Can a giraffe bring racial harmony to Boston?

Elderly housing. Luxury housing. Low-income housing. Market-rate housing. Boston is brimming with redevelopment plans to refurbish its ailing neighborhoods.

But hippo housing?

That, too, is coming. And if the supporters of the nearly derelict Franklin Park Zoo have their way, the pygmy hippos (and the gorillas and bongos and giraffes) just might turn a run-down chunk of Boston's Dorchester area into a nationwide attraction -- and pump new pride into the neglected community.

On the face of it, the plan seems obvious: Take a 65-year- old zoo that has been stumbling toward its own demise since World War II, pour in money to build a new pavilion and buy more animals, and then send out word that something's new at Boston's zoo.

And then wait to see if people will come.

After all, why shouldn't they? Zoos in this country draw more people each year than all professional and amateur sporting events combined. Tourist authorities tell you that the question most frequently asked by the families of business travelers has three words: "Where's the zoo?"

If the three-word answer is "At Franklin Park," however, the families who know Boston may raise an eyebrow and head for the Aquarium. For Franklin Park -- not to put too fine a point on it -- has not got the best of reputations, especially after dark.

Which is why the decision to expand the zoo in its present location -- instead of fleeing to some quiet spot out in the suburbs -- is not only obvious but courageous.

That's also why the fund-raising committee, which has already raised 40 percent of its $5 million goal, deserves a hand. "It would have been everlastingly sad if we walked away from Franklin Park," committee chairman John Larkin Thompson says.

If all goes according to its $40 million plan ($35 million from state and federal sources), the new zoo will open in 1983. And if the fascinating concrete structure under a translucent Teflon-covered fiberglass roof I saw the other day progresses on schedule, it will be a place well worth revisiting.

It will have a one-acre indoor tropical forest, full of humidity and apes and 60-foot jungle trees -- a small, first-class prototype for northern-climate zoos. It will include 8.5 acres of savanna and a desert building. Development director Jim Perry says it will have "more educational content than any zoo in North America" -- including computer games showing what happens to the climate if you chop down a few acres of forest or fiddle with the water supply. And it will be a place where animals are well cared for -- like Sam and Gigi, the gorilla parents expecting their first baby this summer.

If that were all, the zoo would warrant warm appreciation. But this zoo will do more. "We have learned from our marketing studies," Mr. Perry says, "that almost nobody comes to zoos for education." Once there, however, the captive audience can't help being educated.

Which is exactly the point of locating the zoo where it is. For it will test a great question: Can a refurbished 82-acre zoo, tucked between the three-decker houses of the working class neighborhoods and the mansions of the Jamaica Way, refurbish the feelings of a populace sometimes riven by racial fears more brutal than any gorilla could imagine?

A lot of people are convinced that it can. The citizens of Boston's racially divided neighborhoods may not often come together -- especially for programs that self-consciously seek to mix races as a first priority. But they may well come together for animals. The result may be some unexpected education -- not only about animals, but about one another.

Given the strength of local prejudices about the park, however, it won't happen without some persistence.

But the whole history of the project is a tale of persistence, and it's worth retelling.

Franklin Park is the southeastern anchor of the so-called "emerald necklace" -- a chain of green space curving from Dorchester through parks and along rivers to Boston's Public Garden and the Common. Designed in the 19th century by Fredrick Law Olmsted (who also did New York's Central Park), Franklin Park spreads its lawns, thickets, and trails over 500 acres of rolling landscape.

The zoo opened in 1914, in the heyday of zoology's Caged Colonialism style. In those days zoos paid tribute less to man's understanding than to his rapacity. Those were the days when animals came to zoos from hunters who collared the young by shooting the mothers. Even the architecture reflected less the natural habitat than man's domination over it. The now-demolished elephant house was a model of the Taj Mahal. The building which now houses the Birds' World is like something left over from "The King and I." It deserved saving, but only to remind us how far we (and the animals) have come.

After World War II, the zoo fell upon hard times. It was administered by the city's Parks Department. But the spectacle of animals run by park police captains was sufficiently upsetting that the state legislature transferred the operation to the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) -- that curious body which oversees water, sewer, and park resources for the communities that choose to join it.

City Councillor John Sears, the MDC commissioner from 1970 to 1974, recalls that the reigning philosophy of the '60s favored what he calls "the postage-stamp zoo" -- having one of everything, the unhappy bachelors and spinsters of the animal kingdom with such widely varying habitats and needs that no single zoo could possibly oversee them.

Mr. Sears also recalls his first visit to Franklin Park Zoo: range animals capering over barren rocks; oxen unable to make it through the muck into their own house; and generally what he calls "a deplorable scene of devastation." In his first weeks on the job, he called the Boston Zoological Society and asked it to take a management contract to run the zoo -- an arrangement still in operation.

Then he went to St. Louis for a chat with Marlin Perkins, a dean among zoo directors. Mr. Perkins's advice: Don't even open your doors unless you hire a real manager and give him at least a $1 million budget.

Those were days of decision. Should the MDC try to resurrect the Franklin Park Zoo? Should it pour resources into the other zoo it runs in suburban Stoneham, north of Boston and away from inner-city problems? Or should it bail out into a new suburban site? To the credit of people like Mr. Sears and the then-newly hired professional zoo director, Richard Naegeli, the park won. After all, as Mr. Naegeli says, "This is probably the only city in the nation that has such a glamorous piece of real estate available to it."

Then came the debate on how to revamp the facility, and the long night of delay so often characteristic of public-sector projects settled on the zoo. It was originally scheduled to open in 1976 for the bicentennial. But Mr. Sears left the MDC in 1974. Since then there have been nine more commissioners, each one wanting to go back and restudy the whole plan.

Dorchester and the giraffes waited patiently.

Now there is no way out of it: The building is up, and tourists will regularly traverse a piece of Dorchester most people never see. Richard Heath of the Franklin Park Coalition thinks that's a good thing -- although he admits that, if the zoo gets the 750,000 visitors a year it expects, traffic and parking problems may be acute. He hopes the project will reawaken interest in other parts of the neighborhood, especially Blue Hill Avenue, famous since Colonial days as a major artery, but today a tangled confusion of potholes and run-down housing. And he hopes the city, which has paid scant attention to maintaining and policing the rest of the park, will take notice.

But a nagging question remains: Why have a zoo at all? In an age of human rights, are we ignoring animal rights? Are all the admittedly wonderful things we learn from animals -- about patience, adaptation, affection, and the other qualities our cities so desperately need -- worth the caging of otherwise free beings?

Jim Perry points out that the zoo buys its animals from other zoos wherever possible. And he notes, sadly, that "the wild is disappearing." Species of plants and animals are reaching extinction at the rate of about one a day. "I am convinced," he adds, "that in 25 years there will be little if any habitat left in Africa" for some animals, except in zoos.

But some zoos have already been successful in raising nearly extinct species (the Arabian oryx, for example) and reintroducing them into their natural habitat.

Will that be the function of the Franklin Park Zoo? Will it be instrumental in saving those things -- like animals, like neighborhoods -- which man's callousness has endangered?

It certainly can be. The zoo is making tremendous progress. So, fortunately , is Boston. And Boston can continue to contribute to this progress if its people seize on the zoo as something that matters. Most people go to zoos to please themselves. If Bostonians also go to the zoo for the sake of the animals , and for the sake of a better understanding of one another, there will be a lot more than zoology happening in Dorchester.

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