Four decades ago, the Codman Square community was experiencing rapid decline. Hundreds of homes were abandoned. Vacant lots and home fires were common. Conditions in the neighborhood were bad and getting worse. That’s when our founders decided to take matters into their own hands.

Community leaders created WECAN, an initiative to renovate rundown properties and sell them to low- and moderate-income home buyers. This organization merged with the local Community Development Corporation to form a Housing Development Corporation, which eventually became Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation.

We would like to recognize the invaluable contributions of the many dedicated individuals who led the effort in our early days – among them, Arthur Young, Cynthia Younger, Jim Keefe, Ada Focer, Bill Jones, Tim Clegg, and Bob Gittens. Now forty years later, here are some brief reflections from four of these individuals to whom we owe so much.

Note:  The Founders’ stories are their own, and reflect only their views of the events and issues that led to the founding of the organization.  Codman Square NDC appreciates each Founder providing their own perspectives in this regard.

My husband, John Marlier, and I moved to Codman Square in 1977. Why? We had just gotten out of school and had very little money for a down payment and houses were very, very cheap. After we closed on our house, the couple who sold it to us told us that we were nuts to buy it. (It was a serious fixer-upper so in a sense they were right.) I received similar comments from the police at Station 11 when I stopped by to ask about crime in the neighborhood, and from the bank that, newly pressured by the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 to make loans in places like Dorchester, wrote us a mortgage. I was 28; John was 29.

We had always been activists but this was different. Codman Square was our home. A neighbor, Bob Culhane, invited us to attend the Codman Square Civic Association meetings in the basement of the Second Congregational Church. The church’s pastor, Rev. Jensen, may be the great unsung hero of all of the incredible things that happened next. It’s not that he had answers, but that he created a really welcoming, supportive, safe space where people from both sides of Codman Square could get to know each other and begin to problem solve together.

That phrase “both sides of Codman Square,” goes to the heart of the challenge we faced. Codman Square was divided by race and by the nature of the problems they faced. The west side of Washington Street had been part of BBURG, a disastrous HUD program to make low and no down payment mortgages exclusively inside of a redlined area to the Black people who the Great Migration and immigration from the Caribbean islands and Africa had brought to Boston in greater and greater numbers over the prior several decades. This is not the place to tell the BBURG story. Hillel Levine and Larry Harmon ‘s book, The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions does it as well as anyone could. The bottom line is that the program was a major swindle. By 1977, there were 14,500 vacant and abandoned buildings in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan inside that red line. Every night, there were fires. The standard line from the police and fire department officials was that juvenile delinquents were setting them, but clearly that was not the case. Some got boarded up by the city; many stood open, inviting trouble until eventually they were demolished. Vacant lots multiplied by the score. As soon as they were created they filled with junked cars and trash.

Change had not been as visibly cataclysmic on the east, and white, side of Washington Street since it wasn’t inside the BBURG red line, but the school busing decision in 1973 had triggered an enormous amount of chaos and white flight. Formerly close-knit neighborhoods completely broke apart as people left for Quincy or Brockton. Many of those who remained were very, very angry.

The search for common ground was the largest, hardest, and most important task we faced in Codman Square in the late 1970s.

Demand for housing on both sides of Codman Square was very weak and property values had plummeted, so there was that. And people from both sides of the Square were equally concerned about the commercial district. Vacant storefronts were multiplying at a terrifying rate. Robberies of shoppers and storekeepers was common. Two I recall were unbelievably brazen. One store owner had closed up for the night and pulled down and locked the grates before going home, then the robbers backed their truck up to the store and forcibly pulled off the grate before then emptying the store. Despite the gravity of this robbery, no police ever arrived. The second one was equally brazen. Robbers cut a hole in the roof one night and emptied the store that way. Again, no police. After the Blizzard of ’78, National Guard troops were stationed in the Square for days to head off looting. I recently donated slides I took that week to the Dorchester Historical Society.

There were City of Boston Home Improvement programs and programs to re-do storefronts and put in brick sidewalks like they have on Beacon Hill in the neighborhoods. The lameness of those offerings were indicative of the fact that no one—official or unofficial—understood how to stop the bleeding and turn the situation around. However, we were all pretty sure, brick sidewalks and gas lamps were not the solution.

At the time, I was commuting to Harvard Square on the Red Line to work at an urban planning firm. The day came when it seemed stupid to spend 90 minutes every day on the subway to work on urban projects when I could walk up the street and do the same thing. I went into the office of WECAN, a neighborhood association organized by ABCD, Action for Boston Community Development, a Federally-funded, anti-poverty agency, and asked them if I could raise the money for my salary under their auspices. They said, “yes.” The Boston Foundation and the Hyams Foundation stepped up to the plate to help. Anna Faith Jones, former Executive Director of the Boston Foundation and Joan Diver, former Executive Director of Hyams not only funded us but actually came to Codman Square in person when a lot of city employees often wouldn’t. I also got Americorps volunteers and a grant from somewhere—I no longer remember where—for a door-to-door survey to begin to get a handle on what was going on.

WECAN stood for Washington, Evans, Capen, Armandine, and Norfolk Streets—basically the southwest quadrant of Codman Square. The door-to-door survey was limited to that area, but we learned a TON and, even today, I doubt a wider survey would have resulted in a clearer picture. The most important thing we learned was that the chaos in the housing market had been so profound and the turnover of residents so rapid, that no one knew anyone else. The relationships that normally keep neighborhoods glued together had completely broken down everywhere. The Americorps volunteers started organizing block clubs and the results were miraculous! Residents together took charge of their blocks, had parties and meetings, and began to network with each other, and know each other. There were a number of dedicated board members and activists in that part of Codman Square. I particularly remember Lucille and Sephus Osborn and Edna Dyer, next door neighbors on Thetford Avenue, and Lester Scott. We had amazing potluck dinners!

Meantime, I was collaborating with activists in the Fenway and the Jamaica Plain Washington Street corridor neighborhoods. They had also been burning down. We studied the transaction patterns in the Registry of Deeds that preceded a burning then abstracted that data attempting to predict what was going to burn. It was before computers. All our data was on index cards, eventually, I recall, 40,000 of them. But we did it. We came up with a predictive model, took it to Paula Gold, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. She took it to the Attorney General Frank Bellotti who did some high profile prosecutions and also agreed to proactively send letters to the property owners we had identified before their property burned. He told them how concerned he was about the number of fires in the area and how they should rest assured that he would apply all the powers of his office to investigate if their property should burn. Fires decreased dramatically.

Importantly, our research also turned up a reason for the fires that other than arson for profit. Because property values had collapsed so dramatically, some people owed more on their mortgages than they could get for the property if they sold it. The only way they could get out whole was to collect on their insurance if the property burned.

The one that broke my heart but taught me a lot was the Jamaica Plain plumber who owned a 6-family house, I think on Peacevale Avenue. He had attended to it lovingly for years, investing for his retirement. I learned from him that this was common for tradespeople then…..rather than invest in the stock market or mutual funds, they invested sweat equity, using what they knew—their trade—and their connections to other tradespeople to buy and improve and maintain a multi-family building, all the while paying off the mortgage, then living off the rent in retirement. By the time I met with this man, he hadn’t received rent from the building in several years and it had zero value on the open market. For a lot of reasons—his love of the building, his fear of hurting the tenants—he couldn’t bring himself to burn it. When I met with him, he offered to give WECAN his building for nothing. This was his retirement nest egg. He was not a young man.

I no longer recall that man’s name, but I credit him with the realization that nothing in Codman Square was going to turn around until we began to end the free-fall, stabilize things, and begin to build value. Liabilities had to be turned back into assets. It had to become safe to invest money and time in properties and businesses there. We had to do what we could to introduce some order into this chaos!

On Wall Street, there is a function called a “market maker.” It means buying when others are selling and selling when others are buying. I started to think about what a “market maker” would look like in Codman Square. What would it mean to intervene in the market and act against its collapse? WECAN couldn’t do that, but who could? Maybe a different kind of nonprofit like a community development corporation.

I don’t recall where I met Jorge Hernandez. He was the Executive Director of IBA – Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) – in the South End. It was one of the three Federally-funded CDCs in Boston—the two others were in East Boston and Roxbury. IBA had recently built Villa Victoria, a community of almost 500 affordable units in the South End. I consulted him about our situation in Codman Square. Could we become a Federally-funded CDC like IBA? This was probably 1979. His answer was “no,” that the War on Poverty was over and all the associated funding was about to vanish. He suggested I take a class at Harvard School of Design with Jim Stockard on new trends in the development of subsidized housing. I did, and from it I caught a glimpse of an emerging affordable housing model that might be the underpinnings of a non-Federally-funded community development corporation. Jorge died in 1986, but he offered valuable advice throughout the founding phase.

Jim Keefe, now a principal with Trinity Financial, Inc., a New England real estate development company, was not long out of college (nor were most of us, truth be told) and my tenant then. He and other activists had come to the idea of a non-federally funded CDC in their own way. Let me set the scene. I then owned an enormous ancient, rather beat-up mahogany dining room table that opened to seat 14. It came out of a mansion that was about to be torn down. I put all the leaves in the table and invited people over to brainstorm what a non-Federally funded CDC might look like. I don’t recall exactly who was there that night, but no one was an expert. We were all making it up as we went along. The thing that is important to realize is that the non-profit community development “industry,” as we now know it, didn’t exist. We were inventing it…..connecting dots of what we thought “should” work.

WECAN couldn’t become that CDC because its own corporate structure wouldn’t allow it and its borders were not large enough, but some of the WECAN board members like Sephus Osborn were wiling to also serve on the board of a new organization that included ALL of Codman Square. New people were interested in coming on board. And the new CDC needed more and different powers.

At that moment, my college roommate told me that a law school classmate of hers, Kathy Bachman, had just taken a job at Hale & Dorr, a downtown law firm. When Kathy arrived in Boston after graduation, I was on her doorstep at 60 State Street. She agreed to take us on as a pro bono client. Kathy is a real estate attorney, but as a member of a large firm with lots of departments, she was able to access the talent we needed to shape the new community development corporation’s articles of in a way that allowed us to function as a “market maker.”

I was hired to be the first Executive Director not long before my first child was born. Our “office” was in the old Codman Square Library, now called the Great Hall, which was vacant except for the new Codman Square Health Center which then was just a couple of people. I think we had permission to be there but I’m pretty sure we weren’t paying the City any rent.

Our first project was one I brought with me from WECAN—the Great House Sale. Although I’m foggy on the precise timeline, I recall being at WECAN when we thought it up, and meeting with the architect, Jack French, in the Old Library a week or so after my son was born in January 1980 and having him with me while we went over plans. In any case, there were some vacant homes in the WECAN territory that we got clear title to and provided architectural plans for and marketed together as an “event.” Peter Hotton at the Boston Globe wrote a story about it that helped stimulate interest, all the houses sold, and it was a huge success. In fairly short order, a dozen or so vacant houses were rehabbed and reoccupied.

The Great House Sale, though, revealed a huge political problem. All of the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood had a huge amount of back taxes, much more than the buildings were worth. In order to get these buildings into the hands of new owner-occupants, the tax liabilities needed to be forgiven. In the process of going through this process for the Great House Sale houses, we discovered that it was necessary to get approvals from thirteen different agencies at the city and state levels to accomplish this for every house! Doing this for a dozen houses was hard enough. Doing it for hundreds of them was going to be impossible. They were all going to fall down or burn down first. To get this cumbersome process changed and streamlined, we reached out to John Bok, a lawyer and grandfather of current Boston city councilor Kenzie Bok, and CHAPA, the Citizen Housing and Planning Association, and activists in other neighborhoods that were full of abandoned buildings. In the first few months after the CDC was founded, I recall spending an enormous amount of time on the phone mobilizing support for a back tax abatement reform proposal. The resistance was enormous since none of the thirteen agencies wanted to give up their little bit of power. We prevailed because we were able to generate enough support, and the political cost of NOT making the change became too high. This was a huge victory. It made the rehabilitation and resale of the abandoned building inventory possible.

Another project that spanned the two organizations—WECAN and Codman Square CDC (later the name was changed to NDC)—was a collaboration with the Boston Natural Areas Fund (now part of Trustees of Reservations) to acquire vacant lots and turn them into community gardens, tot lots, or other community uses. These projects were enormously popular with community residents who turned out in droves to work on them. When finished, they replaced trash-filled lots that detracted from the neighborhood with uses that attracted people to them. Boston Urban Gardeners (BUG) provided technical support for these projects. These partners also helped us politically by leveraging their influence to get the City to fence vacant lots we could not acquire. The result was that it was no longer possible to back trucks into them to dump trash.

I will leave to others the sad saga of “Our Market,” the failed supermarket we launched to replace the First National supermarket that left Codman Square. I no longer recall how many months it lasted. It seemed so obvious to us that, of course, it would succeed—there were no other supermarkets in Codman Square—and it was a community supermarket that was going to be employee owned! It turned out not to be that simple.

The failure of Our Market made me think much more deeply about the commercial district. I’d developed relationships with store owners, many of whom were old. They used to get together at the Shoe Repair shop and play poker! Many were Jewish, some Italian. They’d been around forever and loved to talk! Without entirely realizing it, they drew a picture of neighborhood change quite different than the racial change narrative people told about Codman Square. It was a story that needed to be investigated. I got a small grant from the Boston Redevelopment Authority to research neighborhood change in the Codman Square commercial district.

Before this research was done, when I asked any resident of the Square what had happened to the commercial district, almost everyone, Black or white, would say some version of the story that Black people moved in and white merchants shut their stores and moved out and that racism was the reason for the district’s decline. It turned out, however, after in-depth research, that almost 1/3 of the stores in Codman Square had closed before the very first Black family moved into the neighborhood. Why? Because of the post-war economic boom. After World War II, more and more families in Codman Square were able to buy refrigerators, washers and dryers, cars, and televisions. Before the war, large number of the stores in Codman Square had been dependent on daily food shoppers—people with no refrigerators or tiny ones–and people who needed laundromats and dry cleaners to clean their clothes. People coming in and out of the Square to catch the trolley to work also generated a heavy volume of foot traffic. Before television, people came to the Square for entertainment, like activities at the churches, the library, and fraternal organizations but also the movie theater. The First National supermarket that closed in Codman Square in 1979 was the last of what had been three supermarkets before the war when residents were still largely reliant on walking and public transportation. These lifestyle and shopping pattern changes after the war turned out to be applicable to the Black people moving into the Square, too. I found all the data that made it possible to figure this out in the archives in the basement of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with the help of a terrific librarian!

The night I presented the results of this research at a meeting in the basement of the Second Church, I was nervous that I would get a lot of pushback. My results were so different than the racial explanation for what was happening to the commercial district that “everyone knew.”  But when I presented the results, I could see that people in the audience were looking back and forth at each other and nodding that, “yes,” shopping patterns had changed after the war and, of course, that affected the businesses and made it impossible for some to survive. In the Q&A afterwards, a lot of people supported my conclusions with their own personal experiences and observations. It helped enormously that residents realized that the decline of the commercial district was not anyone’s fault. What we needed to do was adapt to these new trends.

The political climate changed pretty quickly from resistance to CDCs—the Kevin White political machine tried to pack the first Board–to support for them. A lot of credit for this goes to Mel King, then a State Representative and also a MIT Department of Urban Studies adjunct professor, founder and Director of the Community Fellows Program. He hosted a weekly breakfast meeting open to anyone interested in community development. Those meetings spawned legislation creating the Community Development Finance Corporation (CDFC) and the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC) providing crucial tools to support non-profit development. The idea of using tax credit programs to spur affordable housing investment had emerged. Graduate students at both M.I.T. and Harvard came to Codman Square seeking thesis projects. The pieces were coming together to actually make development possible.

I’m proud of the role Codman Square CDC played in convening the meeting of activists involved with the forming of CDCs elsewhere in the state that resulted in the creation of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. We just decided, almost at the spur of the moment, that something like this was necessary and sent out invitations for a meeting that was held in the Old Library office one Saturday morning. Many people involved with other CDC organizing efforts came and signed on. It was the right thing at the right time and grew quickly from there. A few years ago an archivist at Northeastern contacted me about this meeting because the letter I sent to Jorge Hernandez about it was included in his papers. She was trying to put it in context. I honestly had forgotten about it, it was all so easy compared with most everything else we were doing!

The founding phase of the Codman Square NDC was really one of halting the free fall, stabilizing things, and creating some confidence that things were going to get better. Ending the fires, organizing neighbors for block clubs and vacant lot reuse, reselling vacant houses to new owners, giving people a new way of understanding the chaos around them and a plan to move forward they could believe in all helped that effort. However, the years 1980 and 1981 and even 1982 still felt to me, though, like one crisis after another.

One night, the vacant Lithgow Building burned again. First thing the next morning, the City condemned it and scheduled it for immediate demolition. I was in a panic! We couldn’t lose the Lithgow! It was a crucial anchor of the Square! I called the Mayor’s office and was told he was in an all-day meeting at the Parkman House and couldn’t be reached, so I went to the Parkman House, in person, and refused to leave until I had two minutes with him, in person. In that two minutes, I convinced him to call the Building Commissioner and reverse the demolition order. He asked an aide for a phone, she brought it (a landline!), and the call was made. It was an act of pure faith on his part and mine, but as it turned out, our faith soon paid off. A couple years later, Bob Mahoney, a senior VP at the Bank of Boston, decided not only to keep a branch in Codman Square (we had managed to stop an announced closing in 1979), but to move it to the Lithgow Building, perhaps the prime commercial location in the entire Square, and then to finance the NDC’s redevelopment of the entire block.

Perhaps the worst crisis, though, was the simultaneous passing of Massachusetts Proposition 2-1/2, limiting property taxes to 2-1/2% of a property’s value and the so-called “crack epidemic.” Mayor Kevin White was so furious at the voters for passing the tax limit, that he dramatically reduced the number of police on any one shift to punish them. It was a childish tantrum, but the price for us was enormous. Crime in Codman Square soared. There was a huge active drug supermarket on the front steps of the Old Library. Dealers came from out-of-state (or so they told me) because it was open season for them. I was mugged at 8:30 one morning in the middle of the Square with dozens of people looking on, afraid to help with so many armed dealers looking on. Where were the guns coming from? Gun runners were bringing them up from Georgia (or so they told me) and selling them out of the back of a van parked at the curb. And all this was happening at the same time crack was ripping through Codman Square like a California wildfire destroying everything in its path. No one was unaffected. It all happened incredibly fast.

But this crisis led to a situation of great hope. A Black guy had killed a white guy in a drug deal gone bad behind the YMCA. Of course, the Boston Globe article about this used a photograph of the dead guy in his military uniform looking like an American hero. Racial tensions were high and dozens of television trucks showed up to be on the scene when the race riot broke out. Quite honestly, a spark could easily have ignited that riot. It hadn’t been that long since the last one.

My husband, a communications professor at Northeastern, instructed everyone to respond “we don’t do that here” if someone stuck a microphone and/or camera in their face NO MATTER WHAT THE REPORTER’S QUESTION WAS! He made us understand that if they didn’t have film footage they could weave into a “riot” story, that they couldn’t air one. We were helped in this effort by Jorge Quiroga from Channel 5 who aired a positive story about what was being done to prevent a riot, and there was plenty. Neighborhood activists fanned out across the neighborhood to places where people could be expected to congregate, like Wainwright Park and Roberts Playground, to deliver the same message and enlist people in the effort. The week or so after the murder was very tense and very scary, but day after day, the neighborhood seemed to draw strength from what they were accomplishing. It was a “Yes we can” moment and a turning point.

This “no riot” story was so unusual that it caught the attention of the writer Anthony Lukas who was then just finishing up the years of reporting for what would become his 1985 masterpiece, Common Ground. He was familiar with Codman Square and its racial divide because he had spent months reporting on an explosive racial conflict on Centre street that had taken place not long before, in 1976 and 1977. When he first called he was very skeptical. Then, he actually came to Codman Square to talk to me to find out what had changed that had made it possible for everyone to work together to prevent a riot on this occasion. My answer, of course, was the activists working with the Codman Square CDC and their friends and neighbors. When he showed up that day, he was clearly carrying the pain of Boston’s racial conflict in his heart. I like to think what we accomplished in Codman Square gave him some hope for our future that actually helped him write the book. The Centre Street conflict is Chapter 25.

My daughter was born in 1981 sixteen months after my son. I didn’t take time off after either birth. It had been a nerve-wracking bunch of years where I was working 24/7. I was proud of what we had accomplished but exhausted to my bones. Dates again are fuzzy, but I think it was in the fall of 1982 that I stepped down so Bill Jones could be hired. He had been a terrific Executive Director at WECAN and clearly had an appetite for the nuts and bolts of the kind of development that the CSNDC was about to undertake. I was grateful to be able to pass the baton to him and the others on the Board and cheer from the sidelines.

My heart, then and now, remains in Codman Square. It is always a joy to drive through, visit sometimes, and thank God for all the devoted people who worked with me and those who followed after me and the other founders and who have, with persistence, rebuilt a healthy community that nourishes the lives of the people who live there now. Blessings on your work.

I remember I ran unopposed for the Board.  There were two Black areas, if you want to call it that.  And there were two of us that ran unopposed. So I was the only one from my area running.

It was about commitment to my community.  I guess I’m a community person. I never really thought about it because I think it’s just what a responsible person who cares about their community does.

There was really nothing at that time. We didn’t have any money. So, we were focused on getting some money – who had grants, going to the city, building partnerships. I was on the Board for about five years. I was the Treasurer one time because I was working as a bookkeeper, doing taxes and accounting. It was a good role for me.

Housing disparity and white flight were big problems for us. There were so many houses boarded up in the community because people were walking away and abandoning them. A lot the properties we got were city owned.  That’s how we formed a partnership with the community with keeping affordable housing in the community.

Things sort of came full circle for me because I was fortunate enough to win one of the homes that CSNDC rehabbed.  I had been off the Board for years. I had gone back to school, so I wasn’t involved any more.  But they were redeveloping abandoned homes in the neighborhood. And the director of the program at that time, my mother was babysitting her child, and she was telling my mother about what was going on with the housing and that they were taking applications. My mother called me up and said, why don’t you go look into it. So, I went and filled out the application. It was a raffle and I won it!  It’s a two-family house that CSNDC rehabbed.  I’ve been here now 22 years. So, I guess I got back some of the fruits of my labor.

I think it’s better now to a certain degree. The work we did helped to stabilize the community by providing people homes. I can see the transition in the community again with people walking down the street with their dogs in the neighborhood. And the properties are being maintained in the neighborhood. All of us on our street have been here 20-25 years.

I’m proud of what we accomplished. I gave a little bit of my sweat and CSNDC has done a lot of good things for the Codman Square area. But there’s still plenty of work to be done. The services the community needs for our youth and the ridiculous prices of homes and rentals. How do you stabilize that? How do you get young people into trade jobs and colleges and schools and come out with the education they need? Those are the same issues we’ve had in this community in my lifespan.

For me personally, it all began with the Blizzard of ’78. It resulted in the looting of many of the stores in Codman Square – because the streets were impassible. Shortly thereafter, the First National store announced it was closing. And then we learned that the First National Bank was planning to move out, too. These and other similar closings really forced people who were living in the surrounding neighborhoods to organize.

If there had been a long glidepath of decay over the previous 20 years, it suddenly took a much steeper turn. We had to do something. Ad hoc meetings began popping up around the neighborhood, and as more people got involved, larger and more formal meetings were held in the basement of the Second Parish Church. These were attended by people from both sides of Washington, black and white, long-term residents and newcomers like us. To this day, I believe that never in the City’s history had there been such a diverse group of people coming together. The trust and friendships that grew out of these meetings would prove to be critical in keeping the peace after an ugly, racially tinged killing occurred in the neighborhood a year later.

With the Finast Supermarket closing, we decided we needed to replace it and when we couldn’t get another supermarket chain to come to the square, we formed the Codman Square CDC and opened our own store. The enthusiasm, idealism and the naivety of this notion almost brings a tear to my eye. I think I was the “Vice President,” which when you realize I knew nothing about supermarkets, it’s kind of laughable. I remember us thinking: “how hard can it be to take over a First National store?” We had a lot of people cheering for us – the city, several state agencies, a number of banks, and especially the press. The lead editorial in the Boston Sunday Globe on Easter Sunday morning in 1980 was entitled: “Our Market.” Two years later, essentially because we had no idea what we were doing, it had to close. This was a huge disappointment, because it began with so much hope. However, something very valuable had come out of its demise. It taught us the limitations of our idealism and got us to focus on things we might be able to accomplish.

This led us away from commercial development to housing development. For several years, the WECAN Neighborhood Association, led by Bill Jones, had been doing great work helping homeowners get money to fix up their homes. As you can imagine, with all of our problems, private banks were throwing money around the neighborhood like it was “man hole covers.” However, WECAN’s jurisdiction was confined to a certain limited area in the community and it made sense to broaden its focus and embrace all of the neighborhoods around the square. So the CDC and WECAN merged together, resulting in the formation of the Codman Square Housing Development Corporation (HDC), with Bill Jones as the Executive Director. It was focused exclusively on housing development. Again, the HDC was born out of enthusiasm and idealism, but these instincts were tempered by the Our Market experience. For example, when we set up the by-laws, we did something unique and perhaps controversial at the time. The by-laws called for 15 board members, three representing each of the four quadrants in the square, and three from outside the community. The three outsiders had to have expertise in real estate development or management. We were hoping we could recruit people who could teach us and guide so that we could successfully take on the challenges that lay ahead.

One of the people we were incredibly fortunate to recruit was Alan Green. He was a preeminent real estate developer in the Boston area. His company, the Green Company, had won numerous awards for its innovations in design and for introducing new housing types. I had met Alan while playing a pick-up touch football game, and after few post game beers, I asked him if he would consider joining our fledgling board. I didn’t have to ask him twice. Alan, brought a high level of knowledge and professionalism to our deliberations, and he was always a calming presence.

Another outsider we were incredibly fortunate to recruit was Alexa Dailey, who was a principal at Independent Managers, a small woman owned housing management company. She had years of experience in the management of multi-family housing, especially affordable housing, in neighborhoods like Codman Square. Bill Jones and I took her out to a nice lunch one day and, maybe after a few glasses of wine, convinced her that “it would be fun.” We didn’t have to ask her twice, either. Alexa brought critical insight into the challenges of owning and managing projects once they were completed, and helped to establish us as credible developers.

The funny thing about those early meetings is that we used to meet at the daycare center at the Y where we sat in the toddler chairs. It was a ridiculous scene, all of us sitting around on these little chairs, but we had no office at the time, and some of these meetings were long. The meetings were held on Saturday mornings, so the people we brought in, like Alan and Alexa, were giving up their Saturday mornings to try to help us put this thing together. They, along with community board members Bob Gray, Tom McGrath, Dan Buttry, Dave Edwards, Doug Mason and, of course, Cynthia Younger, came together as a pretty formidable group, some of whom remain friends to this day. Every board member of the HDC/CSNDC that has succeeded them can proudly stand on their shoulders.

Thinking about the 40th anniversary theme of “recovery, hope and inspiration,” the recovery part for me as I mentioned began with the blizzard of ’78. Many long-term businesses and residents were leaving. Post busing racial tensions were simmering. Those that decided to stay had circled the wagons. That was kind of rock bottom – because very often we were clueless. We had lots of enthusiasm, went to countless meetings, but we had no idea of the path ahead.

All of this was driven by hope, a hope that we could take some of these distraught buildings and empty lots and do something with them that was both beautiful and very much needed in the community. Only hope could give us the courage to try to turn around 20 years of decline.  When we built the 21 units at Champlain Circle, this neighborhood hadn’t seen that kind of investment in new construction in years, an investment that truly benefited them and their neighbors. For them, there had been so many years of indifference and broken promises that people had become discouraged and cynical. Yet, this early HDC project showed that people were really committed and could actually get something done. I want to underscore how important that was.  In the early meetings, people were scratching their heads and feeling like this was just all talk, no action.  But then we had a groundbreaking and 100 neighbors showed up, and TV cameras and Mayor Flynn were there. And people said: “The TV cameras are finally coming to Codman Square for something good.” Getting that kind of favorable attention for the neighborhood is what giving hope is all about and slowly, but surely, it began to spread.

The inspiration for me is just seeing CSNDC projects come up all around the neighborhood. It’s doing a lot of great projects, beautifully designed, in some of the toughest, hard to develop locations. It’s so exciting to see the manifestation of the work we started 40 years ago. That to me is extremely gratifying.

Yet, for me, the inspiration part is that the mission is not over, the journey continues. Today, this neighborhood like many other neighborhoods in the city is becoming the victim of its own success. Investment is flowing back into the neighborhood and according to the latest census, Dorchester is one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in the city. This would have been unimaginable back in the early 80’s. However, this “success” has caused a significant increase in housing costs and long-term residents and their children can no longer afford to live here. Back then we had serious problems and there were times that looked pretty bleak. Yet today’s problems are equally challenging. We are blessed as a neighborhood to have the Codman Square NDC continuing to play such an important role in the community. Thankfully, it’s still going strong after 40 years, shaping and managing this success so that it benefits all of those who have proudly called Codman Square their home, through the good times and bad.

The genesis of all of this is that there was a Codman Square CDC. Ada Focer was the director. And then there was the WECAN neighborhood association which focused on the quadrant that the old library sits on.  I was the director of WECAN.  It was a housing organization.  The CDC was a commercial development organization.  For a variety of reasons, we decided that it made sense to bring these disparate organizations together into one entity, which became the HDC.  And I became of the founding director of the HDC. And I was the director for the first ten years.

I think what we accomplished was that we basically put Codman Square and the NDC on the map. There were a ton of CDCs in Boston at the time.  And they were all competing not only for funds, but for a place on the map, so to speak. The Governor appointed me to a lot of positions in part because of the reputation I had with my colleagues and the community at large in terms of being someone who got things done and is of integrity. That gave us cache. It opened the door that there were people in Codman Square that were both competent and committed to what they were doing, that it wasn’t just pie in the sky.

So when I talk about putting something on the map, what I’m really saying is you create an environment where when somebody says I need somebody to do something, they think primarily of three or four places where it can happen. For example, the Lithgow building was a nine-year project that was done over the objection of some pretty powerful people and we had to do some pretty clever things to get it all the way through.

We were also pragmatists.  For example, there was an organization that was investing capital to keep the grocery store going.  And at some point, the Board said, this is not working and capital isn’t going to make it work.  We need to shut it down. It’s just not going to work. The store is too small, we don’t have a parking lot.  There are all these deficits that we have and we tried to work around them and it doesn’t work.  People aren’t going to shop here.  And they closed the store.

The real estate development work was important, but the most important work we did was to bring people together.

There was a shooting at the YMCA. A young man had been shot.  This was right after busing got started.  The young man was a White kid whose family could not afford to flee when other White families were leaving Codman Square. He was on the WECAN side.  And there was an assumption that a Black kid killed him.  So, they put on the frontpage of the Globe a picture of the victim in his national guard uniform on the front page of the Globe, creating an narrative of a kid returning from the military kid who was shot at the YMCA while working out.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We knew that it was a drug transition gone bad.  The Y had closed and they were using the Y grounds for drug transactions after hours.  It had nothing to do with the Y, nothing to do with exercise, nothing to do with Black-White, quite frankly.  It was just a drug transaction that went bad.  But the other thing that never made the news was that the victim had been convicted of arson.  Arson was a common occurrence in the 1970s.  When White families moved out of the neighborhood and Black families bought their house, before they could move in, arsonists would burn the house down.  Some people didn’t want Black people living in the house that White people had lived in.

I say all of that to say that this brought us together more than anything. We were still WECAN at the time, but we came together and this is what told us we could work as a four quadrant coalition.  We came together to stop the violence – because there was an expectation of violence and there was the potential for real violence.

So, we went to the city somewhere and asked them to put a curfew on.  They denied us a curfew.  Some of us went to the area police station and reported to the district commanders that they had approved a curfew and we were soliciting their help to enforce it.  And they agreed.  People were off the street.  The neighborhood calmed down.  And people chided us and scolded us and all the rest for this, but what we were trying to accomplish was accomplished. We figured if we could keep people off the street for 24 hours, there probably wouldn’t be violence.  And there wasn’t.

But what it more did was it solidified the relationship between the sort of Ashmont Hill portion of Codman Square, which was primarily White, and the other side of Washington Street, which was primarily Black.  You know, it didn’t end.  That wasn’t the end all and be all.  But it certainly created a vehicle, which in part the agency (CSNDC) was.  It created a vehicle where people from every aspect of the neighborhood came together to do something positive for the neighborhood.

So, there was a lot of bricks and mortar, and a lot of those good things happened. I can beguile you with stories of Champlain Circle (a homeownership project still located in the Four Corners neighborhood) all these other wonderful projects that happened. But the reality is: we brought people together around the one thing they didn’t want and that was racial violence in the neighborhood – didn’t want it and made sure it didn’t happen.

All the progress we made around housing development would have never happened if it was in a violent neighborhood, it would have never happened. After that, we were able to go back to what our goal was, which was housing development and recognizing that we needed to create safe places for people to live.

There was also an arson issue in Codman Square.  At one point, we combined with the attorney general’s office to do some things to stop arson. We were responsible, in whole or in part – and I think quite frankly we were the impetus for it, if we weren’t the only ones – for 87 people going to prison for arson.  Some people, including, unfortunately, some public employees, were involved in scams to burn buildings and collect insurance money. Codman Square at the time, I believe had the highest per capita arson in the U.S.!

In those days, if you had a property that was relatively of low value, you could go to the Mass Fair Plan and apply for an insurance policy and they did two things.  They didn’t bother to do an inspection because the policy wasn’t big enough for all that administrative stuff.  And more fundamental is they never asked you to prove you owned the property.  So, people would look at the city’s foreclosure list and then go to the Fair Plan and they would insure a property knowing, as long as they kept it under a certain level that they were just going to claim it as a total loss or write a check. And they would then burn the building down!

Boston was going through a financial crisis and for the first time in the history of the city.  Some believed the arson was an attempt to demonstrate that firefighters and police officers were needed and they couldn’t afford to lay them off.

Overall, I would say what we got accomplished during those years is that we built an infrastructure.  I worked there ten years, and it’s still going 40 years later from its start. That’s a big accomplishment for everybody in the cycle as it goes along!