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Polishing up century-old `jewel' of a park

The untamed floral woodlands surrounding Ralph Waldo Emerson's home in 19th-century rural Boston inspired the poet to write of the ``fresh Rhodora in the woods . . . .'' Today the city has engulfed the land he wrote about -- called Schoolmaster Hill. But it remains a historic area within Franklin Park, which is celebrating its 100th year as the ``crown jewel'' of Boston's famed ``Emerald Necklace.''

The nine-mile-long string of parks, public gardens, and boulevards was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Among Franklin Park's features are a zoo, playing fields, a walking tour, a golf course, bridle paths, and picnic areas.

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Olmsted's ``jewel,'' however, began to lose its luster in the 1960s, becoming a dumping ground for trash and a haven for drug dealers. Only in recent years has progress been made to restore the park, thanks largely to the efforts of neighborhood groups in surrounding Roxbury.

Park enthusiasts see this year's centennial celebration as the rallying point for a revival of the park as a recreational facility not only for Bostonians, but for the city's visitors. There will be fairs, jamborees, and carnivals throughout the summer, as well as commemorative exhibits at the Roxbury and Boston public libraries. The Franklin Park Zoo, planned in the original Olmsted blueprint for the park, but not built until 1910, was reopened last year after a thorough renovation, including a large aviary and a new children's zoo. A climate-controlled tropical pavilion is under construction.

Most of the crime and dumping in the park has been eliminated with the growth and support of the Franklin Park Coalition, a volunteer group. But the park still needs beautification of some areas and proper maintenance throughout. Advocates cite the need for more funding.

``City Hall must recognize that parks are not a frill,'' says Richard Heath, director of the Franklin Park Coalition.

``Tribute and accolades are bestowed on Franklin Park, but its survival as a first-rate city attraction has often been detoured by a shortage of funds and years of neglect,'' says Robert R. McCoy, city commissioner of parks and recreation.

The need for financing is not new to Franklin Park. Boston Mayor Hugh O'Brien sponsored a $2.5 million bond issue in 1885 for park construction. That same year, city fathers changed the project's name from Roxbury Park to Franklin Park, hoping to reap a legacy from the estate of Benjamin Franklin, who had died a century before. But Franklin's relatives filed legal action to oppose any such disposition of funds of the Franklin Foundation. They lost, but the city received no money.

The park's real heyday was in the 1920s, lasting through the late 1950s. In those days the zoo earned a world reputation. The golf course became a favorite, not only because of its challenge, but also because its pros were considered excellent teachers. (Today, only five holes are playable.) Its White Stadium was used for high school sports and for state competition in track and football.

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As blacks moved into Roxbury, critics say, the park became neglected. The Franklin Park Coalition was organized in 1973 as a collection of smaller community groups, black and white, seeking to halt the deterioration of the park. The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, which gave outdoor cultural programs in the park each summer in those days, and a black golfers organization sought park renewal as early as 1969.

By 1981 the coalition had become an unofficial arm of the administration of Franklin Park. It runs a summer program under contract with the parks department, which hires 14 youths to keep the park clean. ``We are raising $45,000 this year to mow the lawns, work on the trees, and beautify the park this summer,'' Mr. Heath says.

He lists immediate needs of the park: renovation of historic sites such as Schoolmaster Hill; cleaning of the grounds; and restoration of the wilderness areas. The state has allotted $1.25 million in restoration funds for Franklin Park, says James S. Hoyte, secretary of the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.

Mr. McCoy expresses love and concern for Franklin Park.

``I grew up in the black community close to the park,'' he says. ``Our neighborhood had no services for kids. So we looked to the park for action. I believe the park has had a low priority in recent years, because it is virtually surrounded by the black community.''

State Sen. Royal L. Bolling Sr., who lives within walking distance of the park, optimistically forecasts, ``I see a new beginning for a greater Franklin Park.''

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