Boston's forgotten island

There is a stillness here, a blanket of silence that hushes the lapping of the sea and the screeching of circling gulls. Just seven miles across the ocean , Boston's jagged skyline engraves the horizon, a reminder of the nearby urban hustle.

But here -- where a peeling sign on the storm-battered dock warns "Island Closed" -- there are few signs of life.

It is, however, a deceiving quiet -- one which does not hint at the swelling political and environmental fight to restore Peddock's Island, one of the largest of the more than 30 islands that make up the state's Boston Harbor Islands Park.

Purchased by the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) over 10 years ago, Peddock's has been what observers call a "casualty" of bureaucratic neglect -- a low priority for a state agency which has spent millions of dollars on skating rinks, swimming pools, beaches, and sewer and water systems within the metropolitan Boston area.

But renewed efforts by environmental groups, such as the Boston Educational Marine Exchange as well as a changing of the political guard at the MDC, are slowly swinging attention -- and money -- to one of the few harbor islands that remain off-limits to the public.

That focus, say observers, may be the first step toward opening the island to the public and saving the historic and slowly deteriorating buildings of Fort Andrews, which was built on Peddock's by the US Army in the early 1900s.

"It's one of the richest recreational assets we have in the metropolitan area , without a doubt," says Mary Stephens, a Boston architect who analyzed the value of the fort's 26 brick buildings for a private study on Peddock's Island. "It's much more interesting than Georges Island (a harbor island with a fort which is open to the public) and it has everything the Waterfront Park has and more.

"In fact," she says, warming to her subject as most Peddock's enthusiasts do, "you can take the Waterfront Park, the Boston Common, the Arboretum, and the Public Gardens -- put them all together and you stillm have more with Peddock's."

Environmentalists and harbor lobbyists argue that the fort's buildings should be renovated for public conferences and research centers. And as rising gas prices force Bostonians to think about recreation closer to home, say advocates, Peddock's offers an ideal vacation spot.

In early February, the MDC authorized a $100,000 contract to begin roof repairs on Fort Andrews.

It is the first contract issued for the island in the decade that the agency has owned it -- despite an MDC promise to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1968 that the island would be opened to the public within six months to a year. (HUD had supplied the MDC with a matching grant of $191, 000 to purchase Peddock's.)

By contrast, the MDC has spent approximately $25 million on skating rinks since 1954 -- a question of fiscal priorites which, says MDC Associate Commissioner Dyanne Tosi, stems from the fact that "there isn't any constituency out there [on the island].

"It's hard to get something done unless somebody's banging away at it constantly," explains Mrs. Tosi, who, since her appointment to office last year, has become what most observers agree is the moving force in the MDC on Peddock's Island revival.

Today, history is peeling away in layers on Peddock's Island. In the elaborately detailed brick buildings, sagging ceilings spill plaster onto buckled floors. Once-black, cast-iron stoves shed cloaks of rust. Naked gaps stand exposed where wood-paneled walls have been stripped by vandals.

It has not always been so desolate on this 113-acre island. Historians say Peddock's was first inhabited some time between 1000 and 300 BC. Over the centuries, the island's pastures, forests, and marshlands were home to Indians, English farmers, vacationing 19th-century Bostonians, soldiers, and, during World War II, nearly 2,000 Italian prisoners-of- war.

Public and private studies on what to do with Peddock's have come and gone for nearly a century. Ever since 1893, the island has been eyed as an ideal recreational site for city residents.

In 1968, for example, the MDC told HUD, "Peddock's will be developed as a year-round camping and outing facility for low-income city dwellers." A 1972 Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) study proposed rehabilitating Fort Andrews as a conference center and developing the island for boating and camping.

Just last year, the MAPC plan was carried even further by the Boston Educational Marine Exchange, a nonprofit harbor advocacy group, which outlined a a museum, and a natural history center.

So many plans have been proposed, in fact, that an inhouse MDC report written in 1979, which was highly critical of the agency's sluggishness, urged, "It is clear that the MDC must initiate a proposal for the renovation and use of Peddock's Island as soon as possible."

The problem, says MDC Associate Commissioner Tosi, is not a lack of studies on what to do with the island, but a lack of money to get a program going.

The answer, she says, may be "a marriage of public and private funds" -- a route the MDC is just beginning to pursue by drawing up guidelines for private developers with proposals for Peddock's.

What Mrs. Tosi envisions is something similar to San Francisco's Fort Mason -- a renovated US fort which is owned by the National Park Service, but operated by a private nonprofit organization.

Her boss, MDC Commissioner Guy Carbone, however, has a suggestion that sends shudders down environmentalists' spines: open a gambling casino and hotel on the island.

Although Mr. Carbone insists his idea is only a suggestion, he explains that he wants the state to make a profit from Peddock's. State proceeds from a casino, he says, could be used to clean up Boston Harbor and care for the other islands.

All plans aside, however, some harbor activists they see no hope for salvaging Peddock's. But most advocates say the timing is right -- that the ingredients for action are finally falling into place.

They note a "rediscovery" of the harbor brought on by recent waterfront development; growing public pressure focused on the island during a year christened by President Carter as the "Year of the Coast"; and the possibility that after being defeated several years in a row, a federal bill may pass Congress this session which would make all the harbor islands a national park and set aside some $20 million for their maintenance.

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