Only older Cantabrians will remember the end of Memorial Drive at Hawthorn Street, and the riverfront that stretched from there to Gerry’s Landing was a park where children played and climbed trees and adults enjoyed the view and breeze. Created at the turn of the 20th century as part of a large-scale waterfront improvement project, this park was one of the most attractive and accessible landscapes in the city. After World War II, however, city planners sounded the drums of a new imperative: freeways to move commuters in and out of town. The waterfront park at the end of Memorial Drive has become a prime target for road builders. The Metropolitan District Commission, which owned the park, responded to the experts and requested permission to extend the parkway. Despite the outcry of hundreds of neighbors, the four-lane Memorial Drive was built in 1950. Separated from the river, the remaining open ground was emptied of all life, reduced to a roadscape for passers-by in cars.
Not only was Memorial Drive extended against great opposition; the highway violated the spirit of the donation that led to the creation of the park. The park’s 2-acre core – the parcel between Longfellow Park and the river – had been a private gift born out of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s love of river views from his historic Brattle Street home. From the mid-1840s, fortunate circumstances and a sense of civic duty allowed the poet to acquire plots to preserve this landscape as development filled the other open spaces of the city. In 1870 Longfellow made one last purchase – the riverside parcel between Mount Auburn Street and the river. His children, who inherited these precious hectares, might have chosen to sell them or develop them. Instead, in honor of their father, they donated them to the Longfellow Memorial Association as “breathing space on the river [that would] will one day be a great boon to Cambridge when it gets crowded.
In 1895 the Memorial Association transferred the land to Cambridge for inclusion in the major Charles River Bank Improvement Scheme. At the time, landscape architect Charles Eliot described Longfellow’s Land as one of Cambridge’s most pleasing landscapes, and the city subsequently made a considerable investment to turn Longfellow Marshes into a park. In the early 1900s, the landscape came alive even more when a group of neighbors organized to raise money for a playground and kindergarten. Their advocacy led the city to establish a bathing beach with supervised bathhouses. The newly formed Cambridge Boat Club at the foot of Hawthorn Street further enlivened the use of the park. For the next four decades, Longfellow’s parks and Gerry’s Landing were among the city’s major open spaces.
The Memorial Drive extension has cut off public access to this prime stretch of the river, and memories of the once bustling park have faded. Faded, that is, until the 1970s when Isabella Halsted, a Cantabrian who grew up when the park was bustling with life, advocated closing a 1.5-mile stretch of the road to traffic on Sunday for the pleasure of pedestrians and cyclists. (Halsted also gave the area a name – Riverbend Park – and created the People for the Riverbend Park Trust to improve its plantings and their maintenance.) Thus, since 1975, the closing of roads from spring to autumn on Sundays reestablished the connection. with the river, at least one day a week, and for a year now also on Saturdays.
The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is now engaged in a Memorial Drive Greenway improvement project. Although work began before Covid-19, pandemic closures have led to people spending more time outdoors near their homes. Appreciation for parks in our densely populated and ‘under-parked’ city has therefore increased, and the potential of Cambridge’s waterfront parks, in particular Longfellow Land, has become more evident.
As a student of the history of Longfellow Park, I hope DCR engineers and planners will investigate the possibility of removing the 1950 Memorial Drive “extension.” Its traffic volume is low, even at peak times, and there are six freeway lanes across the river. (Should both sides of the river be lined with highways?) Nearby intersections could be redesigned. And one simple change – opening Mount Auburn Hospital’s entrance on Gerry’s Landing Road to access its emergency department – would reduce traffic on Mount Auburn Street.
Removing a road that should never have been built would bring the fun of new landscaping to the park. A canoe and kayak launching ramp, swimming, tennis, gardens, a skate track? The options are many.
To learn more, see “A Lost Park: Longfellow’s Parks” on the History Cambridge website.
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