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Genius Loci: An open secret

The official name is Mayor Thomas W. Danehy Park. No one in Cambridge ever calls it that — any more than anyone in Cambridge ever calls Massachusetts Avenue anything other than Mass. Ave. The street name is always given as two syllables, like “bloodstream.” Danehy gets three, like “heart and lungs.” That’s what the park feels like, the city’s heart and lungs — lungs especially. It’s where Cambridge breathes.

The site of Danehy was for many years a bunch of clay pits, then a landfill. It rises above the rest of Cambridge — noticeably, if not vertiginously — because the soil dug up for the Red Line extension from Harvard Square to Alewife was piled up there. Reclaimed as parkland in 1990, Danehy’s 50 acres increased by half the amount of public open space in Cambridge.

It’s not as if the city is wall-to-wall asphalt — or rather, Cambridge being Cambridge, red brick. The place is tightly packed, yes — the 30th most densely populated US municipality, according to the 2010 census. Within that tightness, however, one finds Cambridge Common, Mount Auburn and Cambridge cemeteries, Harvard Yard, Fresh Pond. Lying athwart West and North Cambridge, Danehy is within walking distance of them all. Yet it differs from them in a key respect. They either serve a practical function or feel hemmed in, or both. Fresh Pond, for example, is the site of the city’s water-treatment facility as well as a recreational venue.

Now it’s true that Danehy has its purposeful aspects: softball and soccer fields, a dog park, picnic benches, playground equipment, a running track (it’s where the Cambridge public high school teams hold their meets), and a sledding hill that whenever there’s snow on the ground may be the single best place to observe just how diverse Cambridge is. That diversity extends to topography: a sledding run extended too far ends up in a marsh.

What’s so great about Danehy has little to do with the many specific uses the park is put to. It’s that once you’re in Danehy, there’s a sense of openness unlike anywhere else in Cambridge. The Yard is a collection of buildings. Fresh Pond is a ribbon of land defined by the water it surrounds. The cemeteries are greenery enabled by the desire to give dead people a home. Danehy is different. First and foremost, it’s a place that’s a space. Stephen Crane once wrote a poem about a man “pursuing the horizon.” Danehy is that rare location in Greater Boston where one might plausibly imagine someone going about just such a pursuit. Failing that, it’s also very good for flying kites.

Danehy’s openness is distinctly urban in nature. Parts of Central Park feel so secluded that a visitor might forget that he or she is in Manhattan. Danehy isn’t like that. The thrum of traffic from Routes 2 and 16 is inescapable — far enough away to be rather pleasant, in a cicada-ish way, but inescapable. When the trees have lost their leaves, the tops of the Hancock and Prudential buildings are visible throughout much of the park. The sight of them is like Jude Fawley’s glimpse of the towers of that other college town, Christminster, in Jude the Obscure, at once beckoning and a little bit daunting.

There’s nothing daunting about the sight of the Sunday morning cricket players. Urbane as well as urban, they’re rather enchanting, actually, and a reminder of what a cosmopolitan place Danehy can be. How cosmopolitan? My most memorable Danehy experience involved an unexpected encounter with a Brazilian marching band. Truly, there is no openness like samba openness.