Summer's End a Good Time to Consider the Public-Private Partnership that Produced a Gem for Boston

Friday, September 2, 2011

Though bracketed by chilly mornings and evenings that devour light the way starvelings take nourishment at a feast, the days of September are among the best that summer has to offer.

This Labor Day, I suggest we all pause to consider one of the sublime joys of summer in the city: a brown-bag lunch in the little piece of paradise in Boston's Post Office Square. It's a pleasure that will soon be denied us.

I'm talking about The Norman B. Leventhal Park, built on a site previously occupied by a parking garage, which was ugly even by the meager standards of garage architecture.

Norman Leventhal, builder and philanthropist, had the vision to see tall trees, flowing fountains, and vine-shaded benches where there had been for decades only concrete and asphalt. He saw a nature preserve in the Financial District, a place of respite for the weary souls who spend their days in cubicles and ditches, courtrooms and kitchens, offices and stores, classrooms and clinics.

And Norman Leventhal had the practical skills, honed by years in the construction industry, and the political skills, developed through a lifetime of living and working in a very parochial city, to lead effectively the band of civic and business leaders who turned that vision into a reality.

A model of public-private partnering, the park was completed in the summer of 1992. It became an immediate sensation.

People marveled at the perfect scale and the many features of its design -- the wonders of plant, flower, stone and water waiting to be discovered and appreciated there. They loved the way the variety of trees provided shade, while also allowing sun to flood the elongated triangle that forms the park's center. And they positively luxuriated in the cool air that stirs about the fountain gracing its northern end, near Milk Street.

People flocked to the oasis in Post Office Square, and they flock to it still.

Go there at lunchtime, Monday through Friday, and it's hard to find a place to sit on the low, curving, granite walls, nevermind the benches. But you can always find a spot on the lawn. And if your wardrobe can't tolerate the grass and soil, no problem: there are cushions you can borrow for free, courtesy of The Friends of Post Office Square, the group that runs the park and the parking garage hidden beneath it.

The longer the park was open, the more people realized what a gem the city had there, and the more they acknowledged how much is owed to the man at the heart of the transformation of Post Office Square. Fourteen years ago, on September 16, 1997, it was officially dedicated as The Norman B. Leventhal Park.

That man graduated from the Boston Latin School in 1933 and is now well into his nineties, God bless him. This Labor Day, I will remember how he made the life of every working person who ever strolled his park a little better, a little brighter, and say a prayer of thanks for this great Bostonian.

Thank you, Mr. Leventhal.

...How important are those "nature breaks" we take in the park?

From an article this past week in the Wall Street Journal, ("Coffee Break? Walk in the Park? Why Unwiding is Hard," 8/30/11), we learn that, "Researchers are zeroing in on some of the circumstances that bring about optimal mental refreshment," and that, "Taking in sights and sounds of nature appears to be especially beneficial for our minds..."

Shirley S. Wang, the author of the article, goes on to say that, "This (research) work follows research by Dr. (Marc) Berman and partners at the University of Michigan showing that performance on memory and attention tests improved by 20% after study subjects paused for a walk through an arboretum. When these people were sent on a break to stroll down a busy street in town, no cognitive boost was detected."

Does that mean that all the companies that employ people who regularly enjoy The Norman B. Leventhal Park have him to thank for having more productive work forces? I say, Yes!

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