Pope John Paul II Park, the southern gateway to the city, needs some attention. Thousands of people each day cross the Neponset and enter Dorchester. The first thing they see is the park. From a distance it looks nice but close up it’s an underutilized mess. I expect its namesake would be embarrassed at the neglect. Unfortunately, the Southeast Expressway blocks the view and creates a barrier between the park and its neighbors.
Do we have to sell the naming rights to the park to a business in order to have it properly maintained? No self-respecting business would allow its namesake to fall into such disrepair. The condition of the park says something about the competence of those responsible for it and how much they value their citizens/customers.
I often walk the paths on the site, which has extraordinary natural beauty, and am distressed at the failure to fulfill its promise. I am reminded of the time as a teenager when I worked for the state in the Blue Hills for a summer and was told by the foreman: “Slow down kid, you don’t want to kill the job.” The message was do as little as you can but try to look busy.
The state Department of Conservation & Recreation (DCR) is responsible for the park and it is clearly not up to the job. The original plantings are either dead or overgrown, surrounded by weeds. Aside from cutting the grass from time to time, there is little effort to clean let alone beautify a marvelous space.
There are no gardens, flowers, or trees that would make the park more welcoming. There are no picnic tables or grills where families could gather for cookouts on warm summer evenings. Other states I have visited do a better job managing their public spaces.
I would like to see a ranger in the park; people working on their vegetable gardens; others planting and tending flower beds, adopting a long neglected overgrown plot; perhaps a spring daffodil festival. I would like to see people paddling canoes or rowing sculls on the river. Maybe even a grove of trees where folks could sit in the shade and admire the river. A “Sullivan’s” like take-out eatery should be considered.
The state won’t do it, so it’s up to the residents of Dorchester, the historic and proud community that is home to the park, to take control. Organize the “Friends of PJPII” to raise money, identify volunteers willing to devote some time to improve the park and sponsor events. There are enough civic minded residents of Cedar Grove and Neponset alone to reclaim the area’s front lawn. Perhaps the Community Corrections Department could assign workers periodically to pick up trash and spread mulch.
If the Cedar Grove Cemetery can be so well maintained, we should be able to do better for the living. Why wait until we’re under the grass to occupy such a beautiful space? Sure, it’s probably easier to maintain a cemetery than a public park but at least the park occupants can enjoy it. Does it have to become an Olympic site to get more attention?
Take a walk around PJPII. It seems the only thing the DCR does is cut some of the grass from time to time. One rarely sees a worker picking up trash and I have never seen one tending to the beds that looked so nice when the park opened and are now overgrown thickets.
The DCR is just not up to the task. I expect it would be more cost efficient to hire a landscaping company to maintain it. More realistically, the concerned residents of Dorchester need to enlist commercial sponsors and volunteers to preserve and protect their front lawn and the lovely river that runs through it.
The city is bordered to the north by the Charles and to the south by the Neponset. One is treated like a favored child and the other sadly ignored. We can do better.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.