One of the great misnomers is that John Harvard actually had something to do with Cambridge.
It is true, he donated his book collection and a sum of money to the Cambridge institution of higher learning that now bears his name, but that’s about as far as his history goes in Cambridge.
In fact, Harvard had everything to do with Charlestown and lived on a little plot of land on the John Harvard Mall during his time in Colonial America.
Yet, since the advent of GPS mapping, that important historical fact has been lost on waves of hapless tourists wandering onto the Mall in Charlestown and looking for Harvard University and the John Harvard Statue – only to be told by locals that they were miles away from that well-known site.
Those neighbors who routinely broke the news to the many tired tourists, however, noticed that the tourists were interested in the real history of Mr. Harvard, but that nothing on the Mall was there to inform them. Additionally, those tourists – and neighbors alike – had to trudge through the broken slate, weeds growing through the brick pavers, a large unused concrete slab and a gas light that had been tipped over for months. Taking stock, one neighbor – Jennifer Smartt – decided that old John Harvard’s homestead and the Mall accompanying it needed a facelift.
That was in 2011, and this summer plans for that facelift have been revealed to neighbors – with great excitement and approval – and bids for the $1.5 million project have gone out from the City.
“I use the park everyday and noticed the deterioration of the brick and slate walkway,” said Smartt in a recent interview at the Mall. “Every week visitors came to the park, some thinking they were at Harvard University as many GPS and map programs direct them to the John Harvard Mall. Once the tourists got to the park, they would ask questions about the history and how to get Harvard University. I thought this was disappointing that visitors couldn’t read the history about John Harvard on the flag pole monument and that they had to trip over broken slate to read the plaques. We had a gas light that was tipped over and broken by a clean-up crew in December 2011. After numerous calls to the City, the light remained in disrepair for several months.”
That’s when neighbor began to talk to neighbor and – as often happens – a group was born to take up the cause of repairing one of the neighborhood’s hidden gems.
“I decided if we had a community group to support the park, we could address numerous issues to improve the park,” said Smartt. “I did some research and learned that park budget appropriations were slated for 2012. I worked with neighbors to determine interest and get them excited about the upcoming budget slated for the park. It is great to know the Charlestown community will have a great outdoor space for all ages and the historical elements will be restored so visitors can easily learn about the history of the John Harvard Mall.”
What came out of the organizing effort was the Friends of John Harvard Mall – an active and tight-knit group of neighbors who are ready to help restore the Mall and make it a natural connection between the neighborhood and City Square Park.
“Right now we are hard to see and it’s dark here and in need of some work,” said neighbor Debra Sordillo. “The hope we have is catching the attention of all of the folks who go down to City Square Park. We hope when they come there, they will look up and see the Mall and wander over here to check out this as well. The plans we have will make it much more visible and there will be handicap access now too.”
The neighbors just last month were treated to the final design work done by Boston Parks and Recreation. Those designs were the product of many meetings, but not the typical community meeting where people butted heads and had sharp disagreements.
In fact, current Friends President Jill Morelli said everyone worked well together, and it resulted in plans that will be inclusive of everyone – from tourists to toddlers.
“The budget is at $1.5 million and the bid process is underway,” said Morelli. “We’re hoping for no delays. The process we have gone through to get here has been really positive so far. You know in the typical community process can be difficult to get consensus, but people have been great. People have had great ideas and we have been able to include something for everyone. There wasn’t a situation where we had to trade this for that. There are plans for kids, older kids, dog walking, open grassy space, quiet reading spots and relaxing.”
The plans for the park include installing a new playground on the existing one, with swings, a see-saw, a wave climber and pods. The design will include new brickwork, and an outline of the first church that once occupied the upper part of the Mall. Also on the upper half, the large, empty concrete expanse that is highly underutilized will be replaced with grass – greening up the Mall tremendously.
Towards the middle, there will be reading areas, as well as a restoration of the historical elements and new historical plaques to clearly define the significance of the Mall in U.S. History. Another key element will be handicap ramps on the lower level of the Mall and also leading up to the upper level.
Lighting, however, is paramount – as the space is currently a little too dark at night.
Plans for lighting improvements are in the budget, but the Friends have taken on a noble fundraising effort for enhancements. They have a goal of $56,000 ($24,000 for LED Lighting, $12,000 for irrigation, and $20,000 for restoration of the monument/historical plaques), and they’ve had success since launching the effort in May. However, much more needs to be done.
“We are closing in on the goal, but we need more money for the ongoing maintenance and any scope changes,” said Don Giambastiani. “The key will be sustainability.”
Added Sordillo, “Any monies we r
aise beyond the project cost will go to ongoing maintenance. We are having success, but this is not over and we need to continue raising money.”
Anyone wishing to contribute to the effort or get involved in the group can contact Morelli at (617) 233-7256 or Sordillo at (617) 823-2882.