Polishing a gem of a park that has lost its sparkle

The view from the tall, iron gateway at Franklin Park here could be in a picture book. To the right: a picnic spot with benches, shady trees, and manicured grass. To the left: a short driveway to the Franklin Park Golf Course.

But a few yards inside the entrance, disappointment sets in. Franklin Park Zoo is closed. The golf course is unkempt, ruined by motorcyclists who drive their bikes across fairways. Broken-down benches with splinters and peeling paint line overgrown paths and trails. The park is littered with trash, a problem common to many municipal parks across the United States.

If landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted strolled through Franklin Park today, he would hardly recognize it as the park he designed for Boston in 1884, says Richard Heath, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition.

Mr. Heath and other volunteers formed the coalition to restore the 583-acre area to the esteem it enjoyed 100 years ago, when it opened to the public as the crown jewel of Olmsted's famed ''emerald necklace.''

The emerald necklace is the name of the famed system of parks, boulevards, and natural lands that encircles old Boston. Olmsted started work on the necklace in 1878, after moving to nearby Brookline. He first achieved national acclaim for designing Central Park - America's oldest public park - in New York City.

''Frederick Law Olmsted designed parks to apply this principle: Public parks are open free to everyone,'' Heath says. ''They are the great democratizer. They bring people together. They illustrate the right to an integrated society.''

And Franklin Park was rated by many experts as a better example than Central Park of Olmsted's dream to bring ''open space'' to American cities. He fought state and local bureaucracies to make the emerald necklace a reality. In its heyday, Franklin Park was well maintained for the carriage society - complete with bridle paths, walking lanes, boathouses, lagoons, an 18-hole golf course and clubhouse, and acres of hills, woodlands, and uncharted trails. It was open to all.

But today Franklin Park rarely draws tourists or outsiders. Its regulars are residents of inner-city Boston who live in neighboring public-housing projects, in abutting renovated housing, and in communities spotted with boarded-up buildings and vacant lots. Many are minorities, and they use the park to get away from dingy housing and depressing communities, says Heath.

Franklin Park is neglected because minority people use it more than whites, he says.

''Public officials shun this park,'' he adds. ''Motorcyclists like to rough it and drive up and down the golf course . . . ,'' he says. ''We get no service from city police. So only seven holes on the golf course are playable. Without barriers to areas closed ll traffic, motorists drive where they please.''

But members of the interracial coalition are trying to revive interest in the park. They point to these encouraging developments:

* Franklin Park has been allotted $250,000 in restoration funds, says James S. Hoyte, secretary of the state Office of Environmental Affairs. However, Heath adds, ''We need at least $900,000 to truly renovate this park.''

* The park will be included next year in the new Boston Park Ranger program, says Robert McCoy of the Boston Parks and Recreation Commission. Since May, 20 uniformed rangers wearing ''Smokey the Bear'' hats have patrolled other links of the emerald necklace - the Boston Common, the Public Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and the Commonwealth Avenue mall.

* The coalition is conducting a fund-raising and membership campaign. Rallying behind the slogan, ''Franklin Park - A Park for All Seasons,'' 80 new members have joined since the drive was launched May 9. But ''our main push is yet to come,'' Heath says. Allies in a media push include a local radio station, two local TV anchors, two governmental agencies, the parks commission, and the Metropolitan District Commission.

* The Franklin Park Zoo, now closed for repairs, is scheduled to reopen in late 1984 as a year-round facility with natural environments for its animal population.

Of the genteel society that frolicked in Franklin Park years ago, only the horseback riders still come for the bridle paths. Most of today's users prefer bicycle lanes to bridle paths, jogging trails to walking lanes, and lighted courts and fields for tennis, basketball, baseball, soccer, and other outdoor sports to cricket, Rugby, and more sedate activities. Yet the park has no lights , so many people stay away at night.

But coalition president Matthew Goode says, ''Franklin Park is safe. The coalition sees that the park is kept clean.'' The coalition's summer maintenance crew includes 14 part-time workers, Heath says. ''Of course, we have a backlog of tasks to do,'' he adds.

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