Not just Common or Garden: Boston’s Emerald Necklace

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A view of the Back Bay Fens in November 2017, looking back toward downtown Boston.

Now that your esteemed blogger-in-chief is safely unencumbered of graduate thesis, it’s time to get the blog going again! (It’s also been a vile winter around here, so that’s another reason for hiking time being curtailed. I know that some hikers groove on sub-zero temps, but I prefer not to have to wear arctic survival gear on a hike.)

As of this writing, it’s Super Bowl day, and the Patriots and Eagles are going at it in full force. (I freely admit, oh gentle readers, that I am not much of a football person – and even if I were, I live smack in the middle of Giants territory. Can’t be helped.) But I do have an entry for you that is Boston-related. The family and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Boston this year – and since I like to be on the lookout for city walks when I’m traveling, I decided that I would spend part of our visit checking out part of the Emerald Necklace.

The Emerald Necklace is a series of eleven parks and green spaces winding their way through Boston and nearby Brookline. According to the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the entire system comes in at seven miles and 1,200 acres. Several of the parks in the necklace were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, whose other greatest hits include Central Park – not to mention Eagle Rock Reservation and South Mountain Reservation in my neck of the woods.

Think of the necklace as a giant upside down U, with the Boston Common and Public Garden at one end and Franklin Park, the largest of the parks, at the other end. I visited the four emeralds at the eastern end of the span: the Boston Common, the Public Garden, the Commonwealth Mall, and the Back Bay Fens. If you keep working your way west from the Fens, you’ll come to, in this order: the Riverway, Olmsted Park, Jamaica Pond, Jamaicaway, the Arborway, the Arnold Arboretum, and finally Franklin Park. To visit the whole necklace would have required a couple days’ visit, at least, and probably the assistance of a bicycle and/or the T.

Started out in the Boston Common and worked my way up. Once upon a time, this was where colonial Boston grazed its cattle and sheep, and a veritable Who’s Who of historical figures hung out here during the Revolutionary War. These days, of course, you’re more likely to find the requisite hordes of joggers, dog walkers and buskers (including probably more than one Berklee student). The weather was rather chilly during our visit, but there were plenty of people out taking the air.

Directly across Charles Street from the Common you’ll come to the Public Garden. Now, if you ever read Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” as a kid, or if you’ve read it to the kids in your life, you’ll find a statue of the eponymous ducks just to the north of the entrance – hang a right on the paths once you’re inside the gate. There’s lots of beautiful winding paths, a large pond with a very nice footbridge over it, and a very impressive range of statues – I believe that old GW hangs out near the Arlington Street entrance to the garden.

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The Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Mall has statues of Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone.

Next up is the Commonwealth Mall, a long skinny linear park running along Commonwealth Avenue. I like to think of it as a long bar emerald connecting the fatter emeralds in the necklace. The streets bisecting the Mall run in ABC order from southeast to northwest. So it’s Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, etc.

The Commonwealth Mall has monuments to a lot of historical Bostonians, as well as famous Americans in general, in each one of the segments. I especially liked the Boston Women’s Memorial, which features statues of Abigail Adams, Phillis Wheatley and Lucy Stone.

Now, getting from the Commonwealth Mall to the Back Bay Fens. At the end of the Commonwealth Mall, you’ll see a couple of on and off-ramps heading over the Massachusetts Turnpike. Charlesgate East is the nearest one to you, and you’ll see that it has a sidewalk on it. (If you’re coming from the opposite direction, Charlesgate East is the off-ramp to Commonwealth Avenue and Kenmore Square.)  Take that to cross over the highway, and that’ll eventually lead you to the Back Bay Fens. (The Emerald Necklace Conservancy has a series of park maps that include recommended walking and biking routes, so I suggest you check those out.)

In late November, I suppose that the Back Bay Fens look more like a topaz than an emerald. Lots of phragmites along the Muddy River, so I imagine that you’d see a lot of red-winged blackbirds there during the warmer months. You definitely get a sense here that you’re starting to get out and away from the city center here – it’s significantly quieter than the Boston Common and the Public Garden, and there’s more of a feeling of being out in the woods.

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The temple bell is found near the southern edge of the Back Bay Fens.

Also in the park, you’ll find a Japanese temple bell that was brought back to the United States during World War II. In the 1950s, it was officially dedicated as a symbol of peace between the United States and Japan. Definitely a lovely gesture – we could certainly use a few more gestures of peace in these wacky times.

I was able to linger for a little while in the Fens before I had to turn around and retrace my steps. Came back into the Common and got myself a cup of steaming hot apple cider from a vendor before making my way back toward the hotel where we were staying.

The next time I’m in Boston, I hope to visit the other parks in the necklace, so there may be another posting on that in the near future – stay tuned!

For further reading:

Emerald Necklace Conservancy

City of Boston: Parks and Recreation

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