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.