in case of sudden showers. In it will be a check-room for clothing, bats, balls, skates, and other articles. Light refreshments, such as milk, beef-tea, coffee, and soda, will be [123] served. Here will be the necessary closets and wash-rooms. To this building, also, will be joined a band stand. Thus, when Cambridge Field is completed, we shall have one more illustration of what seems to me a growing tendency in our local governments, the union of all for the good of all.

In Ward Five, next to the Wyman School, Rindge Field has been the land selected for park purposes. Thus far, the field has been utilized as a playground, while a portion has been reserved as a nursery for shrubs and trees sufficient to supply the whole Cambridge system. How Rindge Field is to be developed is largely a question of the future.

If these were all the lands Cambridge saw fit to offer, Cambridge would be poor indeed. We have, however, in addition, the river front, the development of which is to be the most extensive work undertaken, and the work which will bring most glory to the city, in the progress of which we rejoice, especially in this anniversary year. From West Boston Bridge to the Cambridge Hospital, in days to come, a drive along the borders of our Charles will be possible. By the side of the river, known to the Indians of long ago as Quineboquin, the crooked, we shall have over four miles of parkway. Only when this undertaking is finished shall we feel that we are worthy of our heritage, that our ever-flowing, ever-abiding stream has received due honor.

Definite plans in regard to the treatment of the whole river bank have thus far been impossible. Two great obstacles have stood in the way,—lack of decision in regard to the permanent bridges, and delay in regard to the damming of the Charles, about which discussion has been warm. Nevertheless, Boston and Cambridge will soon decide on sites for bridges, and we look forward to the day when, if opposition, which depends largely upon a want of knowledge of facts and of the benefits to be conferred, cannot be overcome to such a degree that we may have a fresh-water basin, we shall, at least, have a dam across the Charles similar to that on the Thames above London, where the full incoming tide is allowed to sweep up the river, but on the ebb is kept back at half tide. Such a treatment would give us a salt-water basin of 646 acres between Craigie Bridge and the Cambridge Hospital. The best illustration of such a basin, as has again and again been pointed out, is the Alster at Hamburg. Picture to yourselves this sheet of water between Cambridge and Boston, never below half tide, with [124] drives on both banks. Consider how launches may run from city to city, how men may start after a long day's work from many points near Beacon Street and land in almost any part of Cambridge, having had this little breathing-space in the fresh air and among beautiful surroundings. By these pleasant means, too, they may be brought close to their homes; for by far the greater part of Cambridge lies within a mile of the river bank.

Two miles along the Cambridge side of the basin from Harvard Bridge will run a broad drive, with shady walks parallel to the shore, protected, if the salt-water basin be determined upon, by strong stone walls, rather than by the beaches and shrubs, which would be the only possibility if the basin were, as formerly proposed, a fresh-water park. Here and there between the trees those who walk will find resting-places, and, every now and then, a landing which will make short trips on the water tempting. At ‘Captain's Island,’ between Brookline and River streets, our open lands will broaden out into about thirty-eight acres, the largest park of the system. This reservation, nearly three times as large as all the public grounds in Cambridge previous to 1893, will be developed in much the same fashion as Cambridge Field. The island, though an island in name only, has the advantage of being close to the water, and it thus furnishes opportunity for boating, provisions for which will be furnished by the park department of the city. From River Street onwards, the drives and walks will occupy all the open space until near Boylston Street, a congested locality, where the reservation will again make it possible to offer more open spaces, and unusual conditions in the way of locations for boathouses, and for the encouragement of water sports.

Continuing along the river bank, we shall soon catch glimpses of the Blue Hills of Milton, and, across the Soldier's Field, of the nearer Brookline and Brighton hills. Places crowded with historic associations will come to view,—the Lowell Willows; across the Longfellow Garden, Craigie House; then Elmwood, Lowell's house, in the distance. Now we shall pass the spot where Professor Horsford firmly believed the Norsemen had landed. Soon we may turn in one direction and enter the Boston parks, or, in another, crossing Brattle Street and driving through what is now Fresh Pond Lane, reach our beautiful pond, set in the midst of surrounding hills, which Mr. Olmsted [125] has been free to call one of the finest natural features about Boston, a statement with which we, who know the spot, fully agree. In Fresh Pond Park, with its broad outlooks, improved as it will be by the able efforts of the Water Board, we have a goal where our drive may satisfactorily end. On that day in the future toward which we look when, in reality, we shall have taken this drive, we may perhaps call to mind Lowell's words: ‘I remembered people who must call upon the Berkshire hills to teach them what a painter autumn was, while close at hand, the Fresh Pond meadows made all oriels cheap with hues that showed as if a sunset cloud had been wrecked among the maples.’

When all is done, the entrances to Cambridge will, at last, be beautiful. The city that holds within itself treasures with which few can be compared will have border lands worthy of its riches. On that day, when all our plans have been made good, we shall have an outward form more nearly fitting the best life of Cambridge; and those of us who work many a day over the problems which shall bring forth ‘Greater Cambridge’ feel that the beauty of this outward form will help us all, the least and the greatest, to realize for Cambridge the best life we can conceive.

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