Montgomery Park: Boston, MA

The rich history and impact from one of the country's oldest and impressive Community Greens
Source: Sporgis Real Estate

On summer evenings, the glow of candlelight illuminates the lush plantings of Montgomery Park, a third of an acre backyard shared by 85 households in Boston's South End neighborhood. This community green has become the heart of a diverse community of neighbors who have grown to be "the best of friends."

Here, they garden together, maintaining several large perennial borders, a dozen trees, walkways, and a lawn. Families and neighbors gather here to play, lounge, and dine. From the 1860s, when the block was originally developed, until the 1970s, the park was separated from the residents' backyards by an alley and fence. Over the years, the residents have worked to connect the park to their yards by covering the alley with a narrower brick walkway, tearing down the fence separating them from the garden, persuading the utility companies to bury their lines, and shifting garbage pick-up to the fronts of their homes. Through their efforts, residents of Montgomery Park now have easy access to a green oasis in the midst of an otherwise dense urban neighborhood.    


Montgomery Park has undergone dramatic changes in its long history. Roughly one-third of an acre, it is a trapezoidal remnant of land enclosed by 36 buildings on four short blocks of brick row houses. It came into being when Eliphalet Baker, a dry goods importer, constructed the surrounding houses on West Canton, Montgomery, and Dartmouth Streets in Boston's South End neighborhood. Soon after their completion, Mr. Baker died, and the owners of the homes purchased shares in the park, creating a trust. The earliest photograph of the park (at right) shows a simple design of paths, a central urn, and young trees. Originally, a service road circled the park and was used by ice wagons and coal delivery trucks to gain access to individual backyards, which were also fenced.

The only history residents have of the park is the photograph above and the stories of Arthur Pritchard, who grew up on West Canton Street at the turn of the century. He warmly greeted the Watkins and other young families who bought houses on the Park in the 1960s and told them stories of growing up beside the park, which he described as a closed-off garden entered only by the gardener. According to Watkins, "He said he hoped we would grow grass and make the park green again."

Park Transformation

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, severe poverty persisted on Montgomery Park. Arson struck two houses, one of which was never rebuilt. Like many city neighborhoods at the time, the South End suffered through a rash of arson fires that were set by landlords unwilling to maintain their properties. Those newcomers buying houses to renovate as single or two family residences were intrigued by the garden space, even though it was filled with debris. The soil was hard-packed and drainage was so poor that children ice-skated around the hundred-year-old copper beech tree, which barely grew leaves in the summer.

A small group of residents took on the first park projects with a tentativeness that came from not really knowing what co-ownership of land meant. The archaic terms of the 1865 trust provided little guidance. Five trustees of the proprietors were to hold and manage the park. These trustees could even sell the land with the written permission of only ten of the original 31 proprietors.

The new residents rejected the old terms in favor of a more democratic approach. They felt there were more pressing matters than by-laws and began by hiring an arborist to save the copper beech tree. Residents improved drainage around the tree and rented a roto-tiller to construct a new lawn.

Around this time, they decided to remove what remained of the park fence. Despite these major efforts, annual cleanups of the park continued for several years, as the photographs above demonstrate.Happenstance allowed the park to mature into the sylvan retreat it is today. After a series of break-ins and assaults, the neighbors decided that restricting access to the park from the street was necessary for security and for fostering improvements. As Watkins explained:

"Very slowly, very gradually we decided it would really be better, safer, if we closed off the park. Because, this is not a public park, it's a private park. So, we have wooden fences with doors and locks and a steel gate at one end so you can see right down into the park. All of the gates are keyed the same and everyone who lives on the park has a key. And sometimes Cablevision has to get down there so someone comes around and lets them in."

Although highly controversial, residents decided to reorient garbage collection to the front streets, restricting the trucks from the backs of the homes.    

During this same period, the condominium conversions of the Tremont Street buildings were adding garden level units and roof decks.On the other three streets, basements became apartments and porches appeared off second story kitchens.By the 1990s, the orientation of most of the buildings was toward the back rather than the streets. Residents gradually removed backyard fences to reveal the park taking shape beyond. After 20 years of slow but steady progress, the stage was set for the gardens.

“We could hear them laughing”

Throughout this varied history, the small park remained little more than a green lawn that neighbors took turns mowing. Then one spring in the early 1990s, Robert Ober of West Canton and Alice Fisher of Tremont decided to plant a flower garden in the common area. Watkins remembers hearing them laughing as they dug in the horrible soil in the very early hours before they went off to work.

Somehow, they created a perennial border nearly 50 feet by 10 feet out of coal clinkers, soot, and buried treasures. By that July, the flowers were 5 feet tall! 

That first flower garden was so successful, so fabulous, that neighbors pooled their money so that they could continue gardening. They established a voluntary contribution in the amount of $50 per year to ensure that there was always enough money to cover gardening expenses as well as infrastructure maintenance. 

During the next few years this team created two more large borders on the Montgomery and West Canton sides of the park. Ober built a 16-foot long compost bin along the Dartmouth Street passageway to fill the tremendous need for better soil. Others scooped up bags of grass clippings from curbs in neighboring towns to add to the park's leaves in the compost bins.In this way, the park was transformed into a magnet that attracted children and adults alike to play, garden, and relax.

Around the time neighbors were discovering the fun of gardening together, an ice storm knocked down telephone lines and gave them the opportunity to lobby the phone company to bury the lines. Although it took ten years to get all the telephone lines buried, it made an enormous improvement in the look of the park, as is evident from the photo at right.

“Making ourselves at home”

Today the park is lush with mature plantings, the soothing sound of water from a three-tiered fountain, places to sit and visit or dine with family and friends, and oh yes, a hammock, one of the most sought after spots in the park. Other than the old stone bench given by Maureen Ruff in 1999, and the circular wooden bench that surrounds the rejuvenated beech tree, all other furniture is moveable. According to Watkins, "in the summer, each look out at the park, you see that the furniture has been placed in a new arrangement to fit the activities of the day before.

As the park grew more and more beautiful, many homeowners removed the fences surrounding their own backyards to better enjoy the view. They covered over the service road with grass and a single lane brick pathway that now delineates the private backyards from the park. Despite this division, plantings in the backyards tend to spill over into the park.

While a few households have kept their backyard fences, many of the other backyards are landscaped elaborately, some with field stone terraces. Watkins said: "There is a tremendous amount of expression in the backyards."

The park community is most fortunate to have a resident cellist, Augustine Rodriguez, who occasionally spends the day practicing under the beech tree. Weddings, chorale performances, and workplace gatherings are just some of the ways residents have enjoyed the space, as the park can comfortably hold gatherings of a hundred or more. According to Watkins:

"The most popular large events, of course, are those we throw for ourselves. Annual potluck dinners have always been well attended, but our best idea so far is a pancake brunch in early fall. We do all the cooking on the spot and pay for supplies from our park funds. Such occasions are the best way to meet new residents and are the closest we ever come to a park business meeting."

It has been a stop on the South End Garden Tour several times, and in 1994, it received a Community Garden Award by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

Montgomery Park is a diverse community with residents of all ages, incomes, and many ethnicities. Waiters, artists, students, and young professionals occupy apartments and condominiums, with some space set aside for affordable housing.

On the other end of the spectrum, the single-family homes often sell for a premium. Recently one of these homes sold in the range of $2 million. Watkins said that, Although per capita incomes are higher and home ownership has increased dramatically with the condominium conversions, the different races and languages, ages, and sexual preferences on the park continue to keep us interesting to each other.    Properties in Montgomery Park turn over quite regularly because of this mix of housing types. The condominiums and apartments are attractive to young couples and singles, many of whom eventually start families and want more space. Increasing property values entice otherwise satisfied residents to sell.

New residents often decide to remodel. Because of this, many of the homes on the park have been remodeled three or four times in the last twenty years. Many of these remodeling jobs add large curtain windows that take advantage of the park views. "In winter, the park seems all lit up. Many newcomers also reorient their rooms with bedrooms facing the park rather than the street. So," Watkins said, "there is stability and there is turnover. There are quite a few of us who will go out feet first. And there are lots of newcomers that feel the same way. So the spirit of the place won't disappear. This space can overcome anything." Alphonse Litz, who has lived on the park since 1996, agrees:"People who have lived here for a long time pass on the culture to those who move in."

Informal governance works best

Residents make decisions about the park in an informal, ad hoc manner. Watkins said that, "Everybody knows each other here and we talk things over and then come to an informal consensus." This informality encourages people to use the space in a wide variety of ways, including weddings, garden tours, and children's birthday parties. If someone wants to use the space, they just send a note around the neighborhood, letting everyone know their plans.

Judy Watkins, currently the de facto "mistress of the garden," keeps a calendar of events to which residents may refer to avoid scheduling conflicts. Each year neighbors receive a letter on park stationery that describes the previous year's expenditures, proposes new ones, asks for suggestions and comments, and requests voluntary contributions. The task of writing this letter is passed around, usually among the gardeners. One page of the letter, which stays pretty much the same each year, describes the evolution of the governance of the park. 

Other rules remain unwritten community mores. For example, cutting flowers in the park is frowned upon, as they should be there for all to enjoy. Also, while pets are allowed in the park, they must be kept on a leash.

Noise on the park is another matter. Neighbors enjoy hosting gatherings of friends in the beautiful setting. But the four stories of brick can become one big echo chamber at night and a clause in this year's letter requests that parties be brought indoors by 11 p.m.

Gardening duties are also optional. Montgomery Park has about six gardeners who make decisions about plantings. The actual gardening usually gets done in teams. In addition to the six serious gardeners, a host of other neighbors regularly pitch in to pull weeds or run the push mower. According to Watkins, there exists a great deal of competition to push the manual mower. She described how, "Someone will tap you on the shoulder and say, Why don't you give me a turn with that?"

The residents share both their skills and their assets to help the garden thrive. Alphonse Litz has encountered prospective Montgomery Park homebuyers who assume that the park is professionally managed. They are surprised to hear that park maintenance is accomplished entirely informally, by neighborly trust and consensus. "What really makes it work is just the opposite [of professional management]," he says. "It's borrowing the hose."

With many babies and pets enjoying the space, the neighbors realized that using chemical fertilizers and pesticides was not a good idea. Watkins described how, somebody will order a bunch of praying mantises or lady bugs and then we will settle up. But its not written down, it's not an issue.

They allocate water in the same manner. Two households bear the brunt of providing water, since there are no common spigots. At the end of the year, those homeowners are reimbursed. Nor does the park include electricity; lighting comes from gas lamps, historical artifacts from the early days of the park. Over the years, neighbors have added additional lanterns, so that at night the park is well lit.

Those occupying upper floor apartments and condominiums enter the garden through one of the three gated entries. Because of this, the closest relationships often develop among those neighbors living on the ground floor, partly because they have direct access to the garden.

Watkins however said: "We have found that if [someone] really cares about [the Park], they will come and start meeting people... Having chairs and tables was a great idea. In the summer you look out and see people of all ages and people who don't always use the space. The park makes everyone happy and we all behave. We all get along."

Watkins also said that many of her neighbors are now choosing to stay in the city on summer weekends: "The park is noticeably cooler than the streets of the South End. And reading a book in the hammock followed by dinner under the stars is a lot more relaxing than the highway."

Ultimately, Montgomery Park is a gift residents continue to give to each other. With the blossoming of the first flowers, neighbors appreciated the gift given by the first gardeners and gave of their time and money to help it continue. In the same way, each time a neighbor feels that they would really like a fountain or a hammock to enjoy in this splendid place, others chip in, making it possible, and thus each benefits from the others' generosity. And what of those surrounding neighbors who don't live on the park?

"I think they respond with envy and with awe! Sometimes you see them looking through the iron gate and commenting on the park," said Litz.

   The value of what residents created at Montgomery Park is both tangible and intangible. In 1965, a home could be purchased on the park for around $12,000. A home today could sell for as much as $2 million. The skyrocketing property values have made some home sellers very wealthy.