A true artist

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A true artist
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Monday Jun 14, 2010

What greater contrast between Old and New South End can there be than 410 Columbus Avenue when the artist Allan Crite lived there and the Allan Rohan Crite House Condominiums today? Think not just of the building itself but of the changed neighborhood and the changed nature of what we value in people.

A major talent, Allan Rohan Crite was nothing if not prolific, turning out thousands of drawings, paintings and prints, which have been collected by museums around the world. He is one of very few artists or writers who have focused on South End street life. A walking tour guide published in the 1990s stated, "No artist has been more important to the recording of the history of the South End and the history of Black people in Boston than Allan Rohan Crite." Some of Crite’s work is religious - he belonged to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church - and some of it is fanciful. One of my favorites, which is currently on display at the Boston Public Library, is the Madonna of the Subway, which shows the Virgin Mary watching over passengers on the Elevated Orange Line. (Does she also watch over the Silver Line?) He lived virtually his whole life in the South End, first on Dilworth Street, moving to 410 Columbus Avenue in 1971. He died in 2007 at age 97.

Despite his importance, there are people who have never have been able to see past the poor condition of his property and have allowed their outrage to influence their opinion of the man.

"Artists are a different breed with different sensibilities," says his widow, Jackie Cox-Crite. "He was focused on his craft, not driven by money. He wasn’t represented by the big galleries, and he sold most of his works to neighbors and friends. Home improvement was not a priority; his home was a place to work and rest and keep his work."

The house has now been gutted and turned into high-end condos of unmistakably high quality. The old plywood-covered storefront, once Mel King for Mayor and Rainbow Coalition headquarters, is now a proper Victorian bowfront.

I went into the house a couple of times when Crite was of an advanced age but still living there. The place may have been crumbling around him but there he was bent over his work table, concentrating on his art, undistracted by his environment - "a true artist." Although his work still concerned black people and the South End, he was now surrounded by a neighborhood that was no longer black. "It would have been great for a documentary film," says Shelagh Brennan of Cabot & Company, who is in charge of marketing the new condos.

Creative people sometimes amass a huge collection of stuff, and Crite sure did. "He didn’t throw out a thing," says Jackie.

After he died, I and many others helped clean out the house. Everywhere we looked there was more art and tools and presses - Kate Earls, the condo developer and designer, commented, "It was hard to ascertain the condition of the building because of all the artwork on the walls," - even closets full of Crite’s mother’s belongings, including a steamer trunk from a long-ago trip to Europe. A major influence in Crite’s life, she died in 1976.

In years past, the South End had many more such "characters," "original geniuses," packrats, and remarkably creative people who sometimes lived in not-so-well-kept-up houses. While it’s terrible for a building to deteriorate and become dangerous, for the front steps to crumble and the walls to buckle, some of these, often single-family, were house museums of a sort. Move over, Gibson House! But one by one, our favorite eccentrics are dying, going into the Susan Bailis house or to live with relatives far away, and we are the less for it, if only because they were never boring. Sadly, their amazing and idiosyncratic homes get the conventional, antiseptic treatment, becoming "luxury" condos, condos often not as nicely done as Crite’s house. The ultimate luxury, of course, is having space and privacy enough to do the work we want to do and live the life we want to live. Allan Crite was lucky to have had that.

It’s remarkable that Kate and Mike Earls, developers of the property, are intent on keeping Allan Crite’s legacy alive. With Jackie, they have organized a celebration at 410 Columbus Avenue for Sunday, June 20, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., to which all are invited. A plaque will be unveiled, and Crite’s artwork will be exhibited inside, including thirteen color offset prints of South End sites - churches, settlement houses, Plymouth Hospital, and the first Harriet Tubman House at 25 Holyoke Street - that were part of his 1977 "Artist’s Sketchbook of the South End: A Walking Tour About Black People." The Earlses, who were also the developers of 42 Appleton Street’s green building, have deeded to the condo association a pen-and-ink self-portrait for the lobby called "On My Street." It shows Crite sitting on the stoop greeting the neighbors, as he used to do on Sundays. Back in the Old South End.

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