Mayor-elect Martin Walsh is ready to attack big issues, including failing schools and dangerous streets. But why not get his feet wet by helping to redeem the blighted Boston Irish Famine Memorial park at the prominent corner of Washington and School streets just a hop away from what will be his new office in City Hall?
Art critics are disdainful of the memorial, which features bronze depictions of an emaciated Irish family in the old country and an Irish family restored to health after arrival in America. Whatever the memorial’s artistic merits, it is a well-intentioned remembrance of the loss of life from starvation and disease of 1 million Irish during the mid-19th century. The two statues and eight narrative plaques deserve better than their current fate as magnets for vagrants and pigeons.
The few souls who stopped to inspect the sculpture park on a recent afternoon were driven back by a succession of compulsive pigeon feeders who command the space during daylight. Some birds perched directly on their human meal tickets, while others fouled the statues. It was disappointing to see scruffy birds occupying all of the spaces where office workers, shoppers, and tourists might otherwise have found a place to rest and absorb some history. It was startling, however, when scores of birds rose en masse and launched themselves toward the Old South Building across Washington Street — scattering pedestrians in the process — before circling back counterclockwise into the park. The flocking ritual repeated itself every few minutes, possibly timed to the vibrations of subway trains below.
A passerby laughed when asked if the pigeon blitz deterred him from using the park. Instead, he cited the ornery group of homeless men who often frequent the park as his chief reason for giving it a wide berth.
In 1998, the Boston Redevelopment Authority leased the public land for the park to a trust spearheaded by the late developer Thomas Flatley, who emigrated here from Ireland. Several of the city’s notable business leaders of Irish descent, including investor Peter Lynch and developer Joe Corcoran, contributed to the creation of the memorial. But momentum to maintain the park dissipated in 2008 following Flatley’s death. A friends group for the park has shrunk to one active friend, Brighton-based real estate developer Phil Haughey. Haughey said that the park is picked up daily and power-washed periodically with charitable funds managed by the Flatley Company. But he admitted it is a struggle to stay ahead of the growing pigeon and homeless populations.
Whatever the maintenance schedule, it is clearly not adequate. Rosemarie Sansone, who heads the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, said her “ambassadors’’ tidy up the park whenever possible, even though the Memorial is not a dues-paying member. The landlord of the adjacent Walgreens super store also pitches in with periodic maintenance help. But until the mostly elderly men who feed the pigeons are dissuaded from the practice, the park and statues will be impossible to keep clean. And until the police crack down on aggressive panhandling in the area, it will be impossible to make it a welcoming space.
Restoring the memorial park would be a four-bagger for Walsh: It would show he cares about downtown as much as he cherishes the neighborhoods; it would dovetail with his passion for getting addicted people off the streets and into treatment, informed by his own struggle with the bottle; it would show he can succeed at a task right out of the box that eluded Mayor Menino; and it would provide him an opportunity to honor his heritage as the son of Irish immigrants.
People want to help, especially given the park’s position along the Freedom Trail. Sansone envisions the park as a “welcoming and vibrant space’’ alive with Irish music and dance. She hopes to erect an information kiosk on the plaza near the entrance to the park as a way to demonstrate the commitment of the business improvement district. And there are untapped resources. The Irish International Immigrant Center, which provides advocacy and legal help to today’s Irish immigrants, is located nearby on Franklin Street.
Although the specific property was hardly on his mind, Walsh probably made the best case for revisiting the Boston Irish Famine Memorial park during his victory speech on Tuesday night.
“For this son of immigrants,’’ he said, “you’ve made Boston a place of comebacks and second chances.’’
This maligned park also deserves another chance.