Behind the Shaw’s on Main Street and down the sloping grass of Second Street park, a low-slung concrete wall cuts along the park’s wooded boundary.
It’s referred to as “the wall,” and it has grown into one the city’s more popular outdoor hangouts this summer — mostly for teenagers, but also adults whose drinking and rowdy behavior spurred the police department to increase its patrols of the area following a steady stream of complaints, the department said.
The scene at the wall also has triggered some parents to worry about the safety of minors who hang out there, especially with regard to underage drinking and the use of crass language that objectifies girls. A “fight club” apparently formed there, said Dan Fleming, director of the Shaw House youth shelter.
And while police can enforce the law, there’s only so much they can do. “The park is there to be enjoyed by the public,” Officer Dan Gastia said.
But there’s one thing the city can do: change the park.
In recent weeks, a Shaw House outreach team has cleared trash bags full of litter from the lawn in front of the wall, Fleming said. Gastia has started spending more time in the park to make himself a more familiar presence, and he’s planning a block party there to take place sometime next month, after it was rescheduled from earlier this August, he said.
Last week, Fleming’s team painted the wall bright white with a coat of primer. It’s the first first step toward creating a mural, and the team is mulling a “cutesy” design that might feature woodland animals, Fleming said.
Together, the shelter director and police officer described a strategy for promoting public safety that aims to change the way people act by changing the space where they spend time.
“One of the reasons they’ve chosen that spot is because it’s out of the way,” Fleming said. “It’s a good spot to be hidden. And when you’re not seen, that’s when you might make a bad decision.”
“I think the more positive things you put into a place, the more negative will move elsewhere,” Gastia added.
For people like Shannon Dejesus, that process might not be taking place quickly enough. The 35-year-old mom posted on Facebook last Thursday to warn her friends about the scene at the wall, and it quickly garnered comments calling for swifter action by the police.
“I’m concerned about their welfare,” said Dejesus, who said her 14-year-old daughter has resisted invitations to hang out at the wall because of her concerns that it isn’t safe.
But last Friday afternoon, a group of teenagers and 20-year-olds hanging out at the wall said the scene had already started to change.
Over the course of an hour that day, the group roughhoused, teased each other and accepted free weed from a stranger who sat down to play his guitar. They cat-called women and jeered an elderly woman carrying two bags of groceries through the park. They waved at a police cruiser that drove a loop around the Shaw’s parking lot.
The more boisterous, “dangerous” people who got in fights at the wall have moved to a place called “the hill” near the waterfront, said Alvin, 20, who declined to give his last name because he was violating a criminal trespass order by spending time in the park.
Fleming said it’s not uncommon for people who are either homeless or spend time in public spaces to simply find a new place to congregate when the city tries to redevelop a space.
After the city shut down a sprawling homeless encampment along the waterfront late last month, he said he noticed Pickering Square swell with people.
But at least Pickering Square, there are “eyes and ears” everywhere.
“There’s no fight club in Pickering Square,” Fleming said.
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