This article is a slightly edited transcript of a presentation and discussion that took place September 28, 2014 at Doyle’s Café in Jamaica Plain. Jim Vrabel and Kathy Griffin provided production assistance.
Gretchen Grozier: My name is Gretchen and I’m from the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. I was doing a tour of Sumner Hill at some point this summer, and a nice gentleman came up to me afterwards and mentioned to me that he had just written a book. It happened to be Jim Vrabel, and he wrote A People’s History of the New Boston. There is a chapter here called, “People Before Highways,” featuring the chronicles of the story of stopping I-95 before it came to Jamaica Plain. He mentioned that he knew several of the people who were involved with that protest, people who either used to live in Jamaica Plain or still live in Jamaica Plain, and he would do a panel discussion. So this is the culmination of that quick discussion in Sumner Hill on Roanoke Street, and we’re very excited to have Jim and the panel here. I’m going to introduce him and let him introduce the panel.
Jim Vrabel: Thank you, Gretchen. I want to thank Gretchen and the Jamaica Plain Historical Society, and Gerry Burke who had to leave early, and who is the resident political historian around here. We need some people involved in history in recent times because it’s so easy to forget how things have changed. The purpose of this book is to remind people that the new Boston is not just built by a few city fathers, all of them white, most of them well off, sitting around a board room table in a bank or city hall making decisions about how the city was going to be reborn in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, etc. The new Boston was built by a lot of people in the neighborhoods – a lot of them women, a lot of them people of color – and they did their building by opposing some of those plans, by improving some other plans, and by coming up with plans of their own.
The book traces the rise of that activism from the opposition to urban renewal, through civil rights and school reform, the campaign for welfare reform, campaigns to improve the lives of public housing residents, tenants, the rise of the CDC movement, thoughts about the opposition to the expansion of Logan Airport, the conflict over busing, and the very successful movement to gain jobs for residents of Boston in the building of the new Boston. And it ends up with talking about the spectacular rise of the Massachusetts Fair Share, the consumer rights organization.
One of the chapters involves the fight against the two highways, and that’s what we’ll be talking about here and zeroing in on here. The background of the highways – I’ll say a little bit about the background and then turn it over to the panelists. The proposal to build a number of these highways in and around Boston began in 1948 when the state came up with a highway plan for the metropolitan Boston area. One of the plans was for the Inner Belt, which was going to be a ten-mile-long, eight-lane, mostly elevated road that was going to loop from Charlestown through Somerville, through Cambridge, through a very little slice of Brookline, into Roxbury and the South End. In 1956, with the passage of the defense highway act, the federal government said that they would fund 90% of the cost of building these interstate highways. That was very important because it gave states what came to be called “ten-cent dollars,” and provided a very big incentive to build highways. That was when the proposal to build the southwest corridor was added. The Southwest corridor was going to be an eight-lane, mostly elevated extension of I-95 from Canton that was going to come through Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and the South End. The two highways, the Inner Belt and the Southwest Corridor, were going to meet in a five-story interchange near where the Islamic Center is in Roxbury now. And it was also going to include a by-pass that would spill 40,000 cars into the South End every day.
When the plans to build the Inner Belt and the Southwest Corridor highway were ready to go, they started having public hearings in 1960. The usual suspects got together to promote the roads: the pro-growth coalition, which included elected officials, business people, construction unions, and the media, which back then meant the city’s newspapers. They were all for it. And I have to read a quote by A.S. Plotkin who was the transportation writer for the Globe back then:
“You can’t build an enormous eight-lane super road without hurting someone. But modern road builders have developed ingenious ways of landscaping for the muffling of sound and the softening of the aesthetic impact otherwise.”
Well, I don’t know how many people believed A.S. Plotkin, but a significant number did not. Those people included the 7,500 families and the hundreds of businesses that would have to be moved out of the way for these highways, and the residents of the neighborhoods in the cities and towns that were going to have their communities bisected by the highways. So there began a citizens’ movement against the highways which Alan Lupo, who was a champion of community activists across the city, described the coalition that formed as “either a bizarre collection of unlikely allies engaged in obstruction, or the personification of the great American melting pot idealistically engaged in citizens’ action.”
I prefer both definitions. The hearings on the highways started in 1960. Opposition to the Inner Belt started especially in Cambridge, and prompted a group of planners at MIT and Harvard to form something called the Urban Planning Aid, which gave technical assistance to residents, first in Cambridge and then in the other communities that were involved.
Some of the earliest opposition in Boston came from the institutions in the Fenway, especially the head of the MFA, oddly enough. The Inner Belt was supposed to be built – remember this was an eight-lane elevated highway – was supposed to be built between the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, and then head directly into Roxbury Crossing. The director of the museum said this would reduce Boston to Wichita, to its cultural panache.
So early on in Boston the cultural institutions were against the Inner Belt. Some of the earliest opposition to the Southwest Corridor, I keep saying “Southwest Corridor,” which is a good sign – right? – that I’m saying “corridor” instead of “highway.” The planned Southwest Expressway came from Hyde Park, where the road was going to run through Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain. It prompted citizens both inside and outside of Boston to start to work together to stop the highways. The first organized response was a Beat the Belt rally in October 1966. In the fall of 1967, a few citizens of Jamaica Plain got together to try to figure out what they could do to organize the community to either improve the design of the Southwest Corridor through Jamaica Plain, or stop it. And we are privileged today to have three of those people who led that first meeting: John Bassett, Ron Hafer, and Tom Corrigan.
I’m going to turn it over to John first. But before I do I want to say that two of these three people are responsible for writing the sign on the railroad embankment, “Stop I-95 – People Before Highways.” And I’d like to applaud them. That message lasted for 20 years, until it was no longer necessary. So the plan is to let each talk, to take questions. Some of you who were involved in the highway fight, we’d like to hear from you, and just kind of make sure everybody knows what happened back then and give credit where credit is due.
John Bassett: I’m John Bassett and I’ll try to be brief, as there are a lot of people. I think that the opposition, as Jim said – and by the way, this is a well-written, well-researched, well-organized book. There’s a lot of information in here that I didn’t know. The opposition, as Jim said, predated 1967 when we first met in Jamaica Plain, but I think there were two things that focused on that time. One was the progress of the highway plans, setting aside money for acquisition. The possibility of construction was actually moving forward, as Jim said, with the support of pretty much all the elected officials at all levels. The other was the growth of opposition to the Inner Belt, first in Cambridge, and also the growth of the organization Urban Planning Aid, which provided technical support and showed the residents that other designs were possible. I lived in Cambridge and was involved in a small way. One U.P.A.’s members was Fred Salvucci, a transportation planner, who drew up a plan showing an alternate route for the Inner Belt, and slowly the Cambridge city government came to oppose the Inner Belt, and people in the region began to think that it was possible either to stop the highways or to make the design better.
Jim has anecdotes in his book about some of the alternate design ideas. There was one, I think it was the South End bypass where one of the planners told the neighborhood group (that was asking that the road at least be put underground), something like “drivers have a right to sunlight, too.” That kind of ineptitude contributed to the growing opposition. We started by organizing around the notion of (at least) putting the road underground. The original proposal was that cross streets would go under it, so it would have been about 26 feet high, and it was big – four travel lanes each way, two breakdown lanes each way, so that’s twelve lanes of traffic plus the railroad tracks in the center, almost 200 feet wide. So we called it the Chinese wall. It would have been a huge structure. There was not unanimity in the neighborhood. There were some people who thought we should only ask that it be underground because we couldn’t get more concessions. There were some people who were afraid that if the land was actually cleared and no road was built, there would be other people who might be moving in. There was that. At the same time, what was also happening was that other neighborhoods were organizing and joined us, or were starting at the same time, and [name] is here from the South End. They got very organized very quickly. Roxbury people were organized. And they actually leaped ahead of us in taking a position opposing the road altogether.
I’ll mention two things before I’ll stop and turn it over to Ron. The most important thing is, yes, we were successful in that we stopped the highway. But we didn’t stop the destruction. This corridor was a neighborhood, and the damn city planners at the BRA and elsewhere never understood that a neighborhood is not houses that need paint, that need porches needing repair; it is people. And when they cleared, and they kept on clearing this after they had announced the moratorium – they had the money – they kept on going to Roslindale, and they destroyed, not destroyed, they damaged peoples’ lives. They scattered people. I remember the BRA was supposed to be doing relocation services, and what the BRA did, some kid from the BRA would come and sit down with a family, often elderly people about to lose their house, and they got nothing for their houses. The reimbursement was based on the market value which was zero. They would come and sit down and read the classifieds to the people. The BRA provided no help. Anyway, so yes, we stopped the road, but we lost the neighborhood, and it looks great now. It’s beautiful. But I think of the people who used to live there and I’m sad.
Another thing that needs saying is that yes, there was Urban Planning Aid; yes, there were other neighbors, but there were people in Jamaica Plain who were ready and anxious to act. There were people, young people, particularly the ones that I knew were at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, and there were other things, very important and good things, which happened within the community. Jack Craddock was involved in the Model Cities program, which had some money; it was a federal program, and Paul Parks was the Model Cities administrator downtown. Jack went to all the meetings at Our Lady of Lourdes parish; I don’t know who the priest was at the time, but they had a playground that was all asphalt and rusty jungle gyms. He got the church to agree to donate the playground. He was on a committee that had determined that what Jamaica Plain needed was a neighborhood health center. So he got Lourdes to donate the playground. He got a company to furnish those big trailers for construction sites – they had some extra trailers – he got four of them. He got an electrician friend to donate time. I donated carpentry time. And he went to Paul Parks and said, “OK, I’ve got the land. I’ve got the trailers. I’ve got the trades people. Give me the money.” And that was the start of what’s now Brookside Community Health Center; it became Brookside Park Family Life Center, moved to the old paper box building on Morrison Street and it made a huge difference. Les Cohen, who is also here, was for many years a doctor there and it made a huge difference in the lives of many people in Jamaica Plain. There were other things that happened. There were daycare centers. So the organization that helped to stop the highway here also was involved in other things. People were involved in other things, and there was a lot going on in Jamaica Plain. I’ll stop now and turn it over to Ron Hafer.
Ron Hafer: Beautiful outlines from my two predecessors. Maybe I should get in a few very specific examples. One of them is this. By the time I got involved in this issue I’d just been – quite frankly – I was working at Grove Hall at the Community Center and got a chance to come to Jamaica Plain. This is something he knows a bit more about, I mean John, anyway. For one example, the Corridor, particularly between Forest Hills and Jackson Square, was just being bought up, and there were all these strange fires that were burning houses down. Somehow the people lighting the fires weren’t really getting sought out by the authorities, and they just kept happening. But one example I remember very definitely, there was an elderly couple in a house down about a block from where the Stonybrook Station is now, and the home they lived in for years, kept it fixed up and so on. And they were afraid to leave the property because they figured they would burn it. But then one of them got sick. And then the other one had to go to the hospital to be with her. I forget which one was ill. All I know is the next day, morning, they came back and the house was burned down. I mean this is kind of what was happening. And this is what the state in its benevolent attitude was not trying to stop that hard.
So, but that was happening up and down the corridor. So recently I gave a little speech at UMass in Boston to a class and I told them about this a little bit, and to say that this was an example of what kind of things were happening. So that’s one thing. The other thing to say is that I was very fortunate to get to an organization that Tom Corrigan was very involved in. And I – they needed, for whatever reasons, they needed a director – and that led into that, and I became the director of that, so I talk a lot about what kind of things I did there. I was going to start helping neighborhood organizations, because I did a little of that in Roxbury. But I also wanted to see the larger picture, and somehow it fell upon me to put my full time into organizing the Southwest Corridor Committee in Jamaica Plain. And I was very grateful for the opportunity to do that. There was one other person who had a job that would seem to fit the bill, but quite frankly he was afraid he would get fired if he got it. And then there was the board of directors, where Tom was supportive enough that they let me do it. I’ll sort of stop there for now.
Tom Corrigan: I just got back from a trip to Michigan. Everybody says, “Why would you take a vacation to Michigan?” Actually, it was up to the Great Lakes to the Mackinac Inn; it was very beautiful country. Leaves were beginning to turn and all. On the last day we stopped at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenville Village outside Detroit, in Dearborn, I think. And it was fascinating looking at the history of the industrial revolution in America and people like Ford and Edison, who were inventive people who developed much of the technology that led to the technology of today. And it was a fascinating trip through history.
Now here I am being part of history on a panel that’s a little scary. I think John and Jim and Ron have talked a lot about the things, the way that what we called the Greater Boston Coalition of the Transportation Crisis evolved, began to also include the airport problems in East Boston. But Ron, Chuck Turner in Roxbury was the co-chair of the Greater Boston Committee and the transportation crisis. I’m sorry we didn’t come up with a catchier name. And it was an amazing – especially given what happened a few years later – an amazing diversity-building organization, with people all the way from Milton to Lynn involved, and of course, the core group in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury and the South End.
The thing that impresses me about Jim Vrabel’s book: he interviewed me a couple of times for it; when I sat down to read it and finished it and saw what it ranged from, tremendous range of activities both before and after the transportation issue and here in Jamaica Plain, and it reminded me of something – that I learned something every day, something new about people, about institutions, about communities, about neighborhoods, about myself during this battle. And I went off towards the end of it – I went off to the University of Michigan to get a degree in Social Work, and while I was there Governor Sargent announced the moratorium, and then they announced that they weren’t going to build the highway. I was stuck in Ann Arbor while all this was going on. I missed all the fun, but, it was just an amazing coming together of people around a common issue, and people finding within themselves a power to stand up against governors and commissioners and sometimes city councilors, and sometimes their neighbors, and say, “look, we know that this is a bad thing for our community and let us show you why.” And that involved not just dialogue but also action. It involved painting a sign on the road and rallies at the capitol and at the State House in Boston. We call it the capitol in Connecticut where I live now, but the State House in Boston and elsewhere, bringing the attention of the media to this issue that was far more, far bigger than taking “a few houses” and building something that was going to supposedly be an improvement.
The people who lived in these neighborhoods knew that it wasn’t an improvement and that it was a destructive issue. And that’s what bound them together and helped them to go through endless nights of meetings and planning sessions and so forth. I remember Rev. Don Campbell, the pastor of the Methodist Church in Jamaica Plain on Amory Street, I guess he lives in NH or someplace today, but he was the person who brought me into the fight. I was at St. Mary’s – the angel sat upon the corner of Walnut Street and Columbus Ave., and we formed something called the Ecumenical Social Action Committee. We didn’t know what we were going to do, but we knew that it was important to get folk from both parishes involved in not just worrying what was happening to Egleston Square and the community, but doing something about it. And they identified the issue of abandoned cars. There used to be a dumping spot for abandoned cars I think at the end of School Street. And we organized around that for a couple of years and finally got the city government to develop policies that would not only keep an eye on that street so people weren’t inclined to – by a police presence – inclined to dump their cars there, but also to develop policies that got the cars out of the street very quickly, didn’t leave them just to sit there, to rot and hurt the neighborhood.
And we went on from that with the help of Fred Salvucci and the Urban Planning Aid folk and others, to look at the Southwest Corridor issue. The DPW made the mistake at the time of coming out to a community meeting and telling us this wonderful thing that was going to happen, that they’d been planning since 1948 and was finally coming to fruition, and showing us charts of what it would do to the community. And, speaking with a certain – as Ron and John said – a certain arrogance and a certain sense of fait accompli, all we have to do now is bring in the bulldozers and the house wreckers and develop the corridor and you’ll love it once it gets finished. My guess is that if the highway had gone ahead, they would still be trying to finish it, but that’s another question.
It was fun, too. People enjoyed being together. People enjoyed having a common cause to work on. And they particularly enjoyed the incremental victories that we had as we went along. There are a number of people who aren’t here today: Helena Leary who died just a couple of months ago, who was head of the League of Women Voters in Jamaica Plain, and brought the power and prestige of that organization into our organization, and got a grant from the National League to develop some – forget what it was called – neighborhood association up on Centre Street, that was tackling local problems including the Southwest Corridor. Chuck Turner, of course, who was an amazing spirit within the coalition and who brought his planning skills, importance, his understanding of the importance of community action, the importance of diversity, at a time when there were people who were saying “no, we have to keep ourselves apart…we have people in this community working for these things and this community and we don’t need to come together.” And I think Chuck and others understood that this was only a partial solution, and that you needed to bring people together.
So it was a learning experience. It was a learning experience that demanded a great deal of patience, a great deal of tolerance, and it brought, ultimately brought victory, because people stuck to it and people continued to join it. Guy Rosmarin from Milton, who was a very active environmentalist who saw the destruction it would do to the communities. I once when involved with this wrote to the Polaroid Company and said, “I need to take pictures of the community in Roslindale and Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain that’s being destroyed by this highway. And believe it or not they sent me a camera, and I went around finding my way through these abandoned homes and taking pictures of these, already the people had been bought out, fortunately I think some of them came back after the highway had stopped, but it was tremendously depressing to do that, to realize that people had lived here and families had grown up here and that the government was going to take, had already taken away their livelihood. So again, it was building community, empowering people, and keeping our eyes on the prize, so to speak, that I think brought it ultimately to fruition.
The thing I forgot to say is that another element of this movement was the press, and this young fellow here with the camera is from the Jamaica Plain News, but I remember the Jamaica Plain Citizen was a great help in bringing to a wider group of people news of what was going on. And then over in East Boston we had the East Boston Community News, which was a fantastic paper. It had people like Renée Loth, who ultimately rose to be an editor for the Globe, and is now a freelance writer and writes a column for the Globe, and she is the editor of the Boston Architectural Journal (or something like that). There was also Mike Rezendes, who works for the Globe and does tremendous work as an investigative reporter for them. They all worked with us to bring issues to the public’s attention and to the politicians’ attention – to the extent that one politician who was under fire from people in East Boston and Winthrop and Revere, one afternoon had his henchmen out and they stole all the copies of the current edition that was going to come out, and dumped them into Boston Harbor.
[Audience: hissing sound.]
Jim Vrabel: It’s O.K., Tom. You can name names here.
Tom Corrigan: It was Ed King, the “Bob Moses” of Logan Airport, O.K.
[Audience: hissing sound, then laughter.]
Jim Vrabel: I’d like to hear a little bit from Ann Hershfang because she was involved in all of this, but also since Ann Hershfang deserves credit because she was named to the Massachusetts Port Authority Board and it was her vote that was the decisive vote in the decision by the Massport board to fire Ed King at the Port Authority – and which led to the establishment of a more “people-friendly” administration over there.
[Audience: Cheering and clapping.]
Ann Hershfang: Well, we were the South End. We actually had bought a house at public auction on the front steps without having seen the inside. And inside it had no plumbing, no electricity, no nothing. And I had spent two years, we had spent two years, fixing it up, scraping the walls, scraping the woodwork, it was an incredible amount of money. All of a sudden Urban Planning Aid, which was a savior, I think for us, came to the Harriet Tubman House just to explain, not to organize, just to explain what was going to happen. I had no idea that five houses down the street there was going to be a four-lane highway. No idea. After all this work I thought to myself, “My God, I’m not going to have a four-lane highway down there, and actually with the railroad tracks it was seven lanes, with the Orange Line tracks in addition to that.” “And so four of us got together in the South End and created the Tubman Area Planning Council, which was as catchy as the Greater Boston Committee on the Transportation Crisis. And we slogged on. In the South End, as was true everywhere, the highway was going through the poor neighborhoods. And they tried to take everything they could as soon as they could so they’d have the free right-of-way, the clear right-of-way, so they’d have less opposition. But in the South End it was particularly Black on both sides between the railroad and Columbus Avenue, and the railroad and St. Botolph Street, because it was near the railroad, and they could [afford to] buy there. And they were used to not having any power of any sort. I mean, I remember when we first moved there, the fourth day we were in we didn’t realize we should have had a good lock on the door. And I came home and somebody had broken in and I called up the police and I said, ‘Somebody has broken in and there are four floors upstairs, and I’m afraid that they may still be upstairs,’ and they said, ‘Lady, go out and stand on the street. Why did you move to a neighborhood like this?’
[Audience: Laughter, groaning.]
And that’s the way they treated the neighborhoods. So, the people were powerless, basically, and it was very hard to organize, to get people to sign petitions, to get people to go to meetings. And they had been threatened by Urban Renewal as well. The lot across the street from us had sixteen houses torn down. And so it was just, I mean I could go on and on, and I won’t, but it was so much fun, I mean it was so much work, an incredible amount of work. But working with all these other neighborhoods, and the coming together and the idea that Chuck Turner, this black man, was organizing people from Beverly, Peabody, Milton, South Boston, East Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, and we were together. It was just so amazing and that we won was just unbelievable. It was really unbelievable.
And then designing the Southwest Corridor. It was managed by a wonderful person named Tony Pangaro who is now doing the Filene’s site and did the Millennium sites; Tony did a wonderful job of designing it, deciding it should be covered. I mean, he just made all the right decisions. I went to work later, after MassPort, for Fred Salvucci, and Tony told me, “You know how you get a decision out of Fred? You go to him on Friday and you say, “Fred,” because Fred would never say yes or no. You go to him Friday and you say, “Fred, I want to do this and if you don’t give me a no or an answer I’m going to go do it on Monday.” So on Monday, Tony would do it. And that’s what he did in designing the Southwest Corridor. He just took it in hand. He went to everybody he needed to, and if they didn’t get back to him, he just went ahead. Anyway, I won’t go on; it’s the reason it’s so wonderful and the reason it’s covered.”
Sargent nixed the highway after being the head of the State’s Department of Public Works; it was amazing to me. The second thing that was amazing was that his Secretary, the first Secretary of Transportation in Massachusetts, was Alan Altshuler, who actually kind of liked the idea of the highway. He wasn’t very much against it. But after Sargent made his decision he went out and he got a change in the Interstate Transfer law, because one of the things, one of the problems was if you got money from the highway it inflated every year with inflation. But if you traded it for transit money it would not inflate so you would lose a whole lot of money. And Alan got that changed, so that instead of being a loss, the decision was equal, you know, a gain.
Tom Corrigan: Ann brought tremendous energy and imagination and passion, you can tell from her remarks, to this fight. I’m so glad to see you here today.
Question from Audience: You mentioned the popular opposition as well as the institutional opposition, and now you’ve mentioned some of the changes in the future funding and those implications. But, there seemed to be a change across the country. Some large cities, I know Baltimore did the same sort of thing. I don’t really know the history of it, but it was around the same time. They stopped the road from the inner city. I’m just wondering what was the turning point in the powers that be, what arguments did they respond to, what do you think really kind of turned the tables.
Jim Vrabel: I’ll take a crack at it, and then you all can comment as well. My reading of what turned the tables is that it was a gradual process that started at the grassroots level and worked its way up. The Cambridge City Council was voting against the highway, and the Selectmen in Dedham were voting against the highway, and then a State Rep here and a State Rep there, and it kind of filtered its way up. And I know Frank Sargent always gets a lot of credit, and he deserves a lot of credit for announcing the moratorium, but just before that Mike Dukakis had gotten a group of twenty Democrats to come out for a moratorium. I think that was in September, and Sargent ended up waiting for his committee to come back and make their report in January, and announced the moratorium in February. So it really did filter up. Fred Salvucci has a great line: ‘By the end, fourteen of the fifteen communities that were going to be affected by the Inner Belt were against it, and Dedham was only for it if it went through Milton.’
So, it really did rise up and circle, but again, you were all involved, anybody have any other, any comments?
Tom Corrigan: Well, I think one of the politicians on the lower level, but really significant level, was obviously Mayor White. And I think Mayor White looked around one day and saw his supporters in East Boston and his supporters in Jamaica Plain and his supporters in Roslindale and said, ‘I better go along with it.’ Of course Fred was there pushing him in that direction, too. I don’t want to forget Kevin White.
Jim Vrabel: Well, Ann has a story about Kevin White. Do you want to add that story, Ann?
Ann Hershfang: Well, we were just working and working and working in the South End to get him to come out against it, and we couldn’t get him to. And then my husband organized a new ward committee and it won in Ward 4. And it had three delegates – my husband, Herbert Hershfang, Mel King, and Martin Gopen – to the state convention where Mayor White wanted to be nominated to run for Governor. So, the three of them went to Mayor White and said, ‘You can have our votes if you come out against the bypass, if you build affordable housing,’ and I’ve forgotten what the third one was. Within a week we had a letter coming out against the bypass. And then when Governor Sargent made his announcement it was so satisfying, one of the things he said is, ‘And besides, the traffic won’t have anywhere to go in Boston because the Mayor isn’t going to build the bypass’ [laughs].’
Jim Vrabel: I just want to set the stage a little bit. Frank Sargent was a Republican governor. He was preparing to run for re-election, and Kevin White, who was mayor of Boston, was getting ready to run against him. Both White and Sargent had to play to a larger audience: the business community, construction unions, as well as people who were against the highways, so it was kind of a game of chicken. No one really wanted to come out against the highways first. There’s a relatively infamous letter that illustrates this. Everybody was trying to get Mayor White to write a letter opposing the whole thing, the Inner Belt and the Southwest Expressway. And wouldn’t agree to write one. Sargent announced the highway moratorium in February 1970. White finally released his letter calling for the moratorium in January - but it was dated and he claimed that he wrote it in December.
But that’s how close things were, and the jockeying for position that was taking place at the time. It was all kind of building up to a crescendo.
Tom Corrigan: Can I just throw in something very quickly? Going back to the neighborhood thing. My neighborhood. Not that they weren’t all…. One of the first things I did after I moved to Jamaica Plain was start working on community organizations, small neighborhood associations. There was one that was meeting on Sumner Hill, which I think all of you in Jamaica Plain know where it is, and I was invited, so I went to the meeting, and the other person who had been invited was Jimmy Craven, who was recognized as a local politician who [twisted] everything he did to stay elected, and so on. Now, Jimmy said, ‘Well, it’s gonna happen. It’s a done deal, so just enjoy the positives of it.’ And he also came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’ve been hearing good things from you, about you, so, I’d like to get in touch with you,’ and I said, ‘No thanks,’ and I never did. But basically, Jimmy took two elections but after that he was gone. But, this was one of the key issues, that finally, he did suffer defeat because of it.
Question from Audience: What was your impression of what the City’s response was? I think that’s a great story about White and realizing that White came around late, but only because he saw it as part of his stepping stone to higher office. Was there any leadership from anybody in the City, in terms of – or was the City always – because the same thing is happening now with the Casey Overpass. I mean the Casey, which is already another one of these things where ‘that cake is baked.’ I’ve been involved with some of the organizing around that, but where the City is – there’s no leadership coming from anybody in the City on this issue. It’s all just, ‘No that’s not our problem, that’s a state project.’ Or, in this case was the City just – what was the response? Was there any dialogue with the City, or did the City – were there no doors open?”
Tom Corrigan: Fred Salvucci was always open. He worked from the City. And Barney Frank worked for Mayor White. And Barney was a sympathetic person, so we were fortunate to have people like that, as I said, who could push behind the Mayor’s office door. I remember walking across the Boston Common one day. I was going to try to see Mayor White, even though I didn’t have an appointment. And who comes down the street towards me but Kevin White. And I said, ‘Oh, I wanted to see you.’ I forget what it was, but it was a problem with a specific street in the Corridor. And he said, ‘Well, come over here.’ And we laid out the maps on the hood of somebody’s car, and he seemed pretty interested, and I think that meeting helped. But, it was really people like Fred and John Vitagliano and Barney Frank and Sue Clippinger, and you remember other names, Ann, but they were very progressive in their thinking about urban planning.
Question from Audience: Well, I’m just wondering if John and Ron could recount how you hatched the plan to write the sign on the railroad crossing. How you did it that night. What was the reaction to it? It’s kind of a latter-day Boston Tea Party that you were at.
Ron Hafer: You could say that. I think it took about two days. I think it was your idea, John?
John Bassett: I wish I could say it was my idea; I thought it was your idea.
John Bassett: I had a truck and ladder. It was from work. And Ron and Charlie came over to my house and said, ‘Let’s paint a sign.’ And they had the paint. It turned out it was very pale green paint and we went down there and it was dark. It was late. I don’t know, maybe early in the morning. And it was all – I don’t know – all the land between Columbus Avenue and the embankment was cleared. It was just dirt and rubble. All the buildings were gone. And Ron and Charlie were up on ladders painting the sign, and I was about to go back up, and a cop car drove across the dirt. A couple of cops got out and they walked up. I put my stuff down and went over, and they said, ‘Whose truck is that?’ I said, ‘My truck.’ And they said, ‘Who are those guys?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I never saw them before.’
And they went back and talked among themselves for a couple of seconds. I went over and said, ‘So what are you going to do? Are you going to arrest us? Are you going to shoot us? What are you going to do?’ And they said, ‘Well, no. If we tell you to stop you’ll just wait until we go around the corner and then you’ll finish up, right?’”
So I said, ‘Right,’ and they took off.
I also wanted to say something about what Tom said about the people in City government. I never saw them; I don’t remember seeing Barney Frank or Fred Salvucci or any of them down here. They may have been good guys downtown, but I don’t remember seeing them at meetings here.
Tom Corrigan: Fred was here, I don’t think Barney was. The one thing that happened, was sort of the high point of the action in Jamaica Plain, was the meeting in the Curley School, where we literally packed 700 people or something like that in the school, and at the end of that meeting the City had already been prepared enough that the BRA marched in and said that they were going to have a new study. That was the first step. We had to go through steps. But, that’s the scoop.”
Question from Audience: Could we move a little to the present and the future? Say we were here ten years from now doing a post-mortem on the removal of the overpass. What would we be talking about? “What have we learned?
Ron Hafer: One thing that I think we should have learned is that it’s easier to organize against something. This was a huge thing. It would impact – it did impact – it took lots of people’s homes, and we were able to organize against it and stop it. Another piece of this was that there was supposed to be a better public transportation system. There were supposed to be buses to Dudley. A lot of things didn’t happen and haven’t happened yet. The Orange Line is over there, and it’s good, but a lot of the alternative transportation systems that we demanded – we were talking about that, too. We understood that we should reduce the cars in the city and improve other forms, other modes of transportation, and that hasn’t happened. And it’s very hard to do. The T has a plan, but we’re not making a lot of progress.
Jim Vrabel: Michael Reiskind, could you say something about the Southwest Corridor work afterwards?
Michael Reiskind: Well, I got started in 1977, so the highway had been stopped, and it was mainly the planning of the Corridor. But I was going to ask you some questions about how important Urban Planning Aid and the press such as Alan Lupo were, because I think both of those elements seem to be missing the most at this time. Yeah, I remember Alan Lupo, he was both writing books and I think he was editor of Boston Magazine for a while. So you can imagine if we had an editor such as Alan Lupo at Boston Magazine again, how different the city would be. But there doesn’t seem to be the same press support and the same technical support that we used to have at that time.
The other thing I was going to say, is that the coalition of three neighborhoods, that doesn’t seem to have lasted as much. A lot of the people from the South End and Roxbury are State Reps actually. They’ve all moved up. The State Reps are on the BRA, such as Ted Landsmark. I’ve been working with Ted Landsmark and Chuck Turner and Gloria Fox and Byron Rushing, and they’re all still there, but I don’t see quite the same new blood. But, the importance of the community meetings as run by Tony Pangaro and Ken Kruckmeyer were necessary. They really felt that the meetings were important. They weren’t just holding them because they had to hold meetings. They really listened to people and worked on what the meetings were and never disrespected the idea of a meeting – you know, when a decision was made you changed it afterwards – which I tend to see a lot more now. So that the meetings, there were a lot of meetings, but they were all important and incremental to the design that we have now in the Southwest Corridor, and it’s lasted 26 years, and still feels the same as it was 26 years ago.
We can’t over-emphasize the importance of that to the community. It’s a park above a major transportation system that’s lasted wonderfully. Compare that to the Greenway downtown, where people don’t seem to have an idea of what that’s going to be, and the highway was finished below that. So there are a lot of differences in the two comparisons. So, the importance of community meetings and a community’s control of its own development was essential. And I think that was the major change from the 1960s to the 1970s that made the difference.
Tom Corrigan: In response to both comments, we can’t forget that with Cambridge as part of the coalition, Tip O’Neil was extraordinarily helpful in the federal end in getting us the support we needed from there. In terms of the crossover, I’ve only read a few articles about it. I live in Hartford now. I remember going over it a lot when I lived in Boston. I think the important thing is not to be intimidated by the size of the project, but bear down… there have to be people in your neighborhoods who were soldiers for Mayor Walsh. And you’ve got to get to them and get them talking to him. Get them to find someone in his administration who is interested in this kind of project. Maybe they live in Jamaica Plain or Forest Hills, whatever. There are people around, who – if you can find them, and they’re your neighbors some of them — can start to have influence. And I know it’s a state project, too, mostly a state project. But people who work for the T, people who work for the Governor, whoever that’s going to be. Get to them and explain to them in a face-to-face meeting, either one-on-one or bring a group of neighbors together and ask them to come. That’s the beginning to getting the power that you need to influence the decisions that are coming up.
Ron Hafer: I can follow up on some of the things he said. Since I’m not entirely, as far as finances, entirely retired, but I’m very active still in my immediate neighborhood, which is the Egleston Square section of Jamaica Plain. And I’m amazed at the people who are getting together and trying to change Egleston Square into a [positive], but very different neighborhood from what it is right now. And I couldn’t give any examples of that, but I think it should be said that… Oh, is somebody here from City Life? Oh, okay. You helped us a lot with the last little action we had, trying to fight the idea of landlords coming in and buying property which was put up for private sale, without telling people, and then they’re just throwing out the business and the residential people who live in it. So thank you for that.
Jim Vrabel: Well, I guess the lesson is it just keeps going. I have one comment about what Michael has said about all these great people who started out as community activists and went on to other things, elective office, becoming members of the Port Authority Board, the Board of Education. That’s great. You can’t beat that, but they have to be replaced in the lower ranks. But you have to keep the pressure on them. You have to give them the ‘cover’ so they can go to someone and say, ‘Oh they’re pushing for this, they’re pushing for that.’
This story may be apocryphal, but it is said that after he was elected president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gathered all the people from the different human service and other constituent groups who supported him and said, ‘You heard me promise to do this. You heard me promise to do that. You heard me promise to do this. Now make me do it.’
You need those people at the grassroots level. Their ranks have to be replenished, no matter how good the elected officials are, no matter whether the officials came from the grassroots or not. You always need people back there at the grassroots pushing them. Otherwise, things don’t get done. Otherwise, things kind of lull and slow down.
Question from Audience: I just wanted to make a comment in terms of a recent event in the education realm. There was a plan for the Dearborn School that was originally supposed to just be renovated. Then someone decided it had to be torn down; it was going to become a charter school. The neighborhood did not like that. And there’s been a lot of meeting, a lot of support from various parties, and as people may know that plan was put on hold. The Walsh administration listened. And now they’re trying to figure out, it’s the whole thing like, ‘Oh well, we’ll get reimbursed for all this money if we go ahead with the State plan, and if we don’t we’re going to lose all that money.’ But, I’m pretty hopeful that there’s still some support to listen to grassroots. People know that in education there’s really a lot going on.
Question from Audience: Another issue that’s going on is the issue of what to do with the Melnea Cass Boulevard, which is where the Inner Belt was going to be, and the objection by the abutters to the idea that the City had, which was to put a bus rapid transit down the middle of it for one mile from Albany Street to Ruggles Station, and widen it even more in order to accommodate that. There was a lot of objection, and now the project is gone and now the question is, people are getting together to ask what they want done there, and how they want the residual money to be used to create what should be there. So that’s been quite lively. And the State Reps have been involved in it.
Question from Audience: This simply brings us right back to Doyle’s, because I’ve heard for years an urban myth that Doyle’s was one of the key watering holes for organizers of this project in Jamaica Plain. So, even though we have a small sample size, but if people can, if there are particular places that come to mind as, ‘No, it wasn’t Doyle’s, it was such-and-such a place,’ I’d be curious in hearing that because I really appreciate hearing people describe how important the social element was of the organizing, and, so there had to be bars involved somehow or other. So, after the meetings, people…
John Bassett: We didn’t have money. Nobody had any money. We were all working full-time. A lot of us had little kids. Where we saw each other was at somebody’s house at meetings. We didn’t hang out in restaurants very much.
Tom Corrigan: I would say one thing. There were some weekly poker games at John’s house. And we used to meet – I wound up in East Boston after I came back from Ann Arbor – at the Holy Redeemer Rectory, where I lived. There were – every Tuesday night there was a meeting with Anna DiFronzo and Mary Ellen Welch and Tony Cesari and Fred Salvucci. I used to have to drive Fred home after the meetings because he had come by subway and didn’t like to travel at night, I guess. We had some good talks on the way to Brighton. But those meetings had a real social element to them and helped continue the fight.