The Argument: Save the Common? Not Without a Fight.

What the push to make over our most symbolic park really needs to accomplish.

A Boston City Council committee has been working on a plan to fix up the Common, reversing the effects of a quarter-century of creeping seediness. If this neglected treasure actually means as much to the people of Boston as they like to think it does, the committee’s recently released report will touch off a spirited public debate. There’s much more at stake, after all, than prettying up for tourists.

A center-city park says something about a city’s character. Compared with New York’s dense, elaborate Central Park or Chicago’s sprawling Grant Park, the Common and the Public Garden are less grand, more intimately contoured to the human scale, older and more eccentric. They divide between them the traditional functions of such spaces. The Public Garden is a civic ornament, a role in which it succeeds handsomely. The Common, embodying a more practical ideal of nature in the city, is there to be used. It will therefore always be scruffier than the Public Garden, but, even allowing for that difference, it’s in sorry condition—and not just as a result of wear and tear, since most of the time it’s underused, despite special events ranging from political protests to Shakespeare in the Park. What the rundown, semi-desolate Common says now about Boston is We’re too cheap and crabby to invest in public life.

The city council committee’s proposals for making the Common more inviting include returning disused and misused facilities to service, undoing the butchery committed by the MBTA along Tremont Street, updating the wiring at the bandstand, putting in a carousel, making the athletic fields more versatile, and opening a full-service restaurant. More controversially, the committee calls for a private organization—either a new one or a more robust version of the Friends of the Public Garden—to recruit donors to help plan and fund all these improvements. So far, nobody’s asking the Parks Department to relinquish day-to-day control of the Common, but even donors with no formal authority exert at least some informal control. “Right now, not enough people in this city are choosing to be a part of this park,” says incoming council president Michael Ross, the committee’s chairman. “We have to change that.” When he took me for a tour on a November afternoon, the Common was nearly deserted—except the Frog Pond, where kids packed the ice. “This,” said Ross, gesturing at the happy crowd, “is what the Common should feel like.” He added that drawing more users will also drive down crime.