By Bobby Franklin
Today, I was in downtown Boston for an appointment, and when I was finished with my meeting I thought I would take a walk over to Friend Street where the old New Garden Gym was located. The site of the first New Garden is now a parking lot, but the building that housed the second one is still standing at 254 Friend Street and has been converted into condos.
It was quite hot today as it has been for much of this summer. The sun was shining and the sky was beautiful, but the heat was scorching. I remember many times heading into Friend Street for a workout on such a day back in the 1970s. I didn’t have air conditioning in my car so the ride in was not the most comfortable. I used what we called 4/60 air conditioning. That’s when you roll down all the windows and go 60 miles an hour to try and stay cool. It didn’t always work that well in Boston traffic.
By the time I would arrive at the gym I was not in need of a warmup as I already had a good sweat going. I would climb the three rickety flights of stairs up to the 4th floor where the tiny gym was located. I don’t think many if any boxing gyms back then had air conditioning. They couldn’t afford it. I also think the old time trainers figured it would only make the fighters soft.
When the New Garden Gym moved to its second location across the street from where it originally stood, it had to be downsized a lot in order to fit into a much smaller area. The full ring would not fit in the new space, so it was cut in half. It made for some close quarters when sparring. In fact, after having boxed in that ring for quite a few months, I was not prepared for what would happen when I had my first amateur fight.
The night I climbed into the ring in Somerset, MA and the bell rang it was the first time I was in a regulation size ring. I felt like I had walked into a ballpark. It seemed enormous, and that’s because it was at least twice the size of the New Garden ring. I also recall the surface feeling very soft under my feet, almost like walking on sand. This could have been because there was too much padding under the canvas, or more likely because the floor of the ring on Friend Street had nothing under its canvas.
Most days when you went to the gym Al Clemente and Johnny Dunn would be there. At that time they were the two best known trainers in the Boston area. The door to the place was at about the midpoint of the rectangular shaped space. If you looked to the right when walking in you would spot Al and Johnny at the far end near two windows and a pay phone. There were actually four windows there but two were blocked by lockers.
You would think such a small space that high up in a building on a sweltering summer day would be a sweat box, and while it wasn’t cool it was actually quite bearable. The reason for this was those two windows which were kept wide open. It turns out that when the old gym across the street was torn down and left as a parking lot, it left an open space over which you could see the Expressway and not far beyond that was Boston Harbor on the other side of the North End.
In the afternoon the sun would have moved to the west which was to the back of the building, and a nice ocean breeze would usually kick up. Now, of course, that breeze would pick up a few extra ingredients on its way from the harbor to the confines of the pugilistic academy we were all training in. There would be the salt air along with the aromatic delights of authentic Italian cooking taking place in the North End, but there was also the fragrant exhaust produced from the perpetual traffic jam on the Expressway. By the time it all wafted in through the window next to Al Clemente it was quite the mixture. It then combined with the smell of cigar smoke and lineament that was ever present in the gym.
Most of you who have only lived in today’s sterile environment are probably gagging at the thought of this, but in my memory it is a sweet perfume and I would give anything to be there breathing it in again. To those of us spending a hot afternoon working out on Friend Street it was as refreshing as being on the beach.
It is said that smell is the sense that holds the strongest memories. If I could, I would bottle the scent that used to permeate the New Garden Gym back in the 1970s so whenever I wanted to remember those wonderful times in that broken down old gym I would just have to take a whiff and be back there again. I have never been in a gym since that comes close to the charm of that old place. I sure do miss it.