Is Copley Square Boston's Skid Row?

A suspicious transaction takes place in Back Bay, one of Boston’s prestigious neighborhoods, in full view of residents, visitors and tourists.

“I’m not giving you the twelve dollars. Are you going to [expletive] me? I think you’re going to [expletive] me. I thought you liked girls?”

“I do like girls. And, guys, too. But not in that way. C’mon.”

The above conversation takes place not more than three feet from me.

Money exchanges hands. Minutes later, the recipient of the dollar bills is kneeling against a park bench, nose inches away from a crushed up white substance.

Welcome to , Boston on a recent Monday afternoon. 

Copley Square – Boston’s skid row?

Over the past several years I’ve seen similar, suspicious behavior take place as I walk through the park, but it’s always just been guys drinking out of brown paper bags. Today, it’s different. I sit down on a bench to watch.

The group that congregates in the Square include three guys who keep slurring their words while sitting on the edge of a landscaped garden, a white guy with a white beard who keeps looking up whenever there’s a police siren, and a black guy with a laptop computer. (Does Copley Square have free wi-fi?) There’s only one woman in the bunch.

The ringleader seems to be a 50-year old white man with white hair, sort of a ‘Whitey’ Bulger lookalike. He reminds me of bassist Chris Squire from the prog-rock band ‘Yes’, so I’ll call him “Squire”. He is the man who gave the $12 to his friend. Squire carries a cloth briefcase with a computer in it … and an oddly shaped cigarette with no filter that he ends up giving away.

The recipient of the $12, who I’ll call “Shakey”, talks to a girl friend, then takes his money and walks across the Copley mall, returning minutes later. He licks his pinkie finger with his tongue, dabs a white pill he holds in his hands, then takes a taste. He encourages the two other guys sitting with him to do the same. Then, he kneels down in front of the bench and, apparently crushed, sniffs the powder of the bench.

This is taking place in plain view of residents, visitors, and tourists.

Attention all units

At 4:51 p.m., I call ‘911’. The Massachusetts state police receptionist transfers me to the Boston police department. The woman who answers asks me what I am reporting. “There’s a drug deal going on in front of me.”

“Where are you located,” she asks.

“Corners of Dartmouth and Boylston streets, in the Back Bay; in Copley Square.”

“How can you tell it’s a drug deal?”

“Because he took a white substance, crushed it up, and then snorted it.”

“Okay, we’ll send someone over.”

A couple of the guys open pre-packaged meals, sandwiches, which may have been purchased from the pharmacy or convenience store across the street although I don’t see any receipts floating around.

I see most of these guys all the time in Copley Square; on Boylston Street, in the CVS and 7-Eleven, at Starbucks, in the Boston Public Library. You can recognize them from the dazed looks on their overly sunburned faces and the way they move and react.

My focus is back on Shakey, the powder-dabber, who has experienced some sort of drastic mood change. When I first saw him, he was highly agitated as he asked Squire for money. Then, he was excited – giddy, even, as he ran across the mall. In the moments after he made the sniffing movement, he was euphoric.  Now, he’s just lying down on a park bench, his arm covering his eyes, so motionless you’d think he was dead.

Where's Waldo

Twenty minutes after my arrival, and three guys sit, arms crossed, doing nothing. “What are you waiting for,” asks Squire.

“They’re waiting for Waldo; he’s late,” says a friend.

“Call Waldo, call him.”

I can’t figure out what Waldo’s role is in this whole affair. When I saw him earlier before he took off, he was wearing a green jersey with writing on it. It kind of looked like a shirt you’d wear if you worked for a landscaping company. (A week later, I see Waldo again, in 7-Eleven; he’s got the same vacant look on his face and same simple smile but again dressed what appear to be work clothes. I’m stumped.)

Around 5 p.m., the crowd starts to disburse. (Is the work day over, already?) Slowly they move away on their own. Shakey and his girl friend head past the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel while the white-bearded guy walks up the street toward the Copley Square Green Line station.

The three guys on the curb finish drinking out of their brown paper bags. When I leave, one of the white guys is playing housekeeper, collecting the trash and placing it into a trash container. One of the bottles I see says “VODKA” on it.

It's 5:21 p.m. I've waited an hour and a half. No police response, although I'm not sure what I really expected them to do. I've got to get home, so I depart.

As I leave, I walk past Waldo near the Hancock tower, eagerly heading toward Copley Square along with a guy with an odd smile on his face and clothes in a plastic bag.

I guess the fine summer weather is making him happy?

Jan Paulsen August 24, 2011 at 02:52 PM
It would be nice if police come when called.
ZsanLu August 24, 2011 at 03:06 PM
What buisiness of yours is it as to what these peopl are doing? Copley Square is a public place. So what if disenfranchized people gather there to do what they do. Should people require receipts for their food as proof that it was "purchased"? Meals/lunches are given away to many homeless and poor people throughout the city. Why shouldn't they eat there? Vodka? So what? How would cope if you had to survive the sad lives these people may have. Get a clue as to how many people have to suffer yours and many other's snooty stares and judgement. How about a bit of compassion? It's nice for you to get paid to write about the unfortunate, for sitting at a public park. Next time you want to go somewhere to sit, why don't you go to a restaurant or a private club where only certain ''types'' of people gather? Pamela L.Newcomb
Victoria August 24, 2011 at 04:03 PM
Seriously, you wasted your time calling 911 on these people? Ridiculous. I agree completely with ZsanLu. Leave them alone. Not everyone can get paid to write mediocre, judgmental, pointless articles for a publication focusing on an extremely wealthy community.
An August 24, 2011 at 05:15 PM
John Keith, believing that being in a "prestigious" public neighborhood in a major city means complete avoidance from homeless, druggies, trouble makers and anybody below your social class. Don't be surprised if you get clipped by a bike and the ambulance won't respond. There are bigger problems in the city than what directly effects your snobby lifestyle.
Anna August 24, 2011 at 05:16 PM
You are disgusting. Spend one day living their life and see how you feel. This article is bullshit and a total waste of your time for writing it and mine for reading it.
Jamie August 24, 2011 at 05:51 PM
I think John has a point here. Yes, these people are homeless, dealing with drug addiction and (likely) mental illness. So, that means society should just sit by and watch them waste away? John, you were right to call the police. And they were very wrong not to respond. These drugs are illegal, no matter which way you look at it. Does their circumstance give them the right to not follow the basic laws of society? No. They need help. And they certainly aren't going to get it by continuing the downward spiral of addiction and homelessness. Perhaps where this took place was less important than the fact that it took place in open view of others. Someone should help these people, not excuse their behavior due to their circumstances. I personally would have called the police again...and stayed until someone, anyone, showed up.
Jon Wang August 24, 2011 at 06:18 PM
@ Jamie, I really doubt that calling the police would help the situation. If anything the police (if they showed up) would tell them to leave (only for them to return when they're gone). Additionally let's say there is the worst case scenario of them getting arrest. What happens then? I can surely tell you that they won't be sent to a drug rehab facility but instead jail where they won't be rehabilitated. I agree with you that they need help and I also agree that there are certain aspects of John's article that does address important problems in Boston Common. However like everyone else has said (perhaps not in the best way) is that sarcastic posts such as the ones written by John do not help the situation. His reaction to what happened can be deemed as snobbery by the majority that aren't quite as affluent. Perhaps if he really does want to do something about it he should donate his 1.5 hours spent observing people in the Boston Common/Back Bay area towards volunteering in one of Boston's homeless shelters or drug rehab centers.
BostonHarlow August 24, 2011 at 07:11 PM
It is completely unfair to villainize the author and accuse him of being devoid of compassion. I'm quite certain there was no intention of changing the world with this article. He was simply describing an unsettling scene. Would you rather you child be the one sitting just feet away from a guy snorting lines and telling you the story? Or how about that relative you finally convinced to leave the farm and visit the wonderful, safe city you are so proud to call your own? Would you prefer this crew be doing their business in your backyard or on your doorstep? Doubt it. I live in the city with the understanding of what urban life entails. And I love every minute of it. If you want to hate me for taking self defense classes, avoiding shady situations, not wanting drug deals happening in front of me, not wanting drunken men harassing me as I walk by or, worse, getting mugged, and expecting the cops to come whenever I call them, so be it. It's reality. Get over yourselves. Oh, did I mention I'm an avid volunteer?
Anna August 24, 2011 at 07:21 PM
Thanks for jumping to all these conclusions for me. If I hadn't had your unique, vulture's-eye view of Copley I never would have suspected eating sandwiches was a crime, or that sunburns must be kept to a minimum on all homeless faces in the interest of protecting Boston's reputation to (of all people) tourists. Let alone wearing work clothes! Don't get me started! That bit about Waldo's outfit really showed me how to jump to conclusions in a way that made me feel shame for my ignorance. You know what, though, John? Maybe you should talk to them next time. I'm sure they have some wonderful tips on surviving joblessness, which, if the press has any sorts of standards whatsoever, is a condition that should generally afflict "journalists" who publish smear articles about the homeless.
Jacqueline Risden August 24, 2011 at 08:38 PM
It would seem that most of these posters aren't getting the point. Crime is rampant. We all have to be diligent. Not all of us are social worker wannabees. If it's the right of someone to sit in Copley and drink alcohol and sell drugs then it is most certainly someone else's right to sit on a bench and enjoy the sunshine without having to witness this. Yes, police need to be called. Homelessness isn't a crime but drug dealing and drinking in public are. Having been threatened with assault by a homeless man in my neighborhood because I sat on "his" park bench (he said he didn't care if he hit me since he would only get 90 days), I think I have a right to speak to this. Oh, and Anna, eating sandwiches isn't a crime, snorting crack is, hopefully you work at Pine Street Inn and are doing all you can to help the cause!
Jan Paulsen August 24, 2011 at 11:19 PM
Drug dealing and "open container" laws about alcohol are what it is about. I would not want to be sitting in the park with children or grandchildren and have them witness the language, the dealing, the "waiting for Waldo, he's late" (probably a dealer). I have been approached in Copley Square harassed for money, had expletives thrown at me and also threats. A friend of mine who is in a wheelchair but has some limited ability to stand and walk was approached recently and asked for five dollars. He said he did not have it and the person, who was going to get rough with him, stated, "Well, let's see about that." Actually this person ended up on the ground, because my friend decked him. Maybe he will think twice before bothering another person, especially one who looks helpless. The writer is not far off base in this article. I have watched Copley Square get worse over the past five years, and I have had moments of severe stress even inside the library. Those of you who scoff at this writer ought to go down to Copley and hang out for a couple of days. And by the way, you can keep your snide comments about "privileged" people to yourselves. There are many of us who live in town who are anything but well off or "privileged'. That is stereotypical thinking on your part!
Victoria August 24, 2011 at 11:32 PM
Actually, I have worked and "hung out" in Copley for years, at all hours of the day and night. I have never feared for my safety and I'm a 5'2" girl who weighs 100 pounds. If you are worried about children in the vicinity, you don't have to be within hearing or seeing distance of these people who are "probably" dealers; it is easy to avoid them. The point of most of these comments is that the tone of the article is very judgmental, with underlying condescension (i.e. "although I don't see any receipts floating around," REALLY?!). And the author is the one trying to point out that there are "shady" people in a "prestigious" neighborhood, which obviously comes off as snobby.
Jon Wang August 25, 2011 at 12:26 AM
I have no doubt that this article doesn't seek to "change the world." Additionally I'm not claiming that drug dealing and drinking alcohol in the commons is something that should be ignored. The author whether he main or may not realize it uses a tone that is very judgmental with statements such as, "When I saw him earlier before he took off, he was wearing a green jersey with writing on it. It kind of looked like a shirt you’d wear if you worked for a landscaping company." What is that even suppose to mean? Then right after that statement in brackets he states that the very next week he see's Waldo again in work clothes. Does this mean that people who work blue collar jobs shouldn't be seen in Boston Common? A part of me feels offended at the article because it seems to dictate who should or shouldn't be able to stay in Boston Common. Last I checked Boston Common was still a public garden. Perhaps it is wrong to villianize the author, however there is nothing that suggests he is a compassionate person in his article as it reeks of bourgeois attitude. May I suggest that he changes the tone and attitude of his article the next time he address the city of Boston. Finally I too am an avid volunteer in the city of Boston having devoted 7 years of my life to the community of Dorchester.
Brian August 25, 2011 at 01:02 AM
Right, if I see people dealing/doing drugs out my window, I'm going to call the cops. Why? Because I don't want that crap in my neighborhood. It's okay that they were snorting crack out in the open, because they "weren't harming anyone"? Because it's a public place? Are you implying that we should allow illegal drug use in our communities?
Jan Paulsen August 25, 2011 at 01:26 AM
One more thing: Copley Square is NOT Boston Common. As for being judgmental, yes I am - with drug dealing on my street, in my neighborhood, in my parks, wherever it may occur. Like wise with the open container law violations. I think the writer was simply describing the people, as he would have IF the police had shown up. Isn't anyone concerned that the police ignored the call? They tell us to "drop a dime" (only now it's much more) and then they ignore us. What is that about? We who live in town know the difference between the Common and Copley Square.
Jan Paulsen August 25, 2011 at 01:27 AM
Right on! People certainly have the right to be in public places, but they do not have the right to indulge in illegal activities while there.
Jon Wang August 25, 2011 at 01:39 AM
My mistake as the photos attached to this article clearly show the Commons. Nevertheless Copley Sq. is still a public area. Additionally I'm quite sure the Commons and Copley Sq. are both part of the Back Bay neighborhood in Boston both areas are within 10 min walking distance. I agree that it is alarming that the police do not show up when called about law violations. There are definitely more than one ways to address a person. I feel like the way the author address the those people that clearly need help with terrible attitute/tone. Also I do not condone the use of illegal drugs in our neighborhoods however this brings up greater social issues best left discussed in a different article. There are many ways to deal with problems such as this in our neighborhood. What I'm saying is writing condescending articles filled with sarcasm and an attitude that clearly shows contempt towards the working class is not the best way to do so as you can all see by my previous comments.
John Keith August 25, 2011 at 02:37 AM
Hi. Interesting comments! The photos are definitely of Copley Square; I didn't take them but you can see clearly the BPL and other buildings. Yesterday, I was in the Starbucks at 755 Boylston Street. A man came in with a friend, cased the joint, then stole a cellphone right off the tabletop of a customer and headed toward the door. I stopped him, got the cellphone back, then called the police. They came, quickly, but not fast enough to apprehend the "alleged" criminals. I had seen the man before, in the area, but not in Copley Square, so I don't know if he was a member of the same group of loiterers. It's irrelevant. He is a criminal and should be arrested and put in prison, as should anyone who uses drugs and drinks alcohol in public.
Jan Paulsen August 25, 2011 at 02:50 AM
All four photos are of Copley square. #1:that is Old South Church on the right, and on the left is the bus stop at St. James St. near Dartmouth St. Dead ahead is the library. #2 Another view of Old South and on the left, the corner of the BPL that is at Dartmouth and Boylston Streets. #3 The beautiful plantings along the Dartmouth Street side (in the spring this is an enormous tulip display). There's the Old South Church again on the left. That's Boylston St. at the top. #4On the right is Trinity Church and the edge of the John Hancock Tower. On the left, the view up Boylston Street toward Clarendon St. Walking time for me from the sitting benches where the homeless congregate on Boston Common to Copley Square is about 20 minutes. I take this walk often, and often with camera. I have been doing this off and on for some forty years or more and I have noticed an increase in rude, crude, and downright illegal situations in BOTH locations, and others as well.
Jon Wang August 25, 2011 at 04:24 AM
I must say this is a much more agreeable post. You manage to make the same points in greater clarity without the disagreeable tone. My mistake on the photos I did get a closer look. I must say though that personally I disagree with putting people who use drugs and drink alcohol in prison. I feel that they belong in rehab whereas in prison they'll only learn to hone their skills so they can better distribute illegal drugs. People who drink in public should be fined not jailed, and if they have a drinking problem they should also go to rehab. Unfortunately most options don't often reach the people who need it most and they're left doing it in our streets. I definitely think though that there is a fine line between someone who steals and someone who has a drug/drinking problem.
John Keith August 25, 2011 at 05:41 AM
Well, it's funny you mention the prison thing. I was trying to fall asleep awhile ago and thinking about the column and I suddenly thought to myself, "Did I really write that I think these people should go to prison??" I don't feel that way, in fact. I'm in agreement with you on rehab. I think a case could be made to differentiate those who flagrantly ignore the laws and those who do not. I never mentioned homelessness in my column and, in fact, I don't believe any of those people I mentioned are homeless. Nor do I think they are a part of any rehab program nor do they want to be. They've yet to reach "rock bottom". My goal wasn't to lay blame but to simply bring to light a problem.
Jon Wang August 25, 2011 at 01:08 PM
Perhaps we've been to quick to overly generalize and assume that these people were homeless. I think the prison thing was brought up along the comments by others. Also you're right that people who flagrantly ignore laws should be dealt with accordingly, however it's unfortunate there's too much problems going on in Boston for police to even have the resources to deal with them. I'm not saying that we should start ticketing ever jaywalker or anyone who litters on the ground but there has to be a line drawn where cops distinguish between people who jaywalk and people who do drugs and drink in public particularly if they're being disruptive to our communities. Another problem I would like to address is the new wave of criminals in Boston; ones that commit white collar crime. I remember there used to be someone walking around Boston approaching people and asking for donations for a non-existent anti-racism foundation. It was mentioned once in the Metro and I feel that it needs to be addressed as well. A couple months ago there was a man who walked around Boston approaching strangers claiming that he was stuck and needed to deposit a check that was given to him by his Boss. He needed the money to catch a train headed back home. He would be polite and courteous and walk you right up to the ATM only for you to find out later that you cashed a fake check and just lost a couple hundred dollars. Boston needs to adapt to his new wave of intelligent crime.
steve andrews October 09, 2011 at 07:10 AM
ok im in copley alot in the good weather 7 out of 10 times your asked for a cigarette money or if you want to get high! its part of city life yes - but do residents and good god tourists have to put up with this shit? as a drug user money of course cash is king but cell phones iphones ipads cameras jewelry anything can feed their habit. and the older ones theyve hit bottom no saving them now. and then there are the men and women whose abode is a doorway. with multiple shopping carts. there is no resolution to this.... the economy is part of it and loss of jobs. pray for them all.
tyrtyrtyg October 10, 2011 at 01:03 AM
Click on our website (= = = = = http://www styleown com = = = = = ) Will bring you different surprise. Dear friends, do you want to have some different things? Whether you want to give your relatives and friends, take a few different exotic gifts? Whether you want to buy some cheap benefits of thing? So please, let us begin now!
fdfgsdfsdg October 11, 2011 at 01:22 AM
Click on our website (= = = = = http://www styleown com = = = = = ) Will bring you different surprise. Dear friends, do you want to have some different things? Whether you want to give your relatives and friends, take a few different exotic gifts? Whether you want to buy some cheap benefits of thing? So please, let us begin now!
Todd Morrison May 03, 2012 at 03:59 PM
I am reading these comments with absolute amazement. Why should we should just surrender the public jewels of Boston -- Copley Sq, BlackstonePark, The Common -- to drug users? Compassion has nothing to do with it. Bad behavior like this drives away families, drives away tourists, and degrades the quality of city life. We do NOT have to "put up with it"


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »