Full text of article as it originally appeared in 2003.
Deering Oaks Heading for Dead End
By Michael Belleau copyright 2003
Beautiful, tall, shady trees dot the gently rolling grass. Children laugh and dance through a pool of fountains that turn on and off, to the youngster's surprise. Music soothes the souls of families who are a mixture of ages, colors and means. People stroll between carts of fresh flowers and vegetables. Baseball diamonds, basketball and tennis courts, and playgrounds supply spaces to play. Skaters carve generous arcs on the the large pond. As a public park was meant to be, this park is ideal as an outdoor living room for all who visit or reside in Portland.
And then, as skaters sit down to take off their skates, a swarm of cars whizzes by at 35 miles an hour- just a couple of feet away. Looking across State Street, another two large areas of the park lie empty.
Deering Oaks is our jewel- our diamond in the rough. Like Central Park, Deering Oaks is a large rectangle in the middle of a city and proportionally probably similar. If we put our minds to it, we should be able to make a back yard out of it and use it to its full potential.
Deering Oaks takes its name from the Deering family, descendants of a wealthy ship builder who bought up much of the land around Back Cove in the 1760s. Originally, the area of the park was full of thick woods and tidal marsh. A wood in which Longfellow hunted ducks and read as a boy, it was a wilderness amidst pastures.
After the town of Deering was incorporated in 1871, an editorial appeared two years later calling for the annexing of the town by Portland and the creation of a park in this area. “It would be to them (Portlanders) what Central Park is to New York....”, the writer said. The Deering family and others agreed to the park idea and the land became public in 1879.
Horse races, sledding and circuses created activity in the fields. The city's civil engineer transformed the park by creating a skating pond and a bandstand and bridges. Portland architect Frederick Thompson created a stone structure as a waiting room. Deer, bears and monkeys were donated, eventually leading to a zoo. The first playground was built here. The rose circle came in 1931 and Portland architect John Calvin Stevens designed the post office facing the park. The park was full of all kinds of people from all parts of the city.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the park became a seedy place. The city had neglected it. But in 1982, what became the annual Deering Oaks Family Festival started, helping to reinvigorate the park. The neighborhoods responded as well with foot patrols, and eventually, the city began a park ranger program in 1991.
A master plan children's play fountain pool, Shakespeare in the park, summer music, and a food and flowers market have combined with the many playing fields to turn Deering Oaks into a true city playground. But it is sliced in two by auto traffic and not truly integrated into the city's urban fabric.
As it works now, many of those using the park arrive by car. A true city park should be a natural walk from one errand or household. In order to achieve this, we need to eliminate the two highway-like roads that slice through the park like violent gashes in a gentle oasis. Healing these wounds would allow residents and visitors to walk to the park from all over Portland: the Portland Public Market, the main post office, the University of Southern Maine, Congress Street, Middle School, and the West End, Back Cove and downtown.
In order to transform the park into a true urban back yard, three changes must take place:
Heal the scars caused by High and State streets.
Assuming that federal funds are out of the question on a big scale, it is State Street that does the most damage, cutting a third of the way into the park's rectangle.
This must be run under the park for as great a distance as affordable. Obviously, the area alongside the lake would be a great place for the road to disappear underground and allow park users to play on that edge. Assuming dropping the road underground twice is expensive, the city should study where to run State Street underground.
This study should look not only at easing the flow of pedestrians, but also at the emotional perception of the rectangle as a whole. And if a full tunnel is too expensive, running State Street underground can be achieved by spending only for depressing the road and covering it with a wide pedestrian area with soundproofing sprayed underneath.
Next, High Street is close enough to Forest Avenue that the two should be combined into a Parisian boulevard, with Forest Avenue at the post office turned into a 15-mph one-way side street with parallel parking, as a boulevard would have. Pedestrians must be able to enjoy slow, casual pace crossing from the post office into the park, waiting for only one light at High Street and then getting total access to the park.
As we all know, Forest Avenue is a nightmare to walk down going out of town by 295 and almost impossible to walk across once you get to the park area- and it stays that way going out of town.
The park must feel like a room with buildings forming four walls, like Central Park.
This means finding ways to build tight to the sidewalks surrounding it. Park and Forest avenues work well as is. It would be great if the middle school dide could be built tight to a large sidewalk and indoor sports facilities could be built alongside 295.
Connections in the form of sidewalks and lights must be run in straight lines into Deering Oaks from areas surrounding the park.
These rhythms of light and path will strengthen the feeling for us, while walking, of the park's being a room in a series of urban spaces all liked as in a house
If Deering Oaks is the hub of the city, the real estate on Park Avenue could be compared to the buildings that line Central Park.
And to help establish the park as the city's mall-like showpiece (think Washington D.C.), a major science museum or other crowd-drawing institution should occupy the post office area. (This supposes that the annex to the original will become available when the new distribution center is built.) Twain Braden proposed the idea of an indoor botanical garden to me a few years ago, and that would appeal to all of us year-round. The park would then have neighborhoods and institutions surrounding it.
Depressing 295 like 95 does in downtown Providence would be helpful to the city in all areas but not critical to the park's fulfilling it's 80 percent of its potential.
In 2000, I took part in the Bayside design workshop run by Alan Holt of Portland's planning department, and there were many schemes linking Bayside with the park. (Look for the forthcoming book about Holt's Bayside and waterfront meetings.) The star urban design guru headlining the event, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, suggested sinking 295 as a way to reclaim the visual and pedestrian connections between the sides.
Take a map of Portland out of your kitchen drawer and it's obvious that Deering Oaks is our chance to make a new center uniting both sides of 295 into a whole: our Central Park, our oasis in the urban fabric.