A quiet forged from fire; Where arsonists roamed, an urban oasis of 30 years


The Boston globe
CITY; Pg. Reg3


The quiet street locals once dubbed Cinder Road, after 30 arson fires and five deaths ravaged the neighborhood, today shows little sign of its bleak history.

At the site of a Symphony Road brownstone where a 4-year-old boy perished in one such fire, a small 40-plot community garden celebrates its 30th anniversary. Last Sunday, the gardeners gathered for fall cleaning.

With gloves on and broom in hand, Alex Dzakovic, 40, said she started gardening here two years ago. "This is where I recover," said Dzakovic. "It's very important to get in touch with nature inside the city."

Some gardeners took a bite of nature, too, grabbing the last remaining tomatoes off their vines and popping them into their mouths. Others bagged compost, planted bulbs for next season, and fixed bricks outlining the garden's new dedication to Bertha McCrary, the garden's founder, who died in 1999.

McCrary moved to Boston from Georgia in the early 1940s with her husband, Parris, and daughter Alice. After living on Ruggles Street briefly, they moved to 18 Symphony Road, a three-story brownstone that still houses her kin.

"She was a very outgoing neighborhood person," said her granddaughter, Nisa Watson, 44. "She knew everyone from everywhere."

In 1976, 4-year-old Jesse Oliver perished at 70 Symphony Road in a fire that left over 126 homeless. After a total of 30 fires and five deaths, 33 people, including a former State Police officer, were charged in an arson-for-profit scheme.

After the fires, McCrary encouraged her neighbors to plant in the vacant lots from 56 to 72 Symphony Road where brownstones once stood. In 1991, she and other gardeners sought the help of what's now the Boston Natural Areas Network, and received financial assistance for the maintenance of the garden.

At the time, the property was still owned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and was zoned as residential space. After a rigorous community-driven effort in 2001, the land was rezoned as permanent open space and the deed transferred to the open space advocacy group.

On a recent Sunday, Jane Hartmann, 68, a retired English teacher who lives around the corner on Gainsborough Street and is now president of Symphony Garden, stopped by to clip some basil for dinner. "I'm always learning ethnic cooking, and get wonderful tips from other gardeners about how to grow certain plants," she said, standing in her small plot.

The garden has had some of its harvest pilfered, and the nuisance rabbit problem plaguing suburban gardens manifests itself in a more urban form: rats. Their attraction to rotting vegetables was one of the reasons for the cleanup.

But rodents or no, Hartmann says many types of people come to enjoy the green space.

"People come here to walk around, sit, work in the garden, and refresh their soul," she said. One admirer, Sache Register, 13, whose family recently moved to the Fenway, said she's enjoyed watching the seasons change there.

"It's beautiful," she said. "I watch people stare at it all the time."