Your Cart

A Boston Garden

By embracing its complicated racial and political history, Franklin Park remains an oasis
Franklin Park Golf, Photo by John Huet

Light / Dark

Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

It’s early Friday afternoon on a holiday weekend in a section of southwestern Boston that gets few visitors, and even fewer column inches, from folks living in the wide world outside of the city’s tourist bubble. Sprung from my desk, I thread my way along surface streets jammed with parked cars, passing brick apartment complexes and storefronts bearing the trademark apostrophe of local business: John’s Barber Shop, Brother’s Wine & Spirits, Raymond’s Tire Shop. While some Raymonds and Johns are hard at work, others, noting the unseasonable warmth, have drawn the steel shutters and are already halfway to their neighborhood barbecue.

I bear left, passing the main entrance to the Franklin Park Zoo, where families spend summer afternoons munching popcorn and observing African crested porcupines, pygmy hippos and all manner of imported exotic fauna. A few yards beyond, I turn left, passing a set of concrete road barriers and a very modest entrance sign at the gates of the country’s second-oldest municipal golf course. 

The parking lot isn’t big, and on this warm afternoon it’s nearly full; through a gap in the trees I can see a handful of groups making their way around the front nine. A familiar thumping bass greets me as I step out of the car. As long as I’ve been playing here, the portion of the parking lot farthest from the clubhouse turns into a de facto block party when the sun finally comes out. 

A blacked-out sedan rolls through the lot, windows and music up, on its way to join the festivities. A smartly dressed female golfer in her mid-50s waits for the car to pass, then totes her staff bag through the front door of the clubhouse. I follow her in, passing through the grillroom and out onto the practice green, from which the course spreads out in a shaggy, rumpled panorama. From there I count nine visible putting surfaces, some perched on rises, some benched into hay-covered hillsides, some left open to the drifting winds. Then I move to the side as I realize my long shadow is falling in the line of a middle-aged guy in jeans and New Balances intent on sharpening his putting stroke.

This is the William J. Devine Memorial Golf Course at Franklin Park, almost universally known as either “Franklin Park” or simply “the Park.” (Spelled with an “r,” spoken with an “h.”) It’s an urban oasis designed by a legendary landscape architect, little brother to a better-known Boston muni, and crossroads and contact point for the city’s fraught racial history, all overseen by a graying, soft-spoken superintendent named Russell Heller and his sidekick—a golden retriever named Gisele. 

For the last 17 years, Russell Heller, known to the locals as Russ, has been the superintendent at William J. Devine Memorial Golf Course at Franklin Park, known to the locals as Franklin Park. The locals also know his faithful sidekick, Gisele. Photo by John Huet
For the last 17 years, Russell Heller, known to the locals as Russ, has been the superintendent at William J. Devine Memorial Golf Course at Franklin Park. The locals also know his faithful sidekick, Gisele.

*

A month and a half later, on a brisk November Monday, the weather has turned, and I’m waiting for Heller on the practice green while a biting Boston wind rips across the course. Just as I’m about to return to the warmth of the clubhouse, he clatters up in a cart, a light jacket and thin winter hat somehow enough to insulate him from the cold. Although we’ve never met in person, Heller lights up as he approaches, his face crinkling in a smile that accentuates his bright-blue eyes. Gisele bounds off the passenger seat, investigating my pants for signs of other dogs as the three of us head inside. 

The long, low-slung wooden clubhouse could double as a library in a 1970s sitcom and houses a pro shop, function hall, high-ceilinged grillroom and the park’s only public restrooms. Heller stops to chat with an ancient guy at one table, the type of lifer who’s at a table at every muni, with a chit at the snack bar and an honorary position as the arbiter of all barstool debates. Then we’re into the function hall, with windows that look out on the split-level par-5 18th, and diving into the world of a superintendent, with projects ranging in timeline from a few minutes to a few months. 

“This is kind of a unique spot,” Heller says as I scratch Gisele behind her ears. “The course is right in the inner city, and the park itself gets a lot of use. There are always people just walking around here; sometimes people will set up picnics before I even get here,” he laughs. “I’m rolling in at 4:30 a.m. on a weekend and there’s already people!” 

He’s good-natured about it, though, and quick to dismiss my mention of the “tailgating” I’ve seen in the parking lot. “Nobody’s been a problem,” he says firmly. “People are good.”

*

Franklin Park traces its history back to the very roots of American golf. In 1890, after a Hall of Fame career as the shortstop of the Boston Red Stockings, George Wright opened a sporting-goods store in his adopted hometown. According to an extensive history published in a 2015 issue of MassGolfer magazine, while perusing a British sports catalog for cricket equipment, he came across a set of implements being sold under the unfamiliar moniker of “golf clubs.” Wright promptly ordered a set, along with a dozen balls, and took them to the local park to try out this new game. 

Wright’s local park, still under construction at that time, was Franklin Park, named for Boston’s native son, Benjamin, and developed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the highly decorated “father of American landscape architecture.” Olmsted worked on nearly every significant landscaping project in 19th-century America, including Central Park, Golden Gate Park and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair grounds. In Boston, Franklin Park marked the largest and final piece of Olmsted’s “Emerald Necklace,” a ring of parks surrounding the city that gave urbanites some much-needed green space. 

Wright’s initial game was cut short by law enforcement, so he petitioned at the next Parks Department meeting (which Olmsted attended) for leave to test out the new game on an experimental basis. Olmsted was concerned about golfers hacking up his land, but Wright won the day, and on Dec. 10, 1890, Wright and three friends zigzagged across the hills and dales of Franklin Park, burying tomato cans at irregular intervals and attaching 3-foot sticks with red flannel at the top to serve as flags. Reports vary, but the foursome played two rounds across nine or 10 holes, becoming the first people in America to play golf on municipally owned land. 

While the game became popular at Boston’s private clubs, including the legendary Country Club in Brookline, golf didn’t return to Franklin Park for six years. Its reintroduction was led by the intervention of a prophet from the old country. Willie Campbell, a fearsome match-play competitor from Musselburgh, Scotland (where sits golf’s oldest continually operating course), emigrated to Boston in the 1890s and laid out the first official nine holes at the Park in 1896, one year after New York’s Van Cortlandt Park Golf Course opened. 

Today, the Park as a whole covers 527 acres and encompasses the zoo, golf course, tennis and basketball courts, baseball fields, cricket pitch, soccer/lacrosse fields, walking paths, picnic areas, playgrounds and a famed cross-country running course. But it’s the golf course that takes center stage, owing mostly to the work of Heller and his team.

*

“Today was easy—just cleaning leaves,” Heller says as he leans back in his chair in the function hall. “We’re kind of in leaf mode right now, then we have a contractor coming in Wednesday to deep-tine aerify. We’ll put down snow-protection spray on Thursday, and then Friday looks like it might be a rain day, which will turn into a vacation day.” The last bit comes accompanied by a chuckle. Superintendents, like golfers, are always at the mercy of the elements. 

I ask what other projects compose the pre-winter checklist and Heller is quick to remind me of the Park’s admirable commitment to serving golf-mad Bostonians: Nine holes will be open with temporary greens whenever the course isn’t snow-covered.

When I ask about spring and summer, it’s clear that he thinks in linear, project-based fashion. “No matter how clean you get the place in the winter, there’s always some spring cleanup. Obviously the more we can do now makes it a little easier in the spring. Then we’ll get the place cleaned up, start mowing some things where we can—get the place ready for golf.”

For personal scheduling purposes, I inquire about an opening date. “We always shoot for an April 1 starting date, and we can usually beat that by a few days,” he says. “Everything’s always a little wet—there’s frost coming out of the ground, snow melting, rain slows things up—but generally April 1 is a good date to open.”

Before I can ask another question, he jumps forward: “Summer’s mostly just day-to-day maintenance—changing cup locations and tee markers. We mow greens seven days a week. We might skip a couple days here and there for some reason, but for the most part we try to cut every day.”

Heller passes this admirable pragmatism on to his team, which comprises a mechanic, an assistant and about a dozen seasonal guys. As for the family situation, Heller has only this to say: “Married, no kids, got a dog. Living the dream.” “Got” comes out like “gut,” a particularly regional affectation.

Golf can often take itself too seriously, and many course architects and architecture critics possess wells of righteousness from which they can draw when asked about almost anything related to golf course design and maintenance. 

Russ Heller is not one of these people. He’s been a superintendent for more than 25 years, but says he leaves the architecture game to the professionals. I push the design angle a little harder; surely with two decades of bunker rebuilds, tree maintenance and assorted other work, his stamp must be on the land somewhere. But Russ defers to the patron saint of Boston golf. 

“The things we’ve done are just some basic things that need to be done: tees, bunkers. We haven’t changed the characteristic of the golf course too much,” he says. “Donald Ross did a bunch of work [at Franklin Park] back in the early 1900s to expand it to 18 holes, and you want to keep that same feel. You don’t want to do anything that you wouldn’t see at a Ross golf course, bringing different elements in. You don’t want it to look like a Frankenstein course.”

It’s refreshing to hear someone lay out an argument for keeping old golf courses true to their roots, and just as refreshing to hear the way Heller answers the question of typical green speeds at the Park: “An eighth of an inch, if everything’s good.” I ask what that is on the Stimp, to which he replies with an air of complete unconcern, “I don’t know.” 

*

“The best thing about this place is that every day is different. You’re going to run into something new every day that you wouldn’t see at a private facility, just because of the location.” 

This is Heller on the phone a few weeks prior to our meeting in person. Also on the line are the club’s head pro, Kevin Frawley, and Boston Parks’ director of administration, Dennis Roache (who also manages Franklin Park). 

Despite Heller’s seniority—he’s worked at the Park for 17 years, while the other two have been there eight and 10 years, respectively—he remains quiet for most of the conversation, letting the other two answer questions about the history and impact of the Park on its urban neighborhood. 

Roache focuses on the Park’s inclusivity, mentioning how the course “brings people to golf who don’t have the ability to afford high-end golf experiences.” The city certainly backs up this claim with its resident rates: The First Tee program is free, the latest four-week Get Golf Ready program costs $100 and a season pass to both Franklin Park and the Donald Ross–designed (and more widely known) George Wright Golf Course goes for about $1,300 a year. Between wide-open Franklin Park and tight, strategic George Wright, which sits about 15 minutes southwest of the Park in tree-lined West Roxbury, Boston golfers can choose between two historic and varied layouts. “You won’t be able to find more value near a city for becoming a member of a golf course,” Roache says. 

All that inclusivity has a downside: The course gets a ton of play. Frawley’s breakdown of the groups that use the course includes a number of high schools and colleges (among them Boston Latin, the nation’s oldest public school), corporate leagues Monday through Thursday and the Park’s two members’ leagues: the Men’s Inner Club and the Fairway Ladies. In all, Heller estimates the total number of rounds per year to be around 37,000. 

Maintenance alone on that kind of traffic keeps Heller and his team busy with a host of projects, any of which he’s liable to describe in detail at a moment’s notice. A quick soliloquy on a recent bunker redo: “Every time someone hits a shot out of a bunker, sand lands on that face, and if it’s a south-facing bunker and it faces the sun all day, and it heats up, it can wilt pretty quick. Some of these bunkers haven’t been touched in 30 years, and honestly, a bunker should last 10 years, maybe 15 at the most.”

He repeatedly mentions how supportive the city has been with funding and resources, how it is always looking to move forward and make the course a little better every year. And while this is the case now, there were some lean years in the 1960s and ’70s when it seemed like golf at the Park might be in danger of extinction.

Franklin Park

*

Franklin Park sits in an area of Boston that has seen its share of strife. About 5 miles southwest of downtown as the crow flies, the Park is lodged between three neighborhoods: Dorchester, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. In the late 19th century, these constituted classic “streetcar suburbs”: leafy bedroom communities with easy rail access to downtown Boston. As the city grew and absorbed immigrants from Southern cities, Europe and the Caribbean, tightly packed triple-decker housing units sprung up, and residents of these communities found themselves on the front lines of some of the city’s most racially charged incidents. 

In the mid-1960s, the Boston Globe reported that Grove Hall, the section of Roxbury just north of the gates of Franklin Park, was populated by “about 65,000 Negroes and Puerto Ricans.” In a retrospective on the city’s racial tension published in 2017, the same paper reported that “the city’s black population had tripled since 1940, but it remained relatively small—and confined. Few black people lived east of Columbia Road and south of Franklin Park.” A section of Grove Hall’s Blue Hill Avenue, which dead-ends at the northern end of Franklin Park (about a 9-iron northwest of Columbia Road), was known in the ’60s as Agency Row for its many civil-rights organization offices. Two years after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, but a decade before the Boston busing crisis, a bubble of racial violence popped just steps from the Park. 

On June 1, 1967, a group of black women called Mothers for Adequate Welfare staged a sit-in at the welfare office on Blue Hill Avenue. The peaceful demonstration lasted from mid-Thursday until Friday around closing time, when police were called to extricate the group, which had grown to about 50, from the office. The origins of the resulting violence remain murky—some say the police forced their way in and began assaulting the demonstrators; others contend that the officers gained entry only in order to help an ailing woman—but the match had been lit. 

The crowd that had gathered around the outside of the office began pelting the officers with projectiles; the police called in backup armed with riot gear and rifles. The situation escalated, with crowds raging up and down Blue Hill Avenue, taking their frustration out on local businesses. Two furniture stores burned. A hardware store exploded. A group of protestors flipped and torched an occupied car, the driver being pulled to safety with seconds to spare. 

On Sunday, June 4, the city mobilized a force of 1,700 police officers in Franklin Park to quell the uprising with sheer numbers. No deaths were recorded in the weekend-long melee, but local storekeepers filed $1.3 million in insurance claims. For many businesses, this marked the end of their tenure in Grove Hall. 

Suffice it to say, golf was not top of mind in Franklin Park in those days. The riots hastened white flight from the neighborhood and provided the impetus for the city to discard its stewardship of the Park like a rich uncle might exclude a misbehaving nephew from his will. 

In 1959, Franklin Park boasted a staff of 600. Ten years later, that number was down to three. 

*

“The real story that people don’t talk about is how the local people kept the course open in the ’70s with their own hand mowers.” This history lesson comes from Leo, a black man in his 60s I meet while walking the Park’s famed 12th hole. A brutal uphill par 4, the hole runs along the property’s western edge down by the baseball field and Shattuck Hospital. Legend has it that Bobby Jones, while studying English literature as a grad student at Harvard, never made par here in a dozen attempts. 

In between swats with a fairway wood, Leo, who’s sporting two gloves, no hat and a light grey Under Armour sweatshirt, tells me he’s lived within walking distance of the Park for most of his life: “I grew up in Fort Hill, and I’d run around the Park twice every day as a kid.” His story is the one that links the Park’s legend-studded history with its successful present.

In many ways, 1967 was a pivotal year for the course. Billy Devine, the Boston Parks Department commissioner who had funded massive improvements to the Park for the previous three years, died in January. The course was soon named in his memory. In June, the riot in Grove Hall raged, and later that year a handful of neighborhood regulars created the Franklin Park Golf Association (FPGA) in an effort to keep the course afloat. In the early 1960s, the Park had drifted from being one of greater Boston’s finest munis to an afterthought.

George Lyons and Al Hayes, two African-American members of the FPGA, used their personal lawn mowers to keep a few holes open and the 4-foot rough at bay. The course grew wild and woolly through the 1970s, sporting more broken bottles than broken tees. And as so often happens with playgrounds and public parks, the wide-open nature of the course made it perfect for joyriding teens and nefarious characters; car debris piled up across fairways and filled in ponds. By the early 1970s, less than nine holes were playable, and in 1976, the Globe reported that the course was “a goner,” soon to be the site of a housing development. 

Leo, having taken up golf only later in life, remembers a more personal anecdote illustrating the Park’s miserable upkeep: “We used to call that Dead Man’s Curve,” he tells me, pointing to a turn in the road above the ball field. “If you didn’t negotiate the bumps in the sidewalk, you’d fall off into the bushes. The city put a million bucks into this place and now everything is nice and paved over.” 

That million bucks was actually $1.3 million, and it came at the behest of Bob McCoy, who took over as Parks Department commissioner in 1982. McCoy was the highest-ranking African-American in the city’s government, and he oversaw a full refurbishment of the course that took seven years to complete. The Park reopened on July 31, 1989, with Chi-Chi Rodríguez hosting a free clinic for hundreds of children to commemorate the occasion. 

Since then, Franklin Park has remained a fixture on the city’s municipal golf scene. A 16-year-old Tiger Woods, in town for the 1992 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Wollaston Golf Club, put on a youth clinic at Franklin Park. The city put together a master plan for continuing upkeep of the course, which went into effect in 2001, just before Heller signed on. And in July, a half-century after the Grove Hall riot nearly shut the place down for good, the William J. Devine Course at Franklin Park played host to the most revered amateur golf event in the state.

*

The Massachusetts State Amateur Championship (abbreviated to Mass Am by the locals) is the crown jewel of the state’s amateur golf season, and as such, the list of courses that have hosted the event is studded with gems like Myopia Hunt Club, Essex County Club and The Country Club. Wollaston, Woodland Golf Club, Brae Burn Country Club, Charles River Country Club and Taconic Golf Club, among many others, have also opened their doors to Massachusetts’ best amateur golfers. But despite a history that predates two of the four majors, this was the first time the Mass Am had been played at a public, daily-fee golf course. 

Chatting on a sunny day in the mid-50s in the lead-up to the event, Heller was bullish on the Park’s ability to host. His only concern was an immediate one: a required CPR/first-aid class that kept him inside and off the golf course all morning. (“Can you believe that, on a day like today?”) 

With his usual low-key confidence, he said his team wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary to prepare the course. They would make some minor alterations to the summer schedule: The greens would get aerified earlier than usual so they would roll true by July; give a few bunkers a facelift rather than focus on less visible projects, like drainage; do some extra seeding and sod work on some rough patches. For so many, after so long, this tournament marked a major victory for Franklin Park. For Heller and Gisele, it sounded like just another important task on their never-ending checklist. 

 In 1976, The Boston Globe reported that Franklin Park’s fading golf course was “a goner.” Through force of will from a passionate group of locals and a few dedicated public officials, today Heller estimates the course hosts around 37,000 rounds per year. Photo by John Huet