Tent City

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Tent City
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Tuesday Jan 25, 2011

Blockade at Parking Lot, Page One, Boston Globe, April 26, 1968
Protesters, Police Clash - 23 arrested, Page One, Herald Traveler, April 27, 1968

Photos show protesters trying to stop a Volkswagen bus from entering the parking lot at Dartmouth St. and Columbus Ave.; police ripping the shirt off Mel King, arresting him bare-chested; people being shoved into paddy wagons, while others sit peacefully blocking the street.

This large lot, King said later, was "the fact and the symbol of all we had been fighting against for so long." Almost all the houses had been bulldozed, the mostly poor and black people who had lived there relocated, and no new housing built. Instead, there was a parking lot owned by the city’s fire commissioner.

Outside the courthouse after his arrest, King called for an elected urban renewal committee that "will meet people’s needs instead of property needs." The South End, he said, was facing "an emergency situation."

Even as a much younger man, King, 39, who was born in the "New York Streets," torn down in the 1950s, had been the South End’s most articulate spokesperson. He was there for every important event, every issue that needed clarification. "Mel is in tune with the community," said Chris Hayes, a life-long South Ender and president of the South End Federation of Community Organizations (SEFCO). "He knows what is happening, where it is happening and why it is happening." A former youth worker and three-time candidate for Boston School Committee, at the time of the Tent City demonstrations King was executive director of the Urban League.

The day had begun with a group of protesters at the entrance to the Fitzgerald parking lot distributing leaflets and blocking cars from entering. The flyers said:

This paper is an attempt to tell you why this parking lot has been closed by CAUSE. It is simple. People in the South End want to live in decent homes at reasonable prices . . . Housing should be built on this land, so your cars will no longer park here.

CAUSE (Community Assembly for a Unified South End) had mobilized early in opposition to the South End Urban Renewal Plan. It now charged that the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) had "gone along with the profitable Fitz-Inn parking operation on land that should have been converted rapidly to low-income housing, since it is designated for acquisition under the [Urban Renewal] plan." It demanded a moratorium on demolition, land acquisition, and relocation of families.

The BRA contended that CAUSE represented only a minority of South Enders. One of those arrested, took on this charge in a letter to the Globe. "There is, in fact, no question about it," John Marshall wrote. "CAUSE certainly does not represent all of the people in the South End.

"It doesn’t represent the white middle class urbanites who have moved into the South End by the hundreds to displace low-income renters and convert buildings to luxurious single-family houses . . ."

That night, protestors camped out on the site, pitching tents and giving Tent City a name that stuck.

The day before the demonstration at the parking lot, forty-three members of CAUSE had taken over the BRA’s South End site office for ten hours. When Mayor Kevin White, "visibly shaken and angry," appeared, protesters refused to let him in. "This is city property," he told them, standing on a chair in the vestibule. "Can the mayor of the City of Boston come through?" The answer was: "This is public power." Tad Tercyak, director of the site office, said, "They sat at our desks, but they let us do our work." While he understood that people wanted more low-income housing, "it wasn’t in harmony with the plan that had had public hearings, that had gone through all the official channels." This was also the view of the relatively conservative SEFCO.

Proper procedure had a lot to do with things. The "responsible" sorts - white, middle-class and professional - had spent years working on a renewal plan for a neighborhood sorely in need of upgrading. They had held public meetings, allowing what they believed was ample opportunity for participation. Now they expected the process to go forward, not to encounter snags. The "irresponsible" crowd, largely black and not wealthy, believed that an "emergency situation" had arisen and jumped in to stop the process. It didn’t matter to them what stage the plan was in. They recognized that, while urban planners and other outside professionals would leave the South End behind once their work was done, South End residents would have to bear the consequences of the plan for the rest of their lives.

Twenty years later, housing was built on the site and named Tent City.

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