BU News Service
Annie Wu arrived at the garden plot she’s tended for 10 years. Cars whizzed past on Boylston Street, and runners skirted around the labyrinth of Fenway Victory Gardens in Back Bay Fens.
Wu, a Fenway Garden Society leader, reached for her hose, but stopped quickly. A syringe poked out from the hose’s center.
Seeing the syringe that spring day several years ago “was scary and discouraging when you’ve never been exposed to this problem before,” Wu said.
Fenway gardeners, planning their tomatoes, salad greens and perennial plants, are also preparing to deal with the perennial crimes of used syringes, encampment, assault, vandalism and illicit sex, which have long plagued the Fenway Victory Gardens, a 7-acre tract of land.
Past security measures, such as the fences city workers put up in the ‘80s, a blue light call box the city installed at the garden’s entrance, and garden-plot lighting, haven’t stopped the problems.
Many gardeners said they don’t file reports with the police because they’re worried their problems are less urgent than other crimes in the city.
“You don’t want to occupy the city resource meant for emergencies,” Wu said. “You don’t want to call for, ‘Somebody stole my tomato.’”
Some gardeners have told Wu they feel unsafe and don’t want to garden anymore. Other gardeners dominate Fenway Garden Society meetings with security questions.
“The questions themselves make me feel that we have a lot to work on,” Wu said.
Javier Pagan, a local police officer, said the district encourages gardeners to file reports for crimes big and small. The district relies on 12-13 patrol force officers to cover its jurisdiction spanning the South End, Kenmore, Fenway, Back Bay and Roxbury.
“It’s difficult because it’s secluded – off the beaten path,” Pagan said. “An officer’s not going to walk up and down the gardens when there’s other stuff going on or fingerprint the leftover tomatoes. But, we encourage them to file so we know what’s going on in the area.”
“The Fens’ layout attracts more crime than other area parks,” Pagan said.
Pagan identified the dense, 7 to 10-foot-tall reeds around the Muddy River, which borders the gardens for one-half mile between Agassiz Road and Boylston Street, as a hotbed for gay cruising. Gardeners have found soiled underwear and condoms abandoned by their plots.
“It’s like little mazes,” Pagan said. “People want to be hidden, and there are spots where you can go and hide.”
In other public parks around the city, crime rates are lower because the park layouts give police more visibility.
Robberies are the main crime police see in the Boston Public Garden and the Boston Common, which have open layouts and no individual garden plots. Drug activity and public drinking occur in the Berkeley Community Garden, at 62 Summer St., which Pagan attributed to the nearby Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter on Harrison Ave.
Some Fenway residents avoid the victory gardens altogether because of the deep-rooted crime in the area, said Grace Holley, a community planner for the Fenway Community Development Corporation.
“What we hear is more, ‘It is what it is,’” Holley said. “It’s knowledge around the neighborhood people don’t want to go in there if you want to be safe. Stay close to Boylston Street [the gardens’ border] where there tends to be more people and a clear escape route if anything gets weird.”
Ryan Woods, director of external affairs for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, said the city owns the land, but defers to Fenway Garden Society to manage it and to police to address criminal activity, which peaks after park rangers’ 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shifts.
“The mission is the same – keeping parks clean, healthy and safe for all residents to use,” Woods said. “If park rangers see someone not abiding by a city ordinance in the park, they’ll let them know – for example, they’ll let them know there’s a no smoking policy and make them extinguish their cigarettes. But, the department’s role is to keep parks clean and to program them with concerts, sports and activities.”
Leaders of the ongoing Muddy River project, a federally funded, multimillion-dollar restoration, are in talks to remove the reeds known for shielding some of the suspicious activity, Woods said.
“If it kills two birds with one stone and is going to eliminate crime in the park, we’re in favor of that, but it’s being done for environmental reasons, not crime reasons,” Woods said.
Police warn that clearing out the reeds may push gay cruisers into the gardens, since the plots would be one of the last remaining secluded areas.
“If people are there, and they’re in the mood, and that’s what they see, that’s probably what they’ll use,” Pagan said.
Fenway Garden Society leaders, who began regularly attending local police’s monthly West Fens community meetings in January, hope growing their community presence will draw attention to their plight.
“Over this growing season, we will try to get the message out,” Wu said. “I never did file any reports, [but] this year I will.”