Since it was pouring when I woke up at 4:30 a.m., I decided to forgo my morning walk. So today is as good a day as any to introduce the Common.
Most New England towns and cities have a Common, a place where townspeople could graze their one or two family cows and a few family sheep without having to use good planting soil for pastureland. After all, so many of our towns and cities go back to at least the eighteenth century, and a few, like the city to our south, back to the seventeenth century (1623, in that case).
They served that purpose until the Industrial Revolution, and then, many were converted to city parks, places where Victorians could stroll and picnic and listen to Sunday-afternoon concerts; so, many commons have a gazebo for the brass band (ours does), and some have really beautiful plantings and garden spaces (ours doesn’t). Some boast monuments; ours has a Civil-War monument, and the names around its base are ancestors of people who still live in this city.
When we moved here, in the mid-1980s, the Common had been allowed to fall into disrepair. I remember thinking wistfully what a great place it would have been for our son, then 7, to run around and play, but the grass was scruffy and unkempt, there was no play equipment whatsoever, no place to sit with one’s knitting or a book, no trees — nothing but scrub grass, and a field for pick-up sports games. That all changed around 1988, when the City finally realized it was sitting on what could be a good recreational asset. Now we have stone benches set around the walking path on the perimeter, nifty play equipment, picnic tables, plenty of trash receptacles, a defined sports area (used mostly for baseball in the summer, and flooded to make an ice-skating pond in the winter); and the gazebo, now cleaned up and freshly painted every couple of years, hosts summer-evening concerts that are free. (I hasten to add that I have never gone; I love concerts, but the thought of spending a hot evening slapping at mosquitoes doesn’t appeal.)
The Common was originally much larger than it is now, but portions of it were sold off for development. Now it’s about a third of a mile circumference, with a wide variety of activities on its four sides: on the north side is a large mansion that now serves as a home for children who have had to be removed from their families. The Children’s Home, as it is called, is staffed by an order of nuns that still wears a traditional habit. The east side of the Common is the main route into and out of town; across this road is a wide variety of businesses (real estate agent, accountant, U-Haul depot, to name a few). The south side of the Common consists of private homes in various states of repair; some are very lovingly cared for, and some are clearly just roofs over someone’s head. It irritates me daily that of this latter, two are classic Craftsman homes, which are currently in great demand in this area — but these two are not for sale. And the west side of the Common is the road that angles, gradually, to join with the southern route out of the state.
So why the fuss about the Common? Because, for the last nine weeks, I’ve been walking it on an almost daily basis, and it occurred to me that the place has a life of its own: times of its own, seasons of its own, denizens of its own — of which I have most recently become one — and I thought it might be fun to describe all of those. How I came to be a Common Walker — well, that’s another tale.