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The Fens Before Fenway: Anything But Urban

This photo was most likely take in 1912. You can see the unfinished road in the foreground. (Courtesy of Bain Collection, Library of Congress.)

This photo was most likely take in 1912. You can see the unfinished road in the foreground. (Courtesy of Bain Collection, Library of Congress.)

BOSTON — Fenway Park turns 100 years old this week. The “lyric little bandbox of a ballpark,” as John Updike called it, has written itself into countless stories and memories. To a large extent, that’s because of the park’s small footprint in an urban neighborhood.

But, a century ago, that neighborhood was anything but urban.

In her Boston office, historian Leslie Donovan flips through black and white photographs of the land where Fenway Park was built.

In one print from 1909, Lansdowne Street is a dirt road. On both sides: just weeds and scrub.

View east from Lansdowne Street and Brookline Avenue, Oct. 12, 1909 (Courtesy of Historic New England)

View east from Lansdowne Street and Brookline Avenue, Oct. 12, 1909 (Courtesy of Historic New England)

“And as you can see, it’s a swamp,” Donovan says. “There’s nothing there at all.”

By calling it a swamp, Donovan is not being dramatic. Only a few years before, a stream had run down what is now Brookline Avenue. High tide would flood this same land. That changed when Frederick Law Olmsted developed the Fens into a string of parks.

Donovan says this undeveloped, scrubby backside is where the owner of the Red Sox, John Taylor, chose to build in 1912.

“Then, as you see here, this is a 1912 photograph. And on the other side of what is today Yawkey Way and what was then Jersey Street, it’s still just marsh! It’s just dirt,” Donovan says. “It doesn’t even look like they regraded after they built the road. It’s just dirt and scrub. And there’s nothing there.”

That didn’t take long to change. Because, when the park went in, so did a couple of roads. And then, more water and electricity. The infrastructure kick-started development and one industry began to flourish, but not one you’d expect.

Leslie Donovan reads through an early list of businesses around Fenway Park.

“Garage. Goodyear tire and rubber sales. Automobile service. Garage, garage, garage. Oh, wholesale liquor, that was the only other thing that went on here,” Donovan laughs.

Opening day 1912. (Courtesy)

Opening day 1912. (Courtesy)

In fact, what is now the Red Sox front office was originally a car showroom. These auto services and garages were not for people coming to the ballgame. Many fans took the subway to Kenmore. Instead, these were garages were for residents — the wealthy folks who moved into buildings on the other side of the Fenway, which got developed first. They’d keep their cars in these garages, and phone for their chauffeurs when they needed them. At the time, no one parked their cars at home.

“It was based on the practice of having horses and carriages in stables,” Donovan says. “They were all together in another area. It was just a custom that had developed from that.”

Eventually, the custom changed, and with it, the neighborhood around Fenway. Homes were built on the less desirable side of the Fens and the area around Fenway Park became a neighborhood.

At the 2012 home opener last Friday, an old-timey band played outside the Cask ‘n Flagon. Fans filled the streets that had been dirt and weeds a century before.

John Pramataris, from Lynn, brought his grandson Taylor. He wants Taylor to see another 100 years of Fenway Park.

“This is one place you do not touch. You keep [it] as is, this is history. The people that [have] been here, the players that have played here, the things that happened here, this is the park of all parks,” Pramataris said. “There’s no denying it, Fenway Park is America’s beloved ballpark.”

“This is one place you do not touch. You keep [it] as is, this is history.”
– John Pramataris of Lynn

Another fan at the first game of Fenway’s 100th anniversary season was Erika Tarlin.

“It’s easy to forget that it almost wasn’t here,” Tarlin says, almost pinching herself that the ballpark still stands. “You know, when they had the All-Star Game in ’99, and Ted Williams, that was a convenient way to say, ‘Oh, now we can say goodbye to the old girl. What a lovely sendoff!’ ”

Tarlin was part of Save Fenway Park, the group that joined neighbors and lobbied Red Sox owners to renovate the ballpark, rather than build a new stadium over the historic one.

“It’s a neighborhood ballpark,” Tarlin said. “That was the thing that the old owners didn’t get.”

Tarlin is still on the board of Save Fenway Park, the group still exists — just in case. One-hundred years ago the ballpark went up on a plot of marshy scrub. Since then, the roots have grown deep.

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