MANCHESTER, NH – The last time vandals with serious equipment and bad intent infiltrated Wagner Park, it was a neighbor who heard the pre-dawn sounds of destruction and called for police. By the time police arrived, the bad guys, who had scrambled up into nearby tree limbs at the sound of sirens, jumped from the branches like ninjas and disappeared into the dark.
They left behind the section of copper fence they were trying to steal, some tools, and a truck and its contents, all now part of the active investigation into what has been a difficult summer for the newly formed Friends of Wagner Park.
That was three weeks ago, and as far as neighbors know, there have been no arrests.
In addition to the bronze fence being vandalized, two more of the ornate benches purchased in the 1940s were wrenched from their cement pads in July. It is not the first time thieves have targeted the valuable copper benches. Of the nine original benches, Susan Woods believes there are only four left, currently being harbored by the city for safe keeping.
In total, the loss of the two benches and July vandalism cost an estimated $30,000.
Yes, the city has bigger problems right now than vandals preying on valuable vestiges of the past in what is more commonly known as Pretty Park. There is an unsolved murder in the city’s North End, which happened the same weekend the fence was vandalized, and of course, the ongoing heroin crisis.
But in a way, it’s all related, Woods figures. Battle lines have been drawn, between the good people of Manchester, and forces intent on usurping the Queen City.
The benches were targeted for their heavy metal as a quick turn around for cash, most likely for drug money.
“Why else would you need the quick cash for a beautiful historic bench? I’m sure they sold the benches to a scrap yard somewhere for a fraction of what it’s worth. I would have rather given them the thirty bucks. There’s no way we’ll ever be able to replace them with something comparable. Those benches were specifically made for this park,” says Woods.
She is one of several neighbors who live along the four corners of the park which extends for more than an acre in the middle of the city’s downtown, surrounded by Prospect, Myrtle, Maple and Oak Streets. Woods has joined fellow neighbors Charlie Goodwin, Lucia Merritt Carlisle, Peter Capano, and Jon Simard to incorporate The Friends of Wagner Park.
Their goal is to fill in the gaps of maintenance and care that currently exist between the last will and testament of Ottilie Wagner Hosser, the city, and the three-member Wagner Park Board of Trustees – Alderman Ron Ludwig, Parks Chief Don Simard and Capano, who also serves on the city’s Conservation Commission.
Ottilie Wagner Hosser left the park to the city in her will, along with a trust fund to cover maintenance costs so a not to be a burden to the city, said Woods. Cost to the trust is about $10,000 annually. That means the trust pays for things like the electric bill for the street lights, and mowing. Weeding happens whenever there are enough hands on deck to do so, but the splendor of the park has diminished in recent years.
For starters, the newly formed Friends would like to gather more volunteers, consider ways to raise funds, and swap out more efficient light bulbs for the current ones, which are costing a few thousand annually.
“Eversource says we’re paying the highest rates possible, since we don’t get the advantage of city rates, due to the trust arrangement,” says Woods. “We’re trying to get the city to take care of the trash. We’re trying to work through some of the past problems between the city and the trust.”
They are looking to partner with local companies to consider “adopting” the park, to make things like spring clean-ups or other ongoing maintenance expenses more feasible.
“Our hope, as Friends of Wagner Memorial Park, is to eventually supplement the trust fund with some additional money to maintain it to a higher level,” said Woods. They are working with another non-profit as fiscal agent, with the goal of completing the paperwork to be a 501(c)3.
“It looks pretty ragged by this time of year,” said Woods.
Unlike Stark Park along River Road, where the highly organized Friends of Stark Park actually take reservations for weddings and orchestrate park activities, Woods says they’re not seeking that level of control over Wagner Park.
“I really think this should be every man’s park. It’s open and available to anyone who wants to use it, although we’re down to so few weddings now because, frankly, the park doesn’t look that great. Our hope is to get it back to where it was because I think Manchester residents need a place where they can come, for free, and celebrate family time together,” says Woods.
They have launched a Friends of Wagner aka Pretty Park Facebook page and have about 100 followers so far. They hope to continue to attract support from those who’ve been married at the park, or whose family members were.
Woods said the park has also been an invaluable respite for visitors to Mt. Carmel Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which is directly across the street from the park.
“This is where people come to sit with their loved ones from the nursing home, only now there aren’t any benches left, which is another reason why we want to restore the park to where it once was,” Woods said.
Going forward, city parks director Don Simard said the city’s Parks Division has been asked by Manchester Community Police division to improve “sight lines” through enhanced landscaping and maintenance.
“We hope to have the something in place within the next few days which will be of some assistance to police,” said Simard on Tuesday. “There has been little to no pruning or thinning of most of the vegetation in the park. At first glance I believe that to be the majority of the sight line problems.”
Woods says the Friends group worries that heavy-handed pruning will decimate the natural beauty of the park, and would like to at least be included in maintenance efforts.
They favor surveillance cameras. Given the irreparable damage done by the summer’s thefts and attempted thefts, it’s senseless to return the historic benches without enhanced security, says Woods. City Parks Department operations manager Tom Mattson is looking into replacement benches. The Friends group is hoping for something spiffier than the generic benches brought in near the monument after the initial theft of benches a few years ago, says Woods.
Vigilance is a huge part of protecting the park, says Woods. It took some forethought to steal the heavy antique benches – likely thieves visited the park regularly to sit and “rock” the benches loose of their hardware, until it was possible to lift them from the ground.
“It took several guys to pick up the benches when they moved the rest of them for safe keeping,” said Woods, who is as baffled as anyone about who plans out this kind of destruction to a public space.
“Years ago we heard someone went to jail for vandalizing the park. And for a long time we didn’t have any trouble here, until now. There were rumors going around that whoever that was finally got out of jail and reassembled the old gang and came back and picked off the two benches in July,” Woods says. “That’s just a rumor, of course.”
There are also rumors that police are closing in on a suspect or suspects from the August vandalism, although police said Friday they cannot comment on an active investigation.
As the last weekend of summer shines down on Pretty Park, the neighbors remain upbeat. Goodwin is working with a landscape architect to map out a new landscape master plan, says Woods, to replace some of the plantings that have come to the end of their lifespan, and help put the “pretty” back in Pretty Park.
“I come here every day. The trees are beautiful,” says Woods. “There’s a beautiful copper beech, one of the bigger ones in the city over there. We’ve lost a lot of ground, but we’re pushing back. There’s still a lot of good stuff here.”
You’re one click away! Sign up for our free eNewsletter and never miss another thing