Slumlords and Hippies - 1968
Slumlords and Hippies - 1968
by Alison Barnet
Thursday Jan 13, 2011
Not all South End tenants were buying dog bones and playing cards with their landladies. Only a couple of blocks away, slumlords owned large numbers of run-down buildings, whole blocks in some cases. Probably the most notorious were the three Mindick brothers, who owned more than forty buildings and managed-or mismanaged-eight hundred mostly black and Puerto Rican tenants. Ted Parrish, a United South End Settlements social worker, started organizing the tenants, and out of this came the South End Tenants Council (SETC), today’s Tenants Development Corporation (TDC).
Also, by the mid-1960s, some 7,000 Puerto Ricans had moved into the South End and were living in rooming houses in the Tremont, Pembroke, and West Newton Street areas. Many were from Puerto Rico, had little formal education and didn’t speak English. Priests at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on Shawmut Ave., noticing how bad their housing conditions were, also began organizing; their efforts led into the Emergency Tenants Council (ETC). The BRA planned to bulldoze "Parcel 19," and ETC’s slogan became, "No nos mudaremos de la Parcela 19!"-"We will not be moved from Parcel 19!" Years later and not without controversy - nothing was without controversy - Villa Victoria was built.
What would tenant organizers have thought if I’d told them my landlady didn’t provide enough heat, and, when I complained, offered to buy me a flannel nightgown?
Before long, grassroots agencies known by their acronyms began to proliferate, many on West Brookline St, between Tremont and Shawmut. The headquarters of SNAP, Action for Boston Community Development’s (ABCD) South End Neighborhood Action Program, ran several programs there. APCROSS (Association to Promote the Constitutional Rights of the Spanish-Speaking), an offshoot of Centro de Accion, was a neighbor. Artist Dana Chandler had a studio on that block; ETC was at the Shawmut Ave. end; and, across from SNAP’s employment office, was Jonathan Kozol’s Store Front Learning Center.
I was not involved with any of this in ’68. Instead, you might find me walking up Rutland St. hoping to catch a glimpse of Mel Lyman. I was not a hippie, but there was a certain allure, especially after Lyman, a member of the Jim Kweskin band and founder of the Lyman Family Commune, declared himself God. Bigger and holier photos of him appeared in each issue of the Avatar, then located in the old schoolhouse at 37 Rutland St. (It later moved to more famous headquarters on Fort Hill.) There were also pages of letters to Mel from gullible, adoring young women. The ads were entertaining too: psychedelic shops, sandal makers, hip spots like the Artichoke (Willard Chandler’s antique shop on Columbus Avenue) and the ATMA Coffeehouse in Castle Square, to say nothing of Lyman’s book, Autobiography of a World Savior ($2.25).
Across the street from the Avatar was Project Place, the haven for runaways. Project Place became involved in a celebrated local civil rights case after the arrest of a young woman who wore an American flag on the seat of her pants.
Life was never boring in 1968, and what was happening in the world - the war in Vietnam, draft protestors storming buildings, student sit-ins - seemed close to home and urgent. You were either a "hawk" or a "dove," and sometimes I worried that my landlady was a hawk. We’d be watching the TV news together, and, very upset, she’d cry out, "Oh, students, students! Why don’t they just study?"
By early April, I was spending a lot of time in Canada pursuing an Indian boyfriend. I’d been there when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, amazed to hear on Canadian TV that police had closed off Mass. Ave. in the South End because of rioting. When I got home, I saw the broken windows, the photos of Dr. King, and the "Soul Brother" signs in South End storefronts - they remained, in some cases, for years.
I was about to take off for Europe to study German. There was no particular reason for it; I was just bored with my job at the MIT library. Not sure I’d ever come back, I gave away a lot of things, pawning my blue plastic typewriter at Uncle Ned’s Money to Loan. Right before I left, I walked around taking photos with a Brownie box camera. I shot Folsom’s Market, the Goodwill Thrift Store, the Chinese laundry, little Greek boys sitting on a stoop, and, in a bleak empty lot off Dartmouth Street, the brick wall on which someone had scrawled "STOP the BRA!" It was only a week later that the Tent City demonstrations occurred on that lot, the most dramatic event of modern South End history. But by then I was far away in a little town in Bavaria.