Almost 400 years ago, America’s early European settlers voted to tax each household six shillings — about $70 in today’s money — to purchase a local farm that would be used as a common area for the public.
“They didn't have backyards,” says Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden. “It was their front yard and backyard and common ground. It was a place that everybody owned.”
That’s how Boston Common became America’s first public park. On any given day, colonists walking through the common might see British soldiers setting up camp, public hangings or whippings, or their neighbors taking a stroll. Presidents George Washington and John Adams also visited the park.
“It was a place of utilitarian use,” says Vizza. “It was not a leisure park, so you would see people beating their rugs, you would see cows roaming around because everyone got the right to pasture one cow per household, with a limit of 70 cows, because they didn't have that property themselves.”
The cows were outlawed in 1830 as Boston Common became more of a place for recreation. Today, the only domesticated animals at the 50-acre park can be found running around the Common’s dog park. That’s where Jim Brinning, a Boston resident who is originally from New York City, can often be found with his dog, Mocha.
“I think it’s part of Boston's identity,” he says about the Common, which is often the site of public protests and demonstrations.
“There can be pro-Israel demonstrations, there can be pro-Palestinian demonstrations,” he adds. “So, I think, in many ways it epitomizes the opportunities in this country. We can disagree, but we use public space. So, if anything, it's a public space truly for everyone.”
“Everyone” includes an estimated 7 million park visitors annually, according to Friends of the Public Garden, an organization that advocates and cares for Boston Common.
“Boston Common is a central stage of civic life in Boston and it's been that center stage of civic life for hundreds of years ever since it began as a park in 1634,” says Vizza. “America's oldest park is a place where we come to celebrate, we come to protest, we come to find a place alone. We come to enjoy festivals and events.”
Today, children frolic in the Frog Pond, a spray pool, when it’s hot. In the winter months, it becomes a place for ice skaters.
California transplant Caitlin Roque, who is currently attending college in Boston, is a part-time dog walker who looks forward to her time in the park.
“I think it's a huge part of the city. I feel like it's an integral part where everyone can just come and relax and enjoy the city together,” she says. “It's just nice to kind of unwind and get away from the hustle of the city … And we have these beautiful monuments.”
Boston Common is home to several significant pieces of art, including “The Embrace,” a sculpture of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. embracing his wife, Coretta Scott King. The Brewer Fountain was the park’s first public piece of art. It’s a bronze cast of the original, which won a gold medal at the 1855 Paris World’s Fair.
A sculpture honoring the first all-volunteer Black regiment in the Union army, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw/54th Regiment Memorial, is considered among the finest pieces of American art.
However, some monuments on the Common will eventually be reconsidered and possibly updated.
“We are trying to say this is not just a white story, and not just a male story, because memorial landscapes tend to be statues of men,” Vizza says. “We're just going to have a creative intervention … We want people to look at it with new eyes, and just have a deeper understanding and respect and awareness of the history.”
That history includes the Common’s first inhabitants, the indigenous Massachusett Nation, which the commonwealth of Massachusetts is named after.
“People have lived on this land for 12,000 years. So, we do want to think about colonial America because that's a fascinating story for us,” Vizza says. “But what's an even more fascinating story is to peel those layers open to think about the Native Americans living here.”
Vizza’s team is working with tribal members to develop a suitable tribute to the Common’s first caretakers. They hope to have something in place by 2026, when America will celebrate its 250th birthday.