Northeastern gives new life to an historic playground

A youth football team practices on the newly renovated Carter playground field on September 13, 2018. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

With each step on the cushioned turf of the new William E. Carter Playground, Derrick Beasley is reminded of how football used to be.

“The fields we played on, they were horrible,” says Beasley, a fourth-round draft pick in 1987 by the New England Patriots.

As coach of the co-op football program of Cathedral and Cristo Rey high schools in Boston, Beasley guides his team through its afternoon practice on fields that feel too good to be true—padded yet firm, and of a green brighter than the real thing. His fastest players run as if skipping across water.

“This is a great facility, and the kids are excited about it,” says Beasley. “It’s like a breath of fresh air for the community.”

The Carter Playground, which is located on Columbus Avenue, will be opened officially on Friday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun. As proof of its necessity, the renovated 6.5-acre facility already has been occupied for the past month by hundreds of residents and students.

Northeastern to open state-of-the-art community park in Boston

Northeastern committed $108 million to the project, including $82 million for maintenance over the next 30 years, and increased the park’s size by 25 percent by incorporating its Camden parking lot into the renovation. The park features two football and soccer fields that can also be used for baseball, softball, lacrosse, and other sports—as well as five tennis courts, open recreational space, and an area with equipment for children with disabilities that will be dedicated to graduate Victoria McGrath, who was injured in the 2013 marathon bombing and then died in a tragic accident overseas in 2016. In December, one of the fields will be covered with a temporary bubble to enable play throughout winter.

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The park is named after Sgt. William E. Carter, an African-American veteran of the Spanish American War and World War I, who was killed in action in France in 1918. His playground has never been so aesthetically useful as it is today.

“There was so much glass and rock,” William “Bucko” Bennett, a marine engineering technician at the Boston Navy Shipyard, who fought in World War II as a Tuskegee Airman, recalled in a 2008 interview with the Lower Roxbury Black History Project. “I came home many days with scars all over my knees.”

This is a great facility, and the kids are excited about it. It’s like a breath of fresh air for the community.

Derrick Beasley, Coach of the co-op football program of Cathedral and Cristo Rey high schools

In the 1930s, when Bennett was needing hot baths to soothe his playing injuries, the park was a hub for the African-American community.

“Carter Playground was essentially a Mecca for young black men and women to indulge in sports activities,” said Matthew Goode, a longtime resident of Lower Roxbury, in a 2008 interview curated by Northeastern. Football and baseball games drew large crowds—the baseball Hall-of-Famer Satchel Paige once pitched at Carter Playground—and in winter the rocky ground would be flooded and transformed into a skating rink.

Martin Luther King’s 1965 civil-rights march to the Boston Common began at Carter Playground. He was already acquainted with the park, of course; when King was a student at Boston University in the 1950s, it was said that he played basketball at Carter Playground—not in sneakers but in his street shoes.

A small meatpacking plant that abutted the park has been replaced by the SquashBusters athletic facility. Children raced to Carter Playground for the free ice cream that was handed out on July 4, and they would wait by the railroad tracks to watch the trains speed by.

“We used to stand on the platform and wave at the people as though we knew them,” said Lillian Christopher Corbin, a lower Roxbury community activist, in another 2008 interview curated by Northeastern. “I think of the things that kids do today for recreation, they have no idea what fun was.”

Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The terms have changed, there is no doubt. The city, which continues to own and operate the park, decided against building basketball courts at Carter Playground in order to fill a need for public tennis courts in Boston.

“It’s a place that is safe, it’s well-lit,” says John Tobin, the former Boston city councilor who is now Northeastern’s vice president of city and community affairs. “One of the big things when we started the process was to say, we’re going to get it done no matter what it takes. As Northeastern grows, it’s about taking the community along with us.”

The large swath of green is the centerpiece of this important and long-neglected park. The fields were constructed in three layers and cushioned with tiny rubber pellets; every week or two, you may see a golf cart dragging a large rake to fluff up the blades of grass. A new era of recreation, indeed.

Greg St. Martin contributed to this report.