Not so long ago, there was a drab patch of city park land – a little over two acres’ worth – sitting two streets west of St. Mark’s Church where generations of young local athletes (and small-change poker players) spent their free time in a loosey-goosey sort of camaraderie.
The word “drab” doesn’t do justice to the state of the grounds in those days. At the southeast corner, there was a baseball diamond where grass was in short supply and pebbles abundant in the infield; to the northeast, there was a basketball court where net-less hoops and frost heaves were in fashion; to the northwest, there was a sort of tots lot with some jungle bars and a slide that never lived up to the name because the big kids used the space for stickball games.
Between the basketball court and the tots space sat a red-bricked municipal building from which Charley Paget, a gnome-like man with a hunched back courtesy of childhood polio, tended to the park land grounds – aka “Charley’s Pebble Parlor” – morning, noon, and night seven days a week for some 45 years until his death in 1976.
During that time, the park was known first and formally as the Cronin, after James L. Cronin, who gave his life to the nation in World War I, and then more popularly as “Wainwright Park,” or the “Wainie,” after the street that defined its western border. It is not clear how it came to be known for that street when two others, Melbourne and Brent, also defined the acreage’s perimeter.
Last Saturday, a new day dawned over Charley Paget’s domain: Mayor Thomas M. Menino presided at a ceremony at the new Brent Street entrance at which the grounds were formally re-named The Loesch Family Park after the Rev. Dr. William Loesch, a proper successor to Charley Paget as guardian of the people’s property in this densely urban neighborhood.
Dr. Loesch, a resident of Brent Street for nearly 30 years, spoke for a while after the mayor did his formal bit, as did several state and city officials and politicians. The honoree talked about the community-driven process that in the end produced this compelling slice of verdant space in the heart of Dorchester. Long gone is the municipal building; gone, too, is the municipal-style chain-line fence, replaced by modern border structures with eyesight lines that invite people into the park instead of keeping them out. The playground lot is a wonderfully laid out space with amenities aplenty to keep tots moving. Grass is now the coin of the realm at the park, with clear, broad, crossing pathways that define the notion of a people’s walking place. And, as a reminder that the real world regularly intruded on this playing ground, a prominent memorial stone in memory of Joseph F. Keenan, a “Wainie” kid and Navy corpsman who was killed in action in Korea, graces the site.
As a complement to what is going on inside the park, several houses along Melbourne Street, notably No. 26, a home-away-from home for my boyhood gang when it was owned by my great pal Jackie Gallagher’s family, are sporting rehabbed faces, a signal, I hope, that the new look will continue its move up the block.
All of the park improvements came at a price beyond the remarkable efforts of Dr. Loesch’s troupe of neighborhood activists: Some $1,000,000 in funds from the mayor’s Capital Improvement Program, and a Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities (PARC) grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Renovations for Communities.
In last week’s Reporter, Elizabeth Murray talked with Dr. Loesch at length about how his team made a dream come true. “The major concern,” he said. “was always: ‘This is here, what can we do to improve it?’ ” The scene across the park on Saturday even while the mayor and others were speaking – dozens of kids at play in the playground area; other kids taking pony rides; boys playing hoop in the far corner; families spread around the grounds in their chairs, at tables, on the new benches, enjoying a summer picnic – said it best: mission accomplished.
As someone who grew up using Wainwright Park as my play space, who learned how to duck as scattered pebbles turned ground balls in the infield into unguided missiles, who broke a wrist twice on the basketball courts, who, when the grounds were flooded in winter, played hockey around an oil truck that had sunk into the ice en route to the municipal building, I watched and listened on Saturday while wondering what Charley Paget would have thought of it all.
He never owned a house or a car; he rented locally, first with his mother and father on Joseph Street across from the park, then two blocks away on Moultrie Street with his cousin Bill, a postal carrier out of the Codman Square branch. In the morning he walked to work where, in good weather, he spent time clearing the grounds of debris. He walked home for lunch, then back to the park for the afternoon, back home to supper, then back to the park at 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. when he left for home one last time.
In springtime, he duly staked out the white lines for baseball games; in summer, at least in the early days, he kept the shower stalls open in the building for kids with a dime in need of relief (my brother once got a free shower because Charley was amused when Skippy told him “it was sweating out”); in the fall, Charley raked leaves for weeks and burned them in large piles near the Brent Street entrance. He could be irascible when kids, or adults, didn’t treat his park with respect. Long hours for short money – for the park’s upkeep, and for himself: That was Charley Paget’s life year after year, with just a few days away each, a trip by bus and ferry to what was to him practically the end of the world, Martha’s Vineyard.
I think Charley Paget would have been clapping loudly after Dr. Loesch spoke on Saturday – for the new look of the small plot he cherished so, for the like-minded park partisan who did his community proud with this renovation, and for a neighborhood that deserved something so much better after all those years of drabness.
Tom Mulvoy is a native of Lonsdale Street and former managing editor of The Boston Globe. Today, he is associate editor at the Dorchester Reporter.