Sunday, May 26, 2024

Golfers visit the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Golf Course in Cambridge’s Strawberry Hill in May 2020. (Photo: Tom Meek)

I like to walk with my dog on the path around the Fresh Pond reservoir. It’s a lovely 2.2-mile jaunt through woods, meadows and wetlands – but at a certain point, through a veil of bushes, one perceives the outlines of the municipal golf course, well-groomed fairways and greens where my dog and I are not welcome.

The Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Golf Course occupies one-third of the land area of the Fresh Pond Reservation, some 50 acres effectively off-limits to the general public. According to Robert Carey, the city’s director of golf operations, golfers played 44,000 rounds on the nine-hole course in 2019, paying a modest fee. Carey estimated that 4,000 people played at least 10 rounds each, accounting for 40,000 rounds. That means fewer than 8,000 individuals used the course in 2019. Nearly half were nonresidents, Carey said.

Across Fresh Pond, citizens visited Kingsley Park as many as 500,000 times in 2019, all 10 acres of it, and walked, jogged and rode bicycles on the perimeter path. The rest of the reservation land, more than 85 acres, is fenced off, providing a barrier to ensure the purity of our drinking water and protect the natural environment. The lake covers 155 acres.

But Kingsley Park today has become seriously overcrowded, with increasing numbers of visitors seeking solace in nature due to the coronavirus. Too many people are gathering on too few acres of open space. On a summer weekend, the grassy slopes can look like the beach at Coney Island. The parking lot spills over, and exiting vehicles back up dangerously on Fresh Pond Parkway.

The golf course is a luxury in this day and age, occupying too much municipal space and serving a small elite. Those 50 acres should be open to all Cantabrigians for rambling across grassy fields, with picnic areas, a children’s park, a dog run, a putting green or two, an urban garden, other amenities and a new parking lot off Blanchard Road.

Personally, I have nothing against golf. But this is a matter of equity. The numbers tell the story: 50 acres reserved for the use of 8,000 people with 44,000 annual visitations; 10 acres reserved for the use of the general public with 500,000 visitations.

More parkland is a human necessity as Cambridge continues expanding, increasing its affordable housing and adding hundreds of apartments in nearby Alewife, where one company promises luxury living and suggests to residents: “Stroll across the street to Fresh Pond’s 155 acres of park space to run, bike and relax.”

Cambridge’s recent population growth makes it the second-most densely populated city in Massachusetts, after Somerville. There are at least a dozen public golf courses in the region in less densely populated cities and towns.

No one is to blame for the present abuse of scarce public resources – our open space, as I have described here. The government built the course in the early 1930s as a relief project for the city’s unemployed. When I was growing up in Cambridge in the 1950s, there were farms in that section of town. Times change.

The transformation of the golf course into a people’s park will begin to meet the needs of the city’s future. The sooner this is accomplished, the better it will be for the community in the long run.

I believe golf course namesake Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, our late congressman and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who was indeed the people’s champion, would have seen the wisdom of this project and approved – despite his well-known affinity for the game.

Andrew Schlesinger is founder of the Cambridge Committee for a People’s Park.