Boston Ponds: Lights, Rights, and Power

Forest Hills Lantern Festival. Photo by Kate Flock, Wicked Local

First, here’s the good news: the Forest Hills Educational Trust will be holding its Thirteen Annual Lantern Festival  at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain this Thursday, July 13, from 6 pm onward. According to the Trust’s web site, the festival will feature  traditional Japanese dance from students of Showa Boston, Irish music from guitar and fiddle duo the Whiskey Boys, Chinese dragon dance from Gund Kwok and Grand Master Tsuji’s Taiko drummers”—but the heart of the festival is the lanterns: the vessels for messages to the dead.

For $10, festival-goers can buy a lantern and inscribe it with notes, names, drawings, poems, or anything else they wish to share. Then, at a certain time, the crowd gathers at  Lake Hibiscus at the center of the cemetery. The lanterns are put into the lake and float away, candles shining in their paper wrappings. Thousands of lanterns’ lights are reflected in the dark water on a summer night. It is beautiful.

Forest Hills Lantern Festival. Photo by Elizabeth Pell

It’s also just about the only event that the Forest Hills Educational Trust ever created that separate, distinct, and hostile Forest Hills Cemetery Board thought was worthy of repeating. As I wrote in January, the Cemetery Board decided in December, 2010 to fire the Educational Trust staff apart from the Executive Director (who resigned) and suspend all Forest Hills Educational Trust programs—including poetry readings, cemetery tours, concerts, and, yes, the Lantern Festival—to engage in “strategic planning.”

Apart from the curious fact that the Cemetery Board seems to feel the best way to plan for an organization’s future is to get rid of all the staff who have had any experience with that organization, the “temporary” suspension and “planning” are still going on with no end in sight, according to the Educational Trust web site.

You can also still fill out the Cemetery Board’s Planning Survey if you like. Heaven knows if anyone will ever read it. Then they might feel obliged to spend some of the Educational Trust’s funds on public programming. Right now, the Educational Trust is in danger of losing its Massachusetts Cultural Council grants because surprise! it hasn’t been running any public programming. Funny how people stop giving you money when you don’t do any work.

One site claims that the survey has been tabulated, with a nod to traditional Chicago political-machine voting. “The results of a survey administered during that time were encouraging. Residents of Forest Hills overwhelmingly approved of what the Trust was doing, and wanted to see it back.” How many residents of Forest Hills Cemetery can move, much less use these new-fangled electronic devices?

That said, the neighborhood that seems to be officially called “Forest Hills”  appears to be the area of JP east of Hyde Park Avenue and north of Walk Hill street. In 2010 alone, more than 4,000 people attended the Lantern Festival–a number which probably exceeds the total population of “Forest Hills.” Surely some of the people who actually go to Forest Hills and support the cemetery –residents of the rest of Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Mattapan, and all the other communities within a mile of Forest Hills– should have some say as well.

Of course, the Forest Hills Cemetery Board can do whatever they like. The cemetery is privately owned. A few people can decide the fate of the Forest Hills Educational Trust, no matter what the “Residents of Forest Hills” overwhelmingly approve of.

If the Forest Hills Cemetery Board wants to dismantle popular programs that attract people to one of Boston’s great underutilized green spaces, there isn’t much any of us can do, apart from filling out the survey, calling the cemetery office, sending e-mails and letters… and going to the Lantern Festival. Please do.

The situation is a little different at Newton’s Hammond Pond. Last year, a local family, the Rudyaks, pledged $1 million to build a floating boardwalk around the pond in memory of their son, Michael, who died in 2007 at the age of 47.

It’s a kind gesture, but there’s a hitch; the Rudyaks don’t own Hammond Pond. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation(DCR) does, which means that there have to be public hearings about the project before anyone starts nailing together a boardwalk.  At the last public hearing, residents talked about the walkway’s environmental impact and maintenance costs.

At 22 acres, Hammond Pond is also larger than the 10-acre minimum to be considered a “great pond” under Massachusetts law. Those ponds are considered public resources, no matter who owns the land around them, there are plenty of regulations on the pond above and beyond the usual wetlands laws.

The Rudyaks are obviously generous and well-intentioned; but really, if you asked the DCR how it could use a million dollars to commemorate a beloved son, the answer would probably be to purchase a couple hundred acres of land somewhere west of Route 495. The DCR bought 782 acres in Tolland for just $3 million earlier this year, with a bonus conservation restriction (barring development on an additional 61 acres) thrown in for free.

Forest Hills Cemetery, photo by Muffet

And there, in brief, is the same conundrum facing the Forest Hills Cemetery Board, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, and to a lesser extent the Friends of the Public Garden, the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, and any other parks organization that regularly deals with wealthy, generous donors. What a few individuals with large bank accounts may want—a nice boardwalk on the water, a quiet cemetery, a pretty carousel—may have nothing at all to do with what the majority of people who use the space may want: an unpaved path next to a quiet pond, a cemetery filled with art, poetry, and music, a less-expensive carousel that charges less for a ride than the MBTA.

In most public parks, there are feedback mechanisms (public hearings, environmental reviews), so that wealthy donors’ interests do not conflict with the public good, and might actually support programs the greater community wants and needs. Whether the Ryedak’s plan for a floating boardwalk is the best and highest use of Hammond Pond is debatable—but at least there is a public debate.

By contrast, at private and sort-of-private parks, such as Forest Hills Cemetery—and, it seems at the Rose Kennedy Greenway’s tone-deaf $3 Million Carousel Committee—there is no feedback, or perhaps just no will to listen to feedback. Both get state funding. Forest Hills’ allotment may soon come to an end; will the Greenway’s?


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