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

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

Public debates about a showcase park say something about a city’s character, too. Like other discussions of Boston landmarks (remember the pre-2004 controversy about replacing Fenway Park?), any beef about the Common will feature a lot of talk about sacred local tradition. A profound inner tension animates such talk, with pride in Boston’s special way of doing things always pushing against the fear that Boston is a second-rate backwater. Voices saying, “Don’t change a single blade of grass on the Common, and don’t turn over our beloved public space to private interests, like they do with parks in cold, cruel, money-grubbing New York,” will sing the usual duet with voices urging us to implement the cutting-edge “best practices” the committee picked up on its fact-finding visit to New York last June.

This signature Bostonian two-mindedness can make it difficult to get anything done around here, but the committee has made a good start on splitting the difference in a practical way. It rejects New York’s privatizing strong-conservancy strategy, for instance, but has selectively learned tactical lessons from the diverse clientele of Central Park’s Boathouse restaurant and from Bryant Park’s role in reviving the neighborhood around it.

Madison Square Park’s dog run also impressed the committee as a workable accommodation between human and canine users, and dog owners who frequent the Common have organized to petition for their own. Should there be a dedicated dog run on the Common? Dogs, like college students, can help a place thrive when they’re part of a mix of users, but they cheerfully befoul and destroy any area you turn over entirely to them. On the other hand, I’ve never seen a Boston dog owner successfully enforce a voice command other than “Follow your bliss,” so it might be better to confine dogs and owners to their own gulag.

I take the dog owners’ synchronized howling as a sign that a genuine popular debate about the Common may yet develop, but it will occur only if a variety of constituencies who use or want to use the Common similarly mobilize themselves to participate in shaping its future. The people of Boston have a chance to prove that the supposedly beloved public space at the heart of their city really does matter to them. So far, only the dog owners have cared enough to bother.

[sidebar]Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.