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Dozens of Egleston Square residents, community leaders, business owners, and elected officials gathered outside Robert Lawson Park in Roxbury last month amid rain and near-freezing temperatures for the neighborhood’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
There was music, hot chocolate, and churros. Mayor Michelle Wu was there, as was state Rep. Liz Malia, who represents the area in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
But the ceremony, which residents of the neighborhood straddling Roxbury and Jamaica Plain have taken part in for over a decade, felt different this year — and not only because it was raining, Rosana Rivera, owner of Latino Beauty Salon in Egleston Square, told Boston.com.
For the first time in more than a decade, the neighborhood’s illuminated Christmas tree wasn’t located in the community’s park better known as the “Peace Garden.”
Instead, the tree was housed down the block, because its usual home in the garden on the corner of Washington and School Streets was blocked off by a fence. Trash had been piling up, needles were left on the ground, and the park was on the market — for $1.1 million.
For more than two decades, local residents and many Black-, Latino- and immigrant-owned businesses in Egleston Square stewarded the nearly 5,500-square-foot parcel of land. It’s become a performance venue, a garden, a memorial site, and a “flashpoint for activism” over the years in the neighborhood, which has struggled with youth violence, disinvestment, and houselessness, among other challenges, according to residents.
“The garden itself is more than just a green space or a park,” Malia told Boston.com. “It’s kind of a monument to a community that has worked through some difficult problems. It just brings back some of the history and helps people reconnect with each other.”
The space, once a vacant lot, contains a billboard that since 1980 has been operated by Clear Channel Outdoor, a multinational, multibillion-dollar outdoor advertising company that maintains billboards, wallscapes and other advertising spaces throughout the world. Malia said she believes the billboard was installed at the location because, when it was built, it was located just down the street from where the MBTA’s elevated Orange Line stopped. When the subway was rerouted in 1987, the billboard remained. And since the late 1990s, the billboard has hung over, and right in the middle of, the neighborhood’s only green space: the peace garden.
Now, the advertising company has listed the park for sale, suggesting to prospective buyers in the online listing that the space is “ideal for an affordable or mixed-income residential development with ground floor commercial use.” The listing shows renderings of a multi-story housing complex that could occupy the space.
Since the property hit the market in early December, local residents have fought back, with nearly 400 signing a petition calling for the corporation to transfer ownership of the property to the city, which could maintain the space for public use.
“Clear Channel has really gotten a huge amount of free labor from the community in terms of maintenance and upkeep of this space over the years,” Jacob Bor, a local resident and active member of the neighborhood association that helped organize the petition drive, told Boston.com.
The property was listed for sale after community members struggled for years to sustain the attention of Clear Channel and negotiate an agreement to govern use of the space, according to Denise Delgado, executive director of Egleston Square Main Street, a local nonprofit that dedicates resources to public space revitalization.
Clear Channel maintained a lease with ESAC Boston, another local nonprofit, from 2003–2018. Delgado said the agreement provided community organizations the legal grounds to take ownership of the property’s design and use the space for cookouts, small festivals, film screenings, and various other activities.
The park grew into a community space, despite private ownership.
In addition to the annual Christmas tree lighting — which became a tradition over the years, drawing the attendance of the mayor — murals were installed. Picnics were held. The park also features a layer of memorial bricks commemorating local youth who died as a result of youth violence.
“The peace garden is like the heart of Egleston Square,” Rivera, the local salon owner, said. “I cannot imagine Egleston Square without that being a space.”
The residents’ petition was delivered late last month to the mayor’s office and to Rick Waechter, the regional president of Clear Channel’s Boston branch.
Waechter did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Boston.com.
Days after the petition was delivered, residents received a response from officials in Mayor Wu’s office saying the city had reached out to Clear Channel to open conversations about the land.
“The Egleston Square community has taken responsibility for the Peace Garden and transformed it into a space for collective healing and joy,” Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, chief of environment, energy and open space for the city, said in a statement to Boston.com. “The City applauds this important work and is looking into ways we can support the neighborhood’s efforts.”
Local residents allege the parcel of land was only placed on the market after Clear Channel discovered that a nearby warehouse sold last summer for $2 million.
According to Delgado, prior to that discovery Clear Channel was considering donating the land to the community.
But she said the move was only under consideration for Clear Channel after the company declined to re-sign a lease with the community, citing “liability concerns.”
After the initial lease expired in 2018, community members continued to maintain the space as a park. But Delgado said increasingly, local residents with substance abuse disorders, some of them living unsheltered, used the space to gather and drink. The community had trouble reaching Clear Channel, and residents allege the company failed to maintain the space.
Instead, Delgado said, local business owners would “put on gloves, grab rakes, and in the middle of their work days, clean up trash” in the park.
Rivera was one of those business owners. She said she made friends with some of the people who hung out in the park, and she worked with local agencies to provide resources and outreach to them.
“We made community with the homeless, with the merchants, with the neighbors,” Rivera said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people that, without the peace garden, I don’t think I would have known. We’re like a family here.”
But with Clear Channel allegedly unwilling to sign a lease similar to the one that expired in 2018, community organizations have been denied funding from the city to perform repairs since they lack a legal right to the space, according to Delgado.
Three local community organizations, including Delgado’s, were in line to jointly receive $150,000 in grant funding in May 2020 through the city’s Community Preservation Act. The act provides funds for affordable housing and to help neighborhoods preserve open space, among other things.
But the funds, which the organizations planned to use to revitalize the park, were never delivered, with Clear Channel never having signed an agreement that would have allowed the organizations to receive the grant money, according to Delgado.
With the community lacking the resources to maintain the park and Clear Channel allegedly neglecting to devote consistent attention to the space, the property fell into decline, residents say.
“The community health issues that we have in Egleston, and the opioid epidemic, and the way homelessness has increased during the pandemic: All of those things are part of the story of the peace garden and part of what made it really challenging for the community to continue to put resources into it,” Delgado said. “For a neighborhood to work, everyone has to invest in it. Property owners have to contribute.”
City officials in November declared the space a public health hazard and Clear Channel enclosed it with a fence, according to the community petition.
In December, it was listed for sale.
But residents, community leaders and elected officials are optimistic that the park’s ownership will ultimately land in the public’s hands.
“I think the major players are at the table, and we’re hopefully going to be able to work something out with the help of the city,” Malia said. “We’re very hopeful that things are going to get resolved and we’ll have a real tree lighting this time next year in Egleston, at the peace garden.”
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