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Boston
Boston Common

Boston Common
© Natalie Wichmann

Boston Common has heard lots of stories and influenced many lives in the course of its more than 380-year history. The oldest park in North America, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year – from Boston, from the US and from around the world. It has given a stage to such famous people as General Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. American history has been written here.

1634    

“Six shillings? For a piece of land that won’t even belong to us at the end, but to all the people of the city? What do we get out of it? All we’ll have is the expense! For six shillings we could at last buy new boots for the children. And food for the winter. Six shillings is a lot of money for something that doesn’t give us anything in return. The only person who really benefits here is Blaxton. And simply because he was here first? That doesn’t seem particularly fair to me.”

“Anne,” says Isaiha, vigorously stroking his long reddish-brown beard, “that simply isn’t true. We can take our cows to graze there, together with all the others. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could save ourselves the long journey to the meadows outside the city? If we could spend more time with the children? More time together?” For the past hour, he has been talking to Anne about buying William Blaxton’s land at the edge of Beacon Hill. Yes, it is true that six shillings was a lot of money and that they would soon need to stock up on provisions for the winter, and buy new boots too, but he liked the idea of creating a park right in the center of the city. For the cows – but not only for them. Who knows what all the free space might be used for in future. He liked the idea of being part of a big whole. Of setting up a small piece of land, 50 acres to be precise, that they would manage themselves and that nobody could ever again dispute was theirs.

Anne was not particularly enthusiastic as yet, however. That would change, as there was no alternative in any case. At the city assembly today they had already passed the decision that the land would be bought jointly and named the Boston Common – a common because it would be for all of the city’s residents.
Boston Common © Natalie Wichmann

1768 

Horse racing was the only thing that he had really liked about the New World so far. Of course, the countryside was unique and he admired the lives led by the first settlers, but he did not like his role in this country one little bit. Together with 4,000 men, he htraveledled across the Atlantic Ocean in the hope of discovering this new world and helping to make it a bit better, a bit more livable. He wanted to help bring peace and order, not to incite fear and terror. They called them the Redcoats, and they did not allow them into the community, into their homes, into their lives. So they were forced to camp out on the only available land in the city, on Boston Common. They erected their tents right in the heart of the city but remained outsiders nonetheless – detested as the representatives of the country’s tyrannical rulers who had not shown their faces in ages.

But when he was sitting on the horse assigned to their company and felt the wind in his face – the proximity to the sea ensured plenty of strong wind – he felt free. Almost as if he were part of something new and whole. He had finally won a little money at one of these races and one evening treated himself to a pint in one of the pubs that were gradually opening up. That is where he met Elizabeth. She was serving behind the bar and was the only person to give him a friendly smile. He knew that it was not a good idea, but he could not fight the superhuman attraction that she had for him.

“Richard Bartholomew Ames, 14th Regiment.”

Initially they had met only in secret; her family owned a small apartment on Beacon Hill. He would steal out of the camp at night and they would meet on Charles Street. But then they wanted more, however. More light, more time, more life. So they decided to leave the city. To get away from Boston, perhaps head for Salem or further inland. They planned to meet on the bridge to Charlestown at midnight. He left the camp without his red uniform, without his bayonet, without anything. But they caught him almost the moment he set off.

He was cold. Although the days were still pleasantly warm, the fall could already be felt in the early hours of the morning. The light was soft and already reached the tops of the trees. The ground was churned up from marching exercises and tent poles. He had always liked Boston Common. The green space itself, but also what it stood for: solidarity of the local people. He would have liked to become part of this community. He just hoped she was not watching from the window.   

“Charged with deserting his unit and condemned to death by firing squad.”

 

The entire regime had been forced to attend. An example was to be made. He turned his eyes toward the sky, there was an ear-splitting bang and then silence. Richard Bartholomew Ames was dead before his body hit the ground.

 

1896    

“Coming! Coming!” After months of digging they were now finally moving on to putting together the steel structure. There was now a huge hole where the Tremont Street side of Boston Common had once been. Many local people were angry that their beautiful park was to be destroyed in this way. But in the end a joint decision had been taken in favor of progress. And anyway, the park would be recreated afterwards – on top of North America’s very first subway. How that sounded: North America’s first subway. Harry was proud not only to be a resident of this city that had accomplished such an incredible feat of engineering, but also of the fact that he had played a part in it with his own hands. Hands that had been black with dirt the entire time for the past nearly two years. But nothing could dampen his good mood on this sunny day in September. They were so close now – perhaps one more year of hard work and the people of Boston would finally be able to take their first trip on the subway. Absent-mindedly, Harry wiped the sweat out of his eyes and pushed his hat further down into his neck. It was going to be a hot one – not a hint of autumn as yet.

They were back again yesterday. The fine ladies with their wide-brimmed hats. Harry had particularly liked the one with the black feather. They are definitely not happy about the construction of the subway. Together with Mayor Quincy they walked up and down the construction site, pointing at the excavated ground and the churned-up earth around the hole. From the scraps of conservation that Harry could glean, he concluded that they were representatives of the newly-founded Boston Common Society. They were committed to the preservation and improvement of Boston Common. Actually a good cause – they simply need to wait a little while longer. And then the subway will also result in fewer people coming through the park with their carts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were only pedestrians then walking along the park’s newly-laid paths? Perhaps he himself could even take a stroll here one Sunday after church? Yes, this would make all the hard work worthwhile.

“Watch out, Harry!” One of the steel girders swings past his shoulder, missing him by just a hair’s breadth. Construction sites are definitely not a good place for daydreaming.
Boston Common © Natalie Wichmann

1969    

“Meeting at 1.00 pm at Cambridge Common, Mass Ave entrance” announces the yellow flyer. For days nobody has been talking about anything but the march from Cambridge Common to Boston Common in protest against the Vietnam War. Karen was in her first semester at Harvard and had spent the past weeks and months listening to lectures on Camus, Voltaire and all the great philosophers. How could she not then take part in a protest that stood for peace and freedom? Her father would understand one day. Yesterday they had argued yet again. She had made the mistake of telling him that she would be joining the demonstration. He simply had not understood why. In his eyes, she was being disloyal to her country. They were simply too different.

Susan picked her up from her dorm shortly before one, and together with over 15,000 others they made their way to Cambridge Common. The sheer numbers of people crowded there gave her goosebumps – so many had come to protest against American soldiers remaining in Vietnam.

The march was led by a group of Vietnam veterans, arms interlinked. After over ten years the war had already caused thousands of fatalities and casualties. To the tune of “Exodus” played by the Harvard University Band, students, professors, Cambridge residents and many more marched down Massachusetts Avenue, known for short as Mass Ave, toward Boston Common. As they crossed Harvard Bridge Karen first began to feel uneasy. Helicopters circled right above their heads, while armed police stood along the roadside. Defiantly she raised both of her arms, her hands forming the peace symbol. Many others did the same, and there was no outbreak of violence. As yet.

At the intersection of Mass Ave and Commonwealth (Ave) they met Julia from Northeastern University, Bobby and Charles from MIT, and a few others they knew from Boston University. The crowds that were now thronging down Commonwealth kept growing and growing. Many of the houses along the route had put protest posters in their windows, and they heard shouts of encouragement from some windows. It seemed that not only the marchers wanted to join in the protest.

But absolutely nothing could have prepared Karen for what met her eyes when she reached her beloved Boston Common that cold October afternoon. There were people simply everywhere. It seemed to take forever before they finally managed to force their way through the huge black iron gates. The first speeches had been scheduled for 3.30 pm, and they had only just made it in time. The crowds around them were buzzing with animated chatter, some people had climbed up onto streetlamps and monuments to get a better view, someone was playing the guitar and a small propeller airplane was drawing a gigantic peace sign in the brilliant blue sky. Karen had the unique sensation of being a part of something important, something big.

When Senator George McGovern finally stepped onto the makeshift podium, Karen asked Bobby if she could get on his shoulders so as to see better. And there she sat, her long dark hair pushed out of her face, when McGovern pronounced to the loudly cheering crowds: “Perhaps out of the blood-soaked jungles of Southeast Asia will come the humility and the national wisdom that will lead us into the light of a new day”. Yes, Karen was in the right place at the right time. And there could have been no more appropriate place than Boston Common to come together and to send a message to the rest of America that there were still people who believed in peace and freedom and who were prepared to stand up together and fight for these values.
Boston Common © Natalie Wichmann

2017    

Frog Pond is at the heart of Boston Common. Of the three ponds that had originally been created in the park, it is the last that remains. And actually it is not a real pond any more, but a basin, an artificially designed reservoir. And nonetheless it is one of the most beautiful places – almost magical in the winter when the lights in the trees are on and the surface of the water has turned into a glittering sheet of ice. His grandfather must have already told him the story of how he met his grandmother here on a cold December day a hundred times. Hunter isn’t sure why he suddenly remembers that – he is a little nervous. His very first date with Emily. He still cannot believe that she said yes. She is the most popular girl in seventh grade.

Hunter enters the park from Tremont Street. He came on the subway from Brookline. The first snow has settled on the trees and lawns, and his breath turns into steam as he trudges towards the pond. He has to be home by eight at the latest – an exception because it is his first date and tomorrow is Saturday. They arranged to meet at 5 pm in front of the café, and he will have to hurry a little if he wants to be on time.

“Put on your gloves, and don’t forget, I’ll be picking you up here at 7 pm on the dot.” “Yes, Mom!” Emily rolls her eyes. She opens the door and leaps from her mother’s black SUV. Because she is now a teenager she is allowed to sit up front today. Her little sister Kayla is sitting in the backseat and making kissing sounds. Annoyed and excited at the same time, she pulls her white bobble hat over her red curls and hurries down the steps towards Frog Pond. Her ice skates, the color of ballet shoes and tied together by their laces, bounce over her right shoulder.

Okay, he shouldn’t have told her he could skate. Or that he had been his hockey team captain in Vancouver. It simply slipped out because he was so keen to impress her. It is always tough to be the new kid; ever since he was little his family had moved from one place to the next, and he hated always being the new kid. Only recently had they returned to Boston, where he was born and his grandparents live. Hunter was certain that she would have said no if he had not impressed her with something special. So now here he was, with his father’s ice skates – not exactly the newest – and waiting for the ice princess of King Charles Middle School.

Emily spots him immediately: a red sweater, dark-blue padded jacket and his cap at a bit of an angle on his head. Right from the start, it was this slightly lost expression on his face that had captured her heart. And it had taken her and Alexis weeks to work out a battle plan to get him to finally ask her out on a date. “Hi”, Hunter greets her with a shy smile. “Hi”, Emily beams back. After just 20 seconds on the ice it is obvious that he has never skated before in his life. “Okay, actually I can’t skate.” Hunter shrugs his shoulders, not sure quite what will happen next. “You don’t say”, laughs Emily. ”No problem, I’ll teach you.” In less than an hour he has more or less got the hang of it, and they glide together across the shiny surface. When the Zamboni finally comes to resurface the ice, he hesitantly reaches for her hand. “Do you want a hot dog?”, he asks, blushing slightly. “Sure.” Together they skate over to Frog Pond Cafe with its mint-colored metal roof reflecting the many lights hung up around the park.

Today the park is enjoyed above all for its leisure activities: ice skating on Frog Pond, lunch on one of its many benches, baseball, jogging, yoga, or simply a snowball fight with the whole family.


Boston Common has heard lots of stories and influenced many lives in the course of its more than 380-year history. The oldest park in North America, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year – from Boston, from the US and from around the world. It has given a stage to such famous people as General Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. American history has been written here. People from Boston came here from its earliest beginnings – to protest, to celebrate, and simply to be together. Today the park is enjoyed above all for its leisure activities: ice skating on Frog Pond, lunch on one of its many benches, baseball, jogging, yoga, or simply a snowball fight with the whole family. Boston Common is there for everyone.
 

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