October 02. 2013 7:52PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Reclaiming Manchester's parks

Rachel Farrell, left, and Cindy Wallace enjoy their lunch hour Wednesday afternoon at Victory Park in downtown Manchester. (MARK HAYWARD / UNION LEADER)

If you've been downtown in the last month, you may have noticed the different atmosphere at Victory Park.

The monument to winged Victory and World War I soldiers remains as is. And the lawn is a healthy green, accented by a scattering of fallen leaves and a person or two sprawled on the lawn in these August-like days.

Missing are the shadowy people who would roost in the park — sometimes around a bench, more often at the brick stairs at the feet of the monument. They have pretty much disappeared after Manchester police quietly started an initiative in August to eliminate drinking, drug use and other illegal behavior at downtown parks.

Some question the police tactics. For the most part, police are just doing what the miscreants do — hanging out in the park. A bicycle officer will glide through the park. Mounted police will stop their steeds and stand statue-like at the monument. And in the most visible presence, a cruiser will park itself at Victory, park center.

"We've been doing a full-court press in the parks downtown for the past 2 1/2 months," said Brian O'Keefe, a sergeant in the police department's community policing division. "By no means are we trying to push anybody out of the park."

We were on the phone, so I couldn't see if O'Keefe was winking his eye.

To most, the change is welcome.

"They would either give you weird stares that are not very comforting or make remarks," said Katie Jerge, a student at New Hampshire Institute of Art. The college has spent the past dozen years buying and rehabbing buildings within the park orbit.

Her friend, Katie Tupper, said several circled her one day on her way to class; she quickly joined up with a mother and her baby, and they left her alone. She now makes sure she's with Jerge at night.

"I've got pepper spray," Jerge warned, "and I will use it."

Students aren't the only ones complaining. In fact, homeless people say the park denizens were giving them a bad name.

"There was a lot of riff-raff here. It's better without them," said Paul, 46, early Wednesday evening.

Paul said he's happy to see police at the park. All they do is check him out and determine he is homeless, and harmless.

"Don't confuse homeless people with vagrancy," O'Keefe said. The vagrants, he said, park their cars beside the park. They don't work, and they are dependent on drugs. Sometimes their groups numbered more than a dozen.

In June, I quoted a sometimes-homeless youth claiming ownership to Victory Park for him and his friends, calling it "our living room." But the living room was a mess. People were finding needles on the ground, said police spokesman Maureen Tessier. Drinking took place, as well as the smoking of Spice, a synthetic marijuana with fuzzy legality.

The park now draws office workers and professionals during their lunch hour. Students take a rest on benches between classes. Pedestrians feel comfortable cutting across the park, rather than skirting the outside.

Linger at the park on a warm autumn evening, and it's easy to see why park advocate Abby Easterly calls it Manchester's Central Park.

Trees and the monument are silouhetted in the lowering sun, while the lawn clings to a rich spruce-like hue of green. The four Beaux-Arts styled, granite-faced buildings to the east and south makes one expect a Mozart quartet in the wind.

A block away, the steeples of St. Joseph Cathedral and Grace Episcopal Church poke through the early night sky, and decorative blue lights hug one corner of the Art Institute's six-story dormitory.

Art students walk through the park, some with portfolios beneath their arms. A few companions of the homeless Paul linger on benches and speak quietly.

The crackdown is not so clear cut in the mind of Easterly, a semi-retired North End resident who has adopted the park. She visits almost daily to pick up trash. She's planted flowerbeds at the base of the momument. She's painted the benchs and places homemade ashtrays — painted coffee cans — at the feet of park benches.

"The park's not just for the business people, not just for the students," she said. "It's not a museum. It's a park."

While she welcomes the change, she doesn't like to see a cruiser idling in the middle of the park, which she thinks telegraphs "crime scene."

She also has good words for the former park denizens. They have helped rake and plant flower beds, which have remained intact throughout the summer, despite pessimistic predictions.

Yes, she acknowledged, their language was rough, but they toned it down when she asked. She was only hit up once for money. And although she's seen them use Spice, she hasn't seen hard drugs used at Victory.

The group is victim to the last line of prejudice, Easterly said, quick to be judged by people who would never cast aspersions on another minority.

"You can't get away with saying 'they' anymore. You can with this one," she said. Yet, she acknowledges the fears of students and said the changes are good for the park. She said many of the denizens suffer from drug addiction or are mentally ill and can't get treatment.

"New Hampshire," Easterly said, "prides itself on being a low-service state and doesn't like the results."

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.