Liquea Nelson sat under a tree in Boston Common along a patch of the Freedom Trail, her home on and off for the past 16 years. Mottled gray and blue blankets — nearly everything she owns — were stuffed into bags beneath her. Nearby, Park Street Station hummed, even in the rain. Business people and visitors and teenagers tugging on each other’s hands spilled up and out into the gray daylight every few minutes as trains arrived. Behind Nelson, a tour group assembled, its leader pointing at the golden dome of the State House.
“They complain about us,” said Nelson, 30, who spends her days on the triangle of grass by an entrance to the MBTA station.
“It’s embarrassing to them to see us, and they’re looking at us like, ‘We can’t enjoy our tour.’ ”
But the Common belongs as much to Nelson as to the tourists and powerbrokers. The eclectic mix of statesmen, casual lunchtime strollers, and the city’s most downtrodden is essential to the spirit of Boston’s most celebrated park, etched into its DNA.
Here, a seemingly eternal Frisbee game moves across the lawn; parents jog in circles around the carousel as their children wave from painted horses and zebras; grown-ups and youngsters whirl across the Frog Pond in winter and splash there in the summer — while those living on the fringe of city life make their way nearby.
The stabbing of two park rangers by a homeless man in the park last week brought into sharp focus the unpredictable nature of a place where all are welcome. Everyone knows the Common can be dodgy at night, but this was unprovoked, midafternoon savagery.
Still, many who love the park say they continue to believe that the disparate citizenry of this special place can and will coexist.
“This is my favorite spot in the whole city,” said Bob McLellan, a 72-year-old retired bus driver, smiling at the edge of the Frog Pond, a disposable video camera in his hand. He had carried the camera in his pocket for four days, waiting for the perfect place to spend his 20 minutes of recording time. And as he walked up and out of Park Street Station, where he sometimes lingers to help tourists read their maps, he found it.
“I said, gee, what better thing to have on it than the State House, the groups of people, the tourists, the Freedom Trail,” said McLellan, opening his arms wide to take it all in as he spoke. “It’s historic, it’s beautiful. To watch the women with the strollers, the little tykes that are just starting in life. Parents and children enjoying the park. The little playground behind us. It’s here to stay, thank goodness.”
The Puritans established the Common in 1634 as a place to graze their cattle.
They brought the idea of the central, shared resource with them from England, where it was under siege from gentry who wanted to enclose common areas, said Nathaniel Sheidley, a historian at the Bostonian Society.
In England, he said, this led to revolt by peasants, who dressed in black, painted their faces, and under cover of darkness tore down the fences the wealthy had erected.
“The thing that’s transporting about the Common is, all the way back to the 1630s, this chunk of land was set aside to belong to all, not to one,” said Sheidley. “When you walk through it, you can feel the tension, it’s palpable, between those laying claim to this shared resource and those who find that threatening.”
On Tuesday, that underlying unease exploded when 34-year-old Bodio Hutchinson, who has a long criminal record and a history of mental illness, allegedly attacked the two Boston park rangers, stabbing each about five times and leaving one in critical condition.
In the past, after high-profile crimes, such as two brutal rapes by homeless men on the Common in 1995, city officials have responded with curfews and enhanced patrols. After Tuesday’s attack, police cars crawled along the crisscrossing pathways, and clusters of officers on bikes and on foot scattered throughout the park.
“You never know what’s going on in anybody’s head,” said Cristin Brigid, a 37-year-old spending her lunch break on a bench near the monument where the attack occurred. Until the stabbing, she said, she thought of the Common as safe, though, she noted, “I wouldn’t want to be here at night.”
Nelson, the homeless woman, said the park is dangerous after dark. She was sexually assaulted last year, she said. Her criminal record has kept her from finding permanent housing, she said, and she has been banned from Boston shelters for lashing out at staff. Since the stabbing, she said, people have looked with more fear at her, her husband, and their adopted street family.
“We’re taking a burning on this,” Nelson said. “We’re normal people. We’re just homeless.”
But others out on the Common in the days after the stabbing said they were not afraid — though, as usual, many avoided the homeless.
As a woman in a fuchsia raincoat and sparkling pink headband who gave her name only as Daisy made her way across the park, she steered clear of the places where the homeless congregate. A Beacon Hill resident, Daisy does not like the city, or the Common, or the way she says the homeless sometimes shout at her.
But she absolutely adores the squirrels. She buys them special nuts in Allston, she said.
“I whistle, and they come from all over! The birds and the squirrels,” she said happily, before spinning to address a fat squirrel nearby and telling it to get its bib. “They know me.”
Nearby, in the TADpole Playground, 6-year-old Jasmine Rose, decked out in a cardboard crown from Burger King, braved the rain to clamber up platforms and leap into puddles. She and her mother, Victoria McGovern, had stopped by on their walk home after visiting the girl’s father.
“This is our family place,” said McGovern, who grew up playing in the playground with her 15 brothers and sisters. Her memories are not all good: at 5 years old, she said, a strange couple persuaded her to walk off with them. Police found her down the street shortly afterward.
So she and Jasmine Rose are making new memories together, she said. It is still their place.
“It’s friendly,” she said. “Very friendly. But beware.”