Boston then: How Little We Knew the “New Boston”

            On the last day of Freshman Orientation Week in September 1966, most of us were gathered in Symphony Hall. There, I was later told, President Asa Knowles welcomed us to Northeastern with a warning: “Look to your left, now look to your right. One of the people sitting next to you will be gone before you graduate.”

            Most of us were from the working class or lower middle class; many the first in our families to go to college, with parents who had worked hard to help us get there. So, the message was clear: “Concentrate on school, or you’ll miss your one chance to move up the ladder of success.”

            This was the second warning from Northeastern we received that week. The first, delivered to us in smaller groups and less informal settings by lower-ranking school officials, was: “Don’t go across the railroad tracks” [into the South End and Lower Roxbury, which were euphemistically described as “rough neighborhoods”].”

            I missed the second warning, because I was ignoring the first. Instead of attending the Symphony Hall event, new friend Steve Slavin and I were playing basketball on a court off Columbus Avenue where we’d heard there was “good run.” Looking back now, though, I can’t help thinking that if we’d heeded those warnings too carefully, we would have missed another important chance — the chance to get to know Boston and all that was going on in the city.

NU freshman at Symphony Hall
A flood of Northeastern freshmen leaves Symphony Hall after receiving greetings from President Asa Knowles. Freshman Orientation Week ended with a speech by the college president that contained a warning.

            Back then, Boston was changing before our eyes. The Old Boston looked and felt like something out of a film noir movie, with its street-corner cafeterias (the Waldorf’s and Hayes-Bickford cafeterias across from one another on Huntington Ave.), its bookie joints (the Swartz Key Shop on Mass. Ave.) and its crime (the first of the “Boston Strangler” murders occurred on Gainsborough Street). The nearby Prudential Center had become the visible symbol of the New Boston. But, though some of us might have gone up to the top of it for the view, what we couldn’t see from the 50th floor Skywalk was that Boston was becoming a “tale of two cities” — one with a shiny new downtown; the other with declining neighborhoods full of residents who were demanding better treatment. To see and understand all that, we’d have to pay more attention to what was going on in the city at the time than I think many of us did.

            I had no idea, for example, that the Carter Playground where I was playing basketball that Friday afternoon had, just a year earlier, been the starting point for the March on Boston led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t know that, at the end of the march, Dr. King had told thousands of people gathered in the rain on Boston Common, “I would be dishonest to say Boston is Birmingham or that Massachusetts is a Mississippi. But it would be irresponsible for me to deny the crippling poverty and the injustices that exist in some sections of this community.”

            I’m sure most of us had no idea that one of those injustices had to do with the welfare system, which back then was run by individual cities and towns. In Boston, benefits were low, red tape was suffocating and recipients were treated shamefully. But since we didn’t know that, we didn’t know what to make of the three-day riot that broke out in Roxbury in June 1967. It resulted from the police response to a sit-in at the Grove Hall Welfare office by a group called Mothers for Adequate Welfare, and it left 14 blocks of burned-out storefronts and buildings along Blue Hill Avenue, a street that was very familiar to Northeastern News advisor Prof. Harvey Vetstein and some others writing in this 50th anniversary issue.

Most of us probably didn’t know what was going on — or not going on — in the Boston public schools at the time. Northeastern was surrounded by those schools —the Perkins and Ira Allen elementary schools on St. Botolph and Parker streets; Boys Trade High School on Parker Street; Girls Trade High School on Hemenway Street. We might have known about conditions in those and other schools if we’d read Jonathan Kozol’s “Death at an Early Age,” which came out in 1967. We would have learned that the Boston schools of that era were lousy; didn’t prepare students for college or a trade; were being shortchanged in minority neighborhoods; and were being segregated. By 1974, when the federal court intervened and ordered changes to improve the schools and busing to desegregate them, we had left Northeastern.  But if we’d been paying attention to the 1967 mayor’s race, we might have gotten a preview of what was to come by watching when Kevin White beat Boston School Committee member Louise Day Hicks for the job.

Hicks-White Mayoral campaign
The 1968 mayoral campaign offered a stark choice between continuing to press on with Kevin White’s conception of the “New Boston” or turning back to the old one and the vision of Louise Day Hicks.

            That happened at the beginning of our sophomore year, when a lot of us had to move off campus because Northeastern didn’t have enough dormitories to house us. We thought nothing of doubling, tripling or even quadrupling up with roommates to rent what were often squalid apartments. We hung up our posters and hooked up our stereos, oblivious to the fact that poor and working-class families and the elderly were being squeezed out of the Boston housing market and that we were one of the big reasons why. I doubt we were aware of the rent strikes, eviction protests and tenant organizing going on around us in the Fenway, Allston-Brighton and other neighborhoods that would lead Boston to adopt rent control in 1969.

Apartments for Rent (and plenty to choose from): Apartments were easy for college students to afford — if you had enough roommates to share the rent.

            Those of us who commuted to Northeastern had a much different experience. If we took the “T,” we had to wait endlessly for the overcrowded and unreliable buses, trains and trolleys.  If we drove, we had to buck rush-hour traffic, then wait in line to get into that giant gravel parking lot on the corner of Columbus Ave. and Forsyth Street. Did any of us wonder why that whole area seemed to be made up of nothing but vacant lots? If we had looked into it, we’d have found it was because the Massachusetts Highway Department had recently demolished more than a thousand homes in the area, displaced the families who lived there and cleared it all to make way for construction of two eight-lane, elevated highways, the Inner Belt and the Southwest Expressway. The plan so outraged people in Boston and surrounding communities that they formed a coalition that demonstrated, lobbied and ultimately convinced Gov. Frank Sargent to abandon the plan in February 1970. The only reminder of the group and its success was its name and slogan painted in 10-foot-high letters on the granite railroad embankment — “PEOPLE BEFORE HIGHWAYS.”

            Some of us who lived in the suburbs had spent our childhoods in Boston. We’d moved when our parents chose to trade living in tenements and three-deckers for modest houses with small backyards. But while we were at Northeastern, thousands of families in Dorchester and Mattapan were being forced to move out of the city by something called the Boston Banks Urban Group program. Launched in the spring of 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, B-BURG was supposed to promote minority homeownership by providing millions of dollars in mortgage loans to Black families — but only if they bought homes in those two neighborhoods. B-BURG set off a wave of blockbusting by unscrupulous realtors, who used scare tactics to get the predominantly Jewish homeowners to sell to them at rock-bottom prices so they could turn around and sell to the new Black homebuyers at dramatically inflated ones. Within five years, some 40,000 residents left Boston. Meanwhile, half the new homeowners — maybe some of them our parents — had lost their homes through foreclosure. The banks didn’t care, because their loans had been federally insured, and City Hall didn’t seem to notice, so it’s not surprising that probably none of us did either.

            Residents of the South End were also being displaced at this time by urban renewal and because of a new phenomenon called “gentrification.” That prompted a demonstration near Copley Square in April 1968 that I don’t think many of us noticed, let alone joined. Hundreds of people, led by community activist Mel King, occupied a parking lot for three days and three nights and turned it into a tent city,” complete with a street fair, face-painting, live music and dancing. The protesters only abandoned the site when the city agreed to stop evictions and build more affordable housing as part of its urban renewal plan. Unfortunately, though, the demonstration did nothing to stop the displacement being caused by gentrification, which continues in that neighborhood today.

            There was one thing that was going on at the time to which we did pay attention to, since it affected us personally, very personally. Free of both parents and in loco parentis and in our own apartments, many of us were engaging in our first “serious” relationships. So, we kept track of what birth control advocate Bill Baird was doing and whenever he was arrested for distributing contraceptive information and devices. Suddenly, issues like Massachusetts laws regulating private behavior, which doctors followed those laws and which ones didn’t and the location and policies of family-planning agencies were on our radar screens.

            While we might not have paid enough attention to what was going on locally, we paid plenty to the larger cultural, social and political issues of the day. This was the “Sixties,” for crying out loud. “The Age of Aquarius,” of “Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll,” of “Peace and Love,” of “Stop the War Now.”

            Rich Tourangeau and I were the editors of the 1971 Cauldron, the Northeastern yearbook. In it, we tried to capture those five tumultuous years through photographs, through a record produced by Bob Matorin and through month-by-month lists of the events that took place while we were in school. There were two month-by-month timelines that appeared in the yearbook — one describing what happened on campus during our five years at Northeastern and one describing what happened in the larger world. But there was supposed to be a third timeline — describing what happened in Boston during that time. Somehow that third timeline was never compiled and included. It’s an omission I’ve always regretted, and, I guess, have tried to make up for ever since — including here.

Jim Vrabel is the author of “A People’s History of the New Boston,” an account of community activism in the city during the ’60s, ’70s and since.