Boston Parks Will Always Have Paris (to Make Them Feel Inferior)

Let me write this once, straight out: Boston is not Paris, and the Boston Common is not a Parisian park. It isn’t even in France. You’d think that having an ocean and a tectonic plate boundary between Boston and Calais would count for something, but apparently there’s some confusion on that point. Or, rather, there’s been a lot of wishful thinking going on since at least the 1830’s.

The most recent symptom is the comment by Elizabeth Vizza in the Boston Globe article on the Boston Common’s upcoming face-lift. Quoth the Globe: ” ‘It’s going to be like a Parisian park,’ said Elizabeth Vizza, executive director of Friends of the Public Garden, which also advocates for Boston Common and is spearheading the project.”

Vizza is not alone. Bostonians have been suffering Parisian park envy for more than 150 years.  For example:

1838: G.W. Light, The Boston Common, or Rural Walks in Cities: “It is gratifying to learn that measures have been taken for the laying out of a public garden  on the lands below the Common… though it may never equal the Garden of Plants, at Paris, the philanthropic friends of science among us ought not to forego the opportunity of making it a place not only of elevated and rational amusement, but of instruction in the wonders of nature’s works.”

1891: William H Brine, The Visitor’s Guide to Boston, and Gazetteer of Massachusetts: The [Public] garden is laid out in the French parterre style, modeled after the beautiful Parc Monceau, of Paris… We now turn into Commonwealth Avenue, a beautiful street on the model of the boulevards of Paris, being about one hundred feet in width and lined with shade trees. ”

And let’s remember that the lovely Brewer Fountain, due for a complete refurbishment of its plaza, is a copy of a fountain sculpted in… Paris.

But what is a “Parisian park”? Paris is a big city with thousands of acres of parks: there are twenty-three very different spaces listed on this page alone, ranging from modernist landscapes to man-made forests.

Perhaps the questions is really, “What do the Friends of the Public Garden think a Parisian park is like?”

I can’t speak for the Friends, but I know what I remember about Parisian parks. I’ve visited a few of them, generally in the company of my affluent, college-educated, pale-skinned parents. When I think of Paris’s parks, I think of orderly, clean, green places which I could visit any time I have a day and a half and $1000 to spare for air fare .

How many of the people who use the Boston Common have ever been to a Parisian park? How many of them could afford to get to one? The term “Parisian park” is only meaningful to people who have had the opportunity to visit Paris. That category includes some of the Common’s fans, and probably the wealthiest and most powerful of the park’s supporters, but not the average park user.

More importantly, don’t we need a Bostonian park? After all, the Boston Common was founded by Puritans, and soaked with the blood of Revolutionary War soldiers. Boston is home to some of Frederick Law Olmsted‘s most successful parks, and some of the most prominent landscape architecture schools and practices in the country. If our most famous park is supposed to be an imitation of Paris, what does that say about Boston? That we’ve offshored our identity? Or that we simply can’t imagine Americans creating successful city parks?

  2 Replies to “Boston Parks Will Always Have Paris (to Make Them Feel Inferior)”

  1. March 17, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    Hear, hear! The Emerald Necklace park system is a stunning assemblage of different park forms and functions.

  2. Ron Newman
    March 18, 2011 at 8:33 am

    It’s not just parks. Commonwealth Ave. was intended to be similar to a Haussmann boulevard in Paris. Mount Auburn and Forest Hills Cemetery were modeled after Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

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