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On the Common: the plain, the poor, and the powerful

A parkgoer started his day off by exercising along the side of the empty Frog Pond.
By David Abel and Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / September 30, 2007

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As the first light of dawn reaches through the old elm trees, a retired executive in a sweater vest volleys with a friend on the tennis courts. Above them, a red-tailed hawk swoops from a glowing lamppost to chase a squirrel. Mothers chat on cellphones while pushing strollers, elderly Asians flow through Tai Chi drills, and tailored professionals pace through the park where witches once hanged, a revolution was born, and a pope addressed the city.

On a lawn in the distance, ratty blankets bundled like cocoons slowly unfurl, the homeless rising from another outdoor slumber. Nearby, men and women inhale the fumes of a crack pipe, openly shoot needles into their forearms, and swig vodka from water bottles - all within yards of passing police officers and park rangers.

"There's everyone here - junkies, lovers, tourists, and lots of rats, probably more than people," Jack Hills, 49, said near the end of his overnight shift looking after the Frog Pond for a private foundation. "I see everything here."

Over the past five centuries, save a period when British soldiers occupied the area with trenches and redoubts, the 48 acres of the Boston Common have brought together the state's most powerful politicians with the city's most down and out, the gentry from Beacon Hill and the Back Bay with immigrants from the North End and South Boston, skateboarding teens from the suburbs with inner-city children moving to music.

In recent years, however, the nation's oldest park has also become a common ground for crime. As of earlier this month, police have made 344 drug arrests in the area this year - more than double the amount during the same period in 2003. Aggravated assaults have jumped 65 percent since 2003, and robberies have climbed 25 percent.

The crime captured headlines after a bullet fired from the Common struck a window at the State House, an attack that wounded a 15-year-old girl, a 16-year-old boy, and led police to increase patrols, enforce a nighttime curfew, and force an estimated 50 homeless people to look elsewhere for a place to spend the night.

Nearly a month after the August shooting, the Globe found little has changed.

During a walk around the park, Lieutenant Reginald Sampson described the crimes he and his rangers have witnessed on the Common: a rash of people shooting up heroin, others urinating or disrobing in daylight, men making lewd comments and ogling children in the playground, aggressive panhandlers, and robbers striking from the stretch of shaded area along Park Street known as the Liberty Mall to the garages beneath the Common.

"The crime we're seeing is rampant, and it hasn't been like this in the past," Sampson said.

One reason for the spike in crime, he says, is the declining number of park rangers, who carry handcuffs, mace, and batons - but no guns. Today, there are 12 full-time rangers and eight part-timers who patrol all city parks; in 2000, there were 18 full-time rangers and 11 part-timers. On a typical day, as on this day, four rangers are assigned to the Common.

"There's just less visibility," Sampson said. "We deter crime just by being out there."

Boston police Captain Bernard O'Rourke, who supervises the officers patrolling the Common, calls it a "difficult task" to stem crime on a park that every day attracts about 100,000 people. But, he says, the crackdown has yielded progress. "There are fewer complaints," he said.

Tugging the leash of a Polish sheep dog named Rocky, Lisa Mula walked near the Boston Massacre Memorial, pointing at the old, weathered benches, broken fences, and the vast patches of dirt where grass used to grow. And then the trash - the used needles, half-eaten food, and bottles rattling in the wind.

Mula, a retired state trooper who now spends nearly every day walking dogs on the Common, says crime isn't the only problem.

"They need to do more than keep away the thuggery," said Mula, 46, of Somerville. "The place has gotten really rundown."

Park officials say they do what they can with the $5 million available for city parks, a budget that hasn't changed much in the past five years.

They have been able to reseed the parade grounds and renovate the Frog Pond such that it's used year-round, but they are still trying to raise more than a half-million dollars in grants and private donations to refurbish the 130-year-old Soldiers and Sailors Monument and the 139-year-old Brewer Fountain, which hasn't spouted water in four years and now mainly serves as a perch for pigeons and the homeless.

"In a perfect world, of course, we could do so much more if we had additional funds," said Mary Hines, a spokeswoman for Boston Parks and Recreation Department, noting that additional money would help care for the Common's 648 trees, replace many of the 240 timeworn benches, and add equipment and staff to support the department's 150 groundskeepers.

Henry Lee, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, a private advocacy group that has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain the Common, calls conditions on the park "very sad."

"There's an enormous imbalance in use and care," he said. "It's like a golf course. If you don't put the divots back, water the greens, and cut the grass, you won't have a golf course for very long."

Still, the park in the heart of the city, which Puritans founded in 1634 after buying the land from William Blackstone, Boston's first settler, continues to attract people from around the world.

Awaiting a tour at the visitor's center with his wife and 2-year-old son, Matt Wybrow, 34, of London, said the Common reminds him of home.

"It's well kept, but it's not too perfect," he said.

Abbie Richard, 19, uses a patch of grass by the Central Burying Ground as her front lawn to escape roommates in her dorm across the street at Emerson College.

"It's a nice place to find some peace on an urban campus," she said.

Some come to play the accordion and others to fly kites. There are vendors of fried dough, police on horseback, photographers chasing hawks, coeds practicing softball, and countless numbers of people talking to themselves.

There are also those who have become institutions.

For years, Herb Gray has been arriving before daybreak to secure a spot on the tennis courts.

"I play better in the dark, because I don't see so well," joked Gray, 73, the retired chairman of a local medical supply company who lives on Boylston Street and sometimes competes with recently landed Lufthansa pilots for a court. "There's no other place like this around. We sometimes find drunks sleeping on the courts, but they don't bother us."

Between sips of vodka on this sunny morning, Billy Gaskell says he has spent decades - even the coldest nights of winter - sleeping on the same heating vent near Park Street. The shaggy 54-year-old, who has the letters L-O-V-E tattooed on his right knuckles, says over the years he has found himself in one too many scuffles on the Common.

"It's gotten a lot more crowded here," Gaskell said. Police kicked him out of the park after the August shooting but he has since returned with most of the other homeless denizens of the Common. "It started with about five of us; now there are about 55."

A few hours later, an ambulance pulled into the park and two paramedics lifted Gaskell's buddy, Peter Cugini, off the vent and onto a wheeled gurney. Cugini could barely move, he was so drunk. Gaskell held Cugini's hand and joked: "Just shoot him, like they do with horses."

Nearby, beside an entrance to the Park Street T station, Rob McIntyre, 45, also known as the "Dough Man," has been hawking hot dogs, lemonade, and fried dough on pushcarts since 1981. He says he has never seen so much public flouting of the law on the Common.

"It's the worst crowd I've seen in all my years here," McIntyre said. "They just have less respect for themselves, and others. They're so messed up. They're making all kinds of trouble, and it's bad for business. There has to be a limit."

But the seedy, unkempt sides of the Common are part of what distinguishes it from the more manicured grounds of the Public Garden and makes it feel like a more vibrant meeting place, says Dennis Frenchman, director of the City Design and Development program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's a shared place open to all the people, never meant to be exclusive," he said. "It's part of a tradition throughout New England to have a village green open to everyone."

As the sun dipped behind the glass towers of the financial district, Boston police Officer Brian Leahy straddled his mountain bike and watched as the crowds change from commuters to clubbers.

At the Parkman Bandstand, the columned gazebo in the center of the park, Matthias Peters and Paul Bennellick break-danced to techno music. In a field nearby, James and Dana Yoo celebrated their first anniversary with a picnic of strawberries, chocolate fondue, and champagne. About a dozen teenagers hung out on the corner of Tremont and Beacon, watching the world go by.

"It's fun here, but sometimes you run into creepy people," said Olivia Collins, 16, a sophomore at Boston Latin.

As night fell, several large rats darted past a young woman wearing a tiara while on a scavenger hunt for a bachelorette party. A trio playing tennis beneath the lights packed their rackets while a few homeless men settled onto park benches near the Frog Pond.

In the quiet of midnight, on a day when officers made no arrests, the last stragglers disappeared into the parking garages, the T stations, and beneath blankets. Under the crescent moon, there is stillness.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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