By Seth Daniel
Townies around the Eden Street area have been parking their cars in the Edwards Middle School parking lot since, perhaps, Mr. Edwards was still alive.
No one can be quite sure how long the gentlemen’s agreement has been ongoing between the school and the community regarding the very valuable parking lot, but all of the sudden two weeks ago, that privilege was taken away from residents of the area as tow trucks descended in what residents said was a coordinated effort – towing away nearly 40 parked cars to East Boston on a slow Monday morning, Oct. 17, around 6:30 a.m.
Some were new residents to the area, some had been there generations, and many of those parked in the lot were elderly. By accounts of residents, people were late to work, children didn’t make it to school and the elderly were left to wonder if their cars had been stolen or just towed.
Nearly 100 people turned out last Thursday night, Oct. 27, in the school auditorium to have a hard-hitting discussion with the City, the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Edwards Middle School staff regarding the new policy of towing – which school officials said now extends year-round and prohibits parking in the lot from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week.
City Councilor Sal LaMattina and Neighborhood Liaison Chris Breen, of the Mayor’s Office, called the meeting to try to air concerns and to provide information about the hot-button issue.
The meeting sought to bring about a compromise in the new policy, but started off rather poorly when a member of the School Department, Chief of Operations John Hanlon, tacitly accused the crowd of not wanting the Edwards school kids in the neighborhood – and that accusation hit on some old wounds regarding race due to the fact that many of the Edwards students are of color and from other parts of the City.
It sent the crowd immediately into an uproar, and set the tone for a contentious two-hour meeting that had an evenly divided crowd of teachers, residents and officials, and ended without any tangible solution.
“I understand the Edwards School is not a community school and many kids who go here are not from here,” he said. “It makes me feel the people in the neighborhood don’t want the kids coming here and going to school here.”
That set off the large crowd of residents, who wholeheartedly disagreed with Hanlon’s assertion about their attitudes.
“That’s not true at all; no, no, no,” yelled members of the audience.
“The first thing you came out here with was nobody wanted these kids in our neighborhood,” said Kim Mahoney, who grew up near the park and whose mother had her car towed. “I grew up here. I work here in the city. I love kids. I’m extremely insulted you would say things like that about these residents and my mother who has lived here 70 years of her life and is a graduate of the Edwards School. I think we deserve an apology.”
That apology did come soon after Mahoney spoke at length about the actual policy change.
“I have to address something that’s been bothering me for the last 30 minutes regarding what I said,” Hanlon told the crowd. “I read a few comments that were on social media in that vein of thinking and I apologize. I apologize 1,000 times over for what I said and I made an egregious over-generalization based on that.”
But that was just the drama that set the stage, and the meeting mostly discussed the new policies, which were unrolled citywide last January.
“We need to protect school operations,” said Hanlon. “From time to time, across the city, parking is interfering with school operations…We can’t allow for cars parked in private property owned by the City of Boston. There have been a number of times residents have parked in the lot to the point teachers can’t find a space. They’re not residents so they don’t have a resident sticker and they end up circling the block and end up being late to teach their classes.”
Further compounding the problem he said, and why towing starts so early, is that the Edwards starts at 7:15 a.m. – one of the earliest start times in the district. Hanlon said that means teachers and buses need to start rolling in around 6:30 a.m. Because of that, he said cars have to be moved or towed by 6 a.m. without exception.
“Things have happened here many, many years, but I’m not here to talk about the past and can’t address informal agreements or gentlemen’s handshakes,” he said. “I know this is not going to make me popular, but the lot belongs to the City of Boston and Boston Public Schools has control of it now…This is the school’s and the City’s property.”
Residents were astonished by the hardened stance outlined at the meeting, they said, but the schools did bring a compromise plan where a block of parking on the western section of the lot would be for residents, teachers and non-residents 24 hours a day. Towing would still occur, however, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. year round for cars outside of the new boundary. The lot would also be re-striped and there would be no more tandem parking, resulting in the loss of many existing spots, according to the plan. The current 64 spot lot would be reduced to 49 spots, and only a portion of those spots would be accessible to residents 24 hours a day.
The overall citywide plan for school parking lots rolled out in January, and according to a City of Boston and BPS memo from January, it started citywide in January and was at the discretion of the principal.
“Effective immediately, Boston Public Schools will institute the following parking lot regulations to be applied at all of our schools and enforced year-round at the discretion of the building principal,” read the January letter. “Please know that we will make you aware of any updates to this procedure as necessary. In all cases…parking lots will have ample signage indicating prohibited parking spaces and contact information for towing companies…principals/headmasters are responsible for posting signage to direct the closing of lots during inclement weather…no parking in BPS lots during snow events…localized towing will be in effect in each of the neighborhoods where BPS lots are located and enforced by the school principal and other assigned building staff…signage shall be posted by schools 48 hours prior to any school-related event that prohibits parking between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weekdays or weekends.”
Hanlon said the policy just began because the Edwards School was one of the last to roll out the policy in the city. School officials said they put fliers on cars during the first weeks of school, held off towing until October and put up permanent signs announcing the new policy recently. However, residents indicated the signs were confusing and had different policies spelled out on different signs, and Hanlon acknowledged that the wording needed some revisions.
“I’ve lived here 40 years and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a situation like this in all that time,” said John Tobin, who is an abutter. “I don’t know how we got here, but this is unusual.”
Said Elaine Donovan, “I don’t agree with five days a week and 12 months a year for this policy. I don’t know why we have to have this. Sometimes that’s all the parking we have here…We are an enigma in Charlestown and we know that. Other than the North End, no one is stretched with parking like we are. No one. We always got along well with the principals here and worked together. Why not now? We won’t be ignored on this.”
Mahoney, speaking for her mother and family members living nearby, said there should have been a public meeting before starting the towing, as outlined in the memo and explained to residents for years by other principals.
“To tow 50 cars without a public meeting or forum to talk about it and come to some agreement doesn’t show you think much about the neighbors,” she said. “You have to understand people in this neighborhood are elderly and they come home with their bundles at 3 p.m. and with the expectation they will have a place to park here as they have forever.”
Most neighbors in the meeting were not eager to support the compromise presented and touted by Hanlon and BPS, saying that there wasn’t a lot of good faith to go on in order to work cooperatively.
Later in the week, neighbors said they were optimistic that the Mayor Martin Walsh’s office would be able to help straighten the situation out for a positive outcome. Walsh has stepped in on the situation, though nothing official has been said yet from his office.