Monday, February 12, 2007

More Than a Garden

For the past few years I have been working to restore a public garden, the Minot Rose Garden, located within Winthrop Park at the corner of St. Paul and Browne streets. Like most things in life, the effort started small and was a simple instinctual response to the situation. The effort has of course grown since then to include a dedicated group of volunteers, the Town of Brookline, The Brookline Community Foundation, the Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, the Brookline Garden Club and many generous contributors. Through much hard work and perseverance, the rose garden is once again a place of rare beauty and a source of inspiration for its many visitors.

On some level, it is a very simple story, one of renewed life and beauty on a little patch of earth, but on the other hand, I can't help reflecting on the larger implications that have resulted from the transformation and to celebrate the spirit that it represents. A flourishing garden in one's neighborhood represents pride and demonstrates nurturing and care lavished on a public resource. What message does this send? It shows a respect and concern for the welfare of others and the world we share, thereby counteracting abusive, degrading and competitive messages that are often thrown at us in our hectic world. By providing a place of beauty and sanctuary for all to enjoy we declare our intent to bypass to prevailing cultural norm that reserves such places for those with the means to provide it for themselves.

It is the fact that this is a public garden that is truly remarkable. The trend towards privatization of public space is pervasive in America today. As the place-less suburbs became ubiquitous, the enclosed shopping mall took over as a substitute for main streets and town squares. But of course they really weren't substitutes because they existed for the purpose of selling and profit. The shift to the malls of the common social functions that used to happen on main street were in some cases unintended consequences, as in the case of their use by displaced teenagers as gathering spots. The mall management, of course, feels justified in exercising their role as regulators and they simply banish those they do not regard as desirable. The public, ultimately have no rights in a mall or restaurant or store. Where than are the basic functions of a free society to gather, discuss and meet to occur? Only in those places where we see others like ourselves? Where we must buy something to justify our presence?

One of the prime motivating forces that propelled F.L. Olmsted to advocate and design public parks was his belief in the benefits of social interaction in a peaceful and free setting. While many have criticized his views of the resulting social cohesion this interaction might bring as being pollyannish, I do believe it is vitally important for our culture to have places we can see and meet people in a spontaneous way that we would not encounter any other way. After all what is it that draws us to lively public places? We enjoy being with our fellows, feeling part of a community. The value of this type of interaction has become more important in the age of the Internet. We are rooted to geography because we are physical beings. We occupy a space and live in a neighborhood and are affected by and effect that setting. Those things, like a beautiful neighborhood park that we share, help us to feel a part of that and go a long way towards dispelling feelings of alienation.

Our public spaces are endangered and precious. As local budgets tighten, maintenance suffers. Several options have surfaced in response to this trend. In New York City, private money has been tapped. Of course this comes with strings that benefit the private funders, often imposing advertising and even buildings within park lands. This is a dangerous and unfortunate trend that does not accurately reflect the will of the citizens and gives away precious resources that cannot be recovered. This is an unacceptable option.

Here in Brookline, we've seen the remarkable spirit of local citizens pledging time, energy and money to protect, maintain and create parks and open space. We understand the value of our parks on a very visceral level and are willing to walk the walk. I have been truly moved by the actions of those who are willing to spend their precious free time working in the garden and by those many families and individuals who have been willing to tap their family budget to contribute to our effort to improve the park. This willingness to participate is a treasure we are blessed with. The personal benefits to be found when working with a group of like minded people in pursuit of a common goal cannot be overstated. I can say with great conviction that for those of us who have labored in the garden, the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices, and we have had many fun and pleasant interactions too.

To find out more about the Minot Rose Garden or volunteer opportunities, please email Linda at

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