South Boston revolutionary site is newly liberated park

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''From what I've seen of the other parks in Boston, what I think is unique about this place is that people come up here at all hours of the night. I even see girls up here alone, walking their dogs at nighttime.'' So says a young resident of South Boston.

This new feeling of community safety here in South Boston might be termed the ''second victory'' at Dorchester Heights. The first came over two centuries ago.

The young man was eating lunch from a brown bag in the warm sunshine while his two dogs frolicked over the lawn at the Dorchester Heights Historic Site.

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For almost a year he's lived just down the street. How does he use this high ground, which commands a magnificent panoramic view of the city and commemorates the British evacuation of Boston in 1776? ''To relax,'' he replies. ''Or, if I have guests, I bring them up here to take a look at it. The views are gorgeous.''

He's too much of a newcomer to the hilly peninsula south of downtown Boston to know firsthand what conditions were like in this thimble-sized park when the City of Boston, as authorized by the National Parks and Recreation Act, transferred it to the National Park Service in 1978. But neighbors have given him some clues.

''They tell me it was pretty much overgrown,'' he says. ''All bushes and weeds. It was a hangout.Kids would drink up here. There was some drug traffic.'' The appearance of National Park Service Rangers, the nice guys with the Smokey Bear hats who explain the park to visitors and patrol it until 1 a.m. , has changed all that.

''Now occasionally on a Saturday night you'll see a few kids up here with beers. That's about the extent of it. There's never any trouble. In fact, they clean up after themselves. They put their beer bottles in the trash cans. That amazed me.Everybody seems to be well behaved.''

Actually, the neighbors only told him part of how the park used to be. Vincent C. Lombardi, National Park Service manager of the five-acre site, knows the whole story, current and colonial, including fascinating historical facts that give this place its significance.

''When we arrived, it was a real no-man's land,'' Mr. Lombardi says, glancing toward the monument. At the center of what originally was a dignified elliptical park, rich with shade trees and enriched with Victorian wrought-iron lamps and benches, the marble tower still rises as pristine as the steeple of a white New England church - belfry, cupola, and all.

It was erected in 1902 to commemorate that morning in 1776 when the British fleet, a forest of masts in Boston harbor, awakened to gaze up aghast into the threatening mouths of General George Washington's cannons, which had appeared miraculously overnight on the suddenly fortified twin hilltops of Dorchester Heights.

Outwitted and outmaneuvered by the crafty colonists, the British shortly thereafter ended their onerous occupation of Boston and sailed for Nova Scotia. The bloodless victory, won without an American shot being fired, was a tremendous morale booster for the colonists in the early days of the Revolution.

But from the day the monument was completed in 1902, it has never had this summit to itself. It has shared its preeminence with ''Southie High,'' finished in 1901 - the massive South Boston Public High School only a few yards away, whose violent reaction to racial integration during the 1970s gave it national significance.

''This site has had a long history of neglect and vandalism,'' Ranger Lombardi reports. It was a jungle of overgrowth. The monument's ponderously beautiful wrought-iron gate was welded shut. Water penetration seriously damaged the tower. None of the lighting in the park worked.

As far back as the 1920s, newspaper articles had deplored the decline of the park as a national disgrace.

''The place was hardly ever used by the public,'' Mr. Lombardi says. ''People were afraid to come up. Before we took it over, it wasn't uncommon to see 150 kids up here all hanging out in groups - standing around on little patches of turf they had carved out as their own.

''About once a week we'd find a stolen car that had been brought up here and burned. They would roll it down the slope onto the fence below. Nearly half the fence was down or missing. Neighbors worried that these fire balls would roll right into their houses. It was a pretty serious issue.''

The park rises so sharply above street level that police can't see from patrol cars what goes on up top. When they did try to break up some mischief, by the time they got up on foot, the troublemakers had fled. The place was unpatrolled. It gained a bad reputation as a ''safe'' zone where the law didn't apply.

Mr. Lombardi's first order of business, when he took over in 1979, was to clean up the mess that had accumulated over the years. Some 1,500 bags of trash and broken bottles were hauled away; 4,500 square feet of graffiti were cleaned off the concrete wall that rims the site.

Now the park is clean, neat, well lighted, and inviting. There is grass again, and it's regularly cut. Storm drains are no longer clogged. The cracked concrete sidewalks have been repaired. Benches are freshly painted. Only at the base of the 117-foot monument is there any graffiti. No way has yet been found to remove it from the marble. The great gate at the foot of the tower is open again, though the tower itself is still closed because it is unsafe for public use. Now illuminated at night, the monument can be seen for miles around.

In short, this national park has been given back to the people.

The liberation of Dorchester Heights was not without its challenges. Not that Southie residents didn't welcome the Rangers. Quite the contrary. It was pressure from a group of local citizens and their representatives in Congress over a period of years that finally resulted in the heights being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

''We realized that, if we didn't have the support of the community, we'd never be able to get very far,'' Mr. Lombardi says. ''So we've developed a very good working relationship with them. They respect the work we've done.''

Unlike the British, however, vandals did not evacuate voluntarily. One 14 -year-old killed a half-dozen sapplings the National Park Service (NPS) had planted. He was caught and banned from the park.

Mr. Lombardi says that in a single night ''three kids with a sledge hammer knocked down three concrete lamp poles and pummeled several concrete and wood benches into powder. I didn't think it was possible.''

Except for security guards on duty until 1 a.m., the Rangers are not armed. So Mr. Lombardi's approach was persuasion. He assigned one of his young NPS interpreters, a university student, to work with seven youth ringleaders who were doing the most damage. ''She was pretty tough herself, and wouldn't take any guff from them, '' he says. ''She spent a lot of time with them, took them to other national parks in the area to show them what a national park was, why there was a national park in their front yard, and how it could benefit their community. It's worked. We now have one high school student working for us who was in that gang.''

Another Lombardi tack was to encourage appropriate use of the park to crowd out abuse of it. He scheduled a variety of organized activities to attract people of all ages to come and enjoy the park. That worked, too.

Rebecca Guild, site historian, put up an exhibit in the South Boston Public Library. She invited school teachers to bring their classes to Dorchester Heights on field trips.

She also took the park to the pupils. Last year she put together a slide show to teach the exciting story of Dorchester Heights to Southie's own children. Next year she plans to expand this educational program to schools all over Boston.

''Imagine that you lived in Bean Town in 1768 to '76, when it was occupied. What would be your scheme for ousting the Red Coats?'' she asks the children.

''They like it,'' she says. ''After we leave, they send us funny letters with their inventive ideas about how to get rid of the British.''

In trying to breathe new life into this old park, Ranger Lombardi says the very thing he needs today from the community is what made Dorchester Heights the success it was for the colonists: cooperation.

After all, he points out, it took cooperation between the colonists in New York and those in Massachusetts to carry out General Washington's daring (and desperate) plan. It called for 80 teams of oxen to haul canon to Boston by sled over 300 miles of snow-packed terrain. The canon came from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, N.Y., which the colonists had wrested from the British. Washington chose the dead of winter so that the oxen could pull the loads over frozen rivers and streams.

Then when the guns arrived, it took intense cooperation and coordination by the colonial troops manning the high hills around Boston to maintain the secrecy of the plot - to sneak out on Dorchester neck, surreptitiously seize this strategic summit, wheel the canon into place, wrap with straw the wheels of 300 wagons to deaden the sound, and silently throw up the fortifications, completeing the General's bold maneuver and catching the British by surprise.

Washington selected the night of March 4 for a reason. He was counting on colonial patriotism. If a battle had ensued the next day, it would have fallen on the first anniversary of the Boston Massacre, a date calculated to arouse maximum American fervor.

There was also urgency in his move. After the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, the British withdrew into Boston. All that year there was great fear among the colonists that the British would occupy Dorchester Heights before they had enough arms to do so themselves. Indeed, on the night of Feb.13 the Red Coats did raid Dorchester Neck and burn some houses. But they did not occupy this high farmland. Miss Guild says she has found no explanation why the British did not remain.Three weeks later the colonists played their Dorchester Heights card. Its effect was to completely remove Boston from the revolutionary conflict.

That makes this park the ideal battleground to visit - one where no bloodshed occurred and where there are no sad memories of lost forces.

Now that Ranger Lombardi has secured his own South Boston beachhead with good community relations, his strategy is to broaden this historic site's constituency and appeal. He wants people from all over America to come here. ''This is a national park,'' he stresses, ''because it has national significance. Its history has importance to all people of the country.''

But because South Boston is a peninsula, nobody goes through it to get anywhere. About the only out-of-towners who visit Dorchester Heights now are students of Revolutionary War history who appreciate the significance of this place.

So this summer for the first time, Mr. Lombardi is dispatching some of his Ranger interpreters downtown to the NPS visitors center near the Old State House , which attracts tourists from all over the world. He hopes their tale of Dorchester Heights will lure many more people to this historic site. Ranger Lombardi also hopes that by next summer the construction will be complete and his interpreters will be offering visitors guided tours up to the top of the tower so they can see for themselves the sweeping views in all directions - of Boston, its harbor, islands, and environs.

(Dorchester Heights National Historic Site is one of eight Freedom Trail sites in Boston now under National Park Service jurisdiction. It is open at all times. But from May through September, Rangers are on duty from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to interpret the site to the public. For directions, call (617) 269-4275, or write to the site office, P.O. Box 75, South Boston, Mass. 02127.

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