By Karen Klinger
The little park next to the Porter Square "T" station in Cambridge has never gone by any commonly used name, and to look at this desolate piece of urban landscape architecture gone wrong, that's understandable. Who would want to lend their name to it?
The Cambridge police, who have often been called to deal with incidents involving street people and the homeless who tend to congregate there in warm weather, refer to it as the "pigeon park," for the numerous pigeons sometimes seen looking for handouts. But on a recent day, there wasn't a pigeon in sight, and who could blame them? They may be known derisively as "winged rats," but it's hard to see why any self-respecting city bird would want to hang out in a place that has not only been habitually neglected by its owner--the MBTA--but after a brutal winter has been left in a state that can only be described as derelict.
One of this winter's storms knocked down a large tree limb and it's still there, untouched. It has been there so long, in fact, that the downed branches are now entangled with garbage that includes a rusting, bent bicycle wheel. Walk amid the detritus and you'll see trash receptacles overflowing, innumerable cigarette butts, discarded booze containers and the flotsam and jetsam of fast food urban life. From the garbage strewn about, you would not need to look over at the nearby Porter Square Shopping Center to know that it has a Dunkin' Donuts.
It may sound like the park must be in some out-of-the-way, hard-to-notice place, but in fact, it is adjacent to a sidewalk and bus stop on Massachusetts Avenue that is so heavily trafficked by pedestrians that at times, they have trouble moving past each other without some people having to step into the street. Asked their impressions about the park, passersby gave responses such as "disgusting," "scary," "why the hell doesn't someone do something about it" and other things that cannot be repeated here.
It is not as if residents and city and state officials are unaware of the problem. For years, members of the Porter Square Neighbors Association(PSNA) have discussed the issue. After some people complained that they felt frightened just walking by the park, with its too numerous trees making it seem dark and foreboding even during the day, the PSNA persuaded the MBTA to remove some trees on the advice of the Cambridge city arborist (evidently, not enough, though). The PSNA also opposed a possible transfer of a package store liquor license to a retail establishment across the street, reasoning that this would only lead to more of the public drinking incidents in the park that have bedeviled the police.
There was also a proposal to install some floodlights to make the place look, if not more inviting, as least less foreboding at night. And at one point, there was a plan for Lesley University to take over maintenance of the park in return for the "T" stop being renamed "Porter/Lesley" (like Kendall/MIT).
Alas, none of that went anywhere. But there may be new hope for the park in the form of a proposal to improve the look of Mass Ave between Harvard and Porter Squares being put forward by both the Cambridge Community Development Department (CDD) and representatives of residents living on either side of that stretch of the avenue--the Agassiz-Baldwin Neighborhood and Neighborhood Nine. At a community meeting March 10 to discuss the plan (more on that in an upcoming article), there was general agreement that something needed to be done with the park, described in the kindest terms as a "no man's land."
When those at the meeting repeatedly identified the forlorn park as one of their major concerns, Stuart Dash, the CDD's director of community planning, joked, "What a surprise!" But there was also general agreement with the suggestion that the best solution may be for the city of Cambridge to take over administration and upkeep of the park. The authors of the Mass Ave improvement proposal noted in their report that the "space should be integrated into the community" with either the city's or Lesley's oversight. They said that "thoughtful, cost effective ways to improve the use of this little park are in the community's interest."
"This location would be ideal for a Cambridge Bicycle Exchange Depot," they added.
While the MBTA in the past has shown little interest in either ceding jurisdiction over the park or keeping it up, that may be changing. The state agency has a relatively new general manager in Richard Davey, appointed in March 2010, who has made it clear that there is a new sheriff in town and a new way of doing things at the debt-ridden department. Dennis Carlone, a Cambridge resident and architect who is a consultant on the Mass Ave plan, said at the recent meeting that he had a hunch the "T" would be happy at this point to hand the park over to the city.
Those at the meeting agreed that Mass Ave from Harvard to Porter is sorely lacking not only in green space, but in pocket parks with benches that would enable pedestrians to sit down and take a break. They thought the MBTA park could provide that and really, could the city conceivably do a worse job in maintaining--or improving--it?
That would be hard to imagine.
"Clean Up Porter Square" Day:The Porter Square Neighbors Association, together with Lesley University and the Ward 10 Democratic Committee, is sponsoring a "Clean Up Porter Square" event on Saturday, April 9 from 10 a.m. to noon and is seeking volunteers. To take part and for more information, contact PSNA Vice President Ruth Ryals at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE: Well, that was fast. A neighbor reported seeing an MBTA crew cutting up the tree limbs and branches and cleaning the park about 24 hours after this article was filed. On March 17, Lieutenant Commander Robert Lenehan of the Transit Police sent an e-mail to the Porter Square Neighbors Association's electronic mailing list taking note of the situation described in the story. He said the police are "strong adherents of the 'Broken Windows' theory of crime. The condition cited, as well as the picture(s) in your article, do not convey a sense of order and maintenance in that area." He added that "it is not the way the MBTA wants its property to be maintained."
On "March 16th and into the 17th, MBTA crews responded to that park and seating area and cleared away much of the debris, and the tree limbs, that were cited in your article," Lenehan said. "The rest of the maintenance should take place over the next several days, weather permitting, so the area is once again presentable and symbolic of the 'order maintenance' that Transit Police and the MBTA seek to have present. Deputy Director of the Red Line, Mr. William McClellan, was very responsive to the concerns raised in your article once he was aware of them and he facilitated the immediate resolution of as much of the clean up as was possible on short notice."
He added that he hoped his e-mail would be helpful to PSNA members and noted that as service commander for the MBTA district that includes Cambridge, "I have found the information on (the PSNA) e-mail lists to be informative and enlightening."