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South Boston revolutionary site is newly liberated park

By Emilie Tavel LivezeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1982


''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.

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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.

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.