I’ve lived near the South Common since 1992, not using the park much until the early 2000’s when I started using the oval around the playing field on the floor of the Common as an exercise track. Something is different this spring, however. There’s a noticeable uptick in activity on the Common, and I mean good activity.
When I first moved into the neighborhood I was regularly calling the Back Central Precinct to report drug deals going on in front of the Rogers School and hookers drifting up South Street to the backside of the former St. Peter Church rectory. In those days the only grown men riding bikes were messengers in the underground economy. Now even I’ve got a bicycle, and some mornings ride the streets bordering the park.
Early on weekday mornings, on the weekends, and after work the Common is alive with sports players, families using the playground, dog-walkers, joggers and health-hikers, young basketball and tennis players, couples sitting on blankets under the pines on the hill—all this and more. The closing of the Rogers School was a loss of vitality, but the school department offices have brought new folks to the park. When I walk our terrier at 6.30 a.m., I still find too many “empties” in the darker recesses of the sprawling green space and step around too much broken glass on the paved walkways, but overall the Common seems to have found its constituency.
For a long time, it appeared to be a largely abandoned park except for the soccer players who raced back and forth in the dirt-bowl that was once a green field. Although the Rogers School was on the Common, I never sensed the the school meshed with the park. Yes, the students would be out there for phys ed classes, but the school was oriented toward Highland Street—not unlike the way the mills downtown were built with their backs to the river. The busiest I would see it was during the annual carnivals that could not have been good for the turf and the well-attended Puerto Rican Festival. Long gone were the memorable nights when the South Common hosted the climax of the Lowell Folk Festival with some 10,000 people arrayed around the natural amphitheater sloping up from the sports field. The other lively times were post-snowstorms when the hill dipping down from the Eliot Church turned into one of the best sledding runs in the city.
This change is all for the best and just in time for the City’s plans to renovate the South Common. The sidewalk upgrade along Thorndike Street is well along, with lots of granite curbing in place. The spring, City workers spread a heavy layer of loam on the center of the playing field to make up for the damage done by huge piles of snow deposited during the winter. I’d like to see the City haul the snow somewhere else. The salty snow cannot be good for the soil on the Common. The trees look as good as ever even if there are a few too many. That will be addressed when the park redevelopment begins. I hope the City is able to identify funds to move the plans forward. As one daily observer, I see the community embracing the Common more vigorously—and just in time.