Discriminating people moving in

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Discriminating people moving in
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Thursday Jan 6, 2011

Introducing the South End Urban Renewal Plan, Mayor John Collins said, "Once a residential area of great charm, its day of fashion was brief and it has become seriously blighted."

The City Council voted 7 to 2 for the plan in December 1965. William J. Foley, Jr., of South Boston, vice chairman of the Council’s urban renewal committee, was one of the two dissenters. He said, "[BRA Director Edward] Logue interferes in the lives of people and tells them to fix up their homes. He says people shouldn’t be allowed to live in lower-class neighborhoods. He wants to make poor people middle class, just like him.’"

Foley’s views were not appreciated by the powers-that-be, but from my perspective, years later, he was right on target. What happened was predictable-it just took decades to fully unfold.

Royden Richardson, minister of the Tremont Methodist Church, pointed out, in a 1965 Boston magazine article, that "despite the large number of well-informed people here, there is a larger number who have no concept of what is happening and thus have no voice in matters which will affect them deeply." Acknowledging that people "may face wholesale relocation," the reporter wrote, "Since many South End residents are happy to see these low-income people leave, not much has been said on their behalf..."

I was one of those who had "no concept." I was just living my life in a wonderful neighborhood without once thinking of it as "blighted."

In the early 1960s, a flood of newspaper and magazine articles had denigrated the South End, crying out for renewal:

"To many, South End and Skid Row are synonymous."

"Tired, beaten, drunken, dirty men and women slept on the stairs...A swarm of flies buzzed overhead..."

"Tremont Street in the South End is a mulligan stew of fifth, poverty, dead-end futility."

"There must be more broken glass in the South End than any other place else in the world."

Someone even said, "It is almost impossible to live in the South End because of the whiskey which flows through it."

Soon a different sort of story emerged. The annual South End house tour, first held in 1965, had always generated gushing prose, and now the gushing was year-round.

"South End Begins to Stir; Discriminating People Moving In"

"South End Destined for New Splendor ...Walk through the doorway...and you step into a baroque palace of treasures."

"But these home owners won’t be exactly on their own. They’re to have plenty of guidance and practical, down-to-earth dollars-and-cents instruction classes on how decay may be arrested and homes beautified."

"The mahogany front doors are furbished once more with their gleaming silver knobs...a glorious chandelier, a copy of the one in the presidential palace in Madrid."

Boston magazine quoted a new South Ender as saying, "’Moving here is like joining a crusade.’"

There were no house tours at my end of the South End, and that was fine with me. If New South End types were afraid to cross Tremont Street, they weren’t about to cross Washington Street!

No New South Enders toured Folsom’s Market, with its prominently displayed pigs’ parts. They didn’t stand for hours sorting through records at Skippy White’s, admiring Afros, one bigger than the next. They didn’t go into Chicos’ Stationery to read headlines like: "GIRL MATADOR LOSES VIRGINITY . . . to a bull," and they weren’t walking up Rutland Street hoping to catch a glimpse of Mel Lyman, who had declared himself God in the hippie newspaper Avatar.

I never saw white, middle-class women shopping at the Goodwill thrift shop, from which I dressed exclusively and where I also bought interesting items like finger lights at 9¢ apiece and "automatic" spaghetti forks with cranks that turned the tines.

One day, colorful paper dresses and pantsuits went on sale. I threw a party, convincing my old friends Ron and Linda, who were afraid of the South End, to come. There I was waltzing around my high-ceilinged parlor in a paper hostess dress, drink in hand, when flames burst out on the first floor of the house across the street. When the fire trucks came, I traipsed out, drink in hand, Ron and Linda desperately trying to hold me back because of the paper dress. The firemen went in and began tossing charred cloth out on the stoop. The hippies who lived there had let their candles get too close to the curtains, they said. Ron and Linda never came back.

Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about for almost as long.

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