Walter Mitty couldn’t fathom a more entertaining venue than the Environment Department Landmarks Commission on the ninth floor of Boston City Hall. Especially in the hours after work let out last night, as roughly 50 concerned folks packed into a windowless cement cell to debate the plight of the Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury.
As recently as August, presumptuous charter school opportunists attempted to undermine the hard work of Dearborn faculty members and families by taking over the $70 million facility that state and city officials promised to put there. The administration of Mayor Marty Walsh put the kibosh on that attempted hijack. Now, however, the Dearborn must clear yet another hurdle before commencing work on a slated state-of-the-art science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) academy that will serve middle and high school students on the current Greenville Street site.
Campaigning for a 90-day delay on demolition of the Dearborn, abutters to the property and assorted aesthetes filled approximately one-third of the occupied seats at City Hall Monday evening. Their mission: to convince the Landmarks Commission that preservation of the Dearborn, a culturally significant monument shouldering the Moreland Historic District, is more important than expediting a plan to bring STEM opportunities to some of Boston’s least privileged residents.
In order to persuade the commission—a learned panel of architects, professionals, and do-gooders—obstructionists argued they had been denied adequate input during initial design stages. Prior to Monday, organizers advocating for a delay attracted nearly 80 people to a recent neighborhood meeting and collected more than 700 signatures, therefore fulfilling the specified municipal requirements needed to bring about a procedural vote at City Hall.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and the city are already on board; wrecking balls are looming. None of which, however, stopped opponents from heaving a Hail Mary.
Complementing the Boston Globe’s sentimentality for the Dearborn’s Busing Era ties, one gang of architectural buffs swarmed City Hall armed with a short documentary they made in defense of the landmark. Though commission members tried but were unable to play the clip for the crowd, several pushing for the delay rose to extoll the Dearborn’s relevance. Among other trademarks, they pointed out that the building was the site of the High School of Practical Arts from 1913 to 1954, then the groundbreaking design and vocation-oriented Girls’ High School through 1974, and also Roxbury High School from the Garrity Decision all the way through 1982, when it became the Dearborn.
Implying they had been misled to believe the new STEM academy was pegged to squeeze inside the old Dearborn shell, armchair historians from Roxbury and elsewhere spoke of the need to interrupt wrecking balls. One woman dropped nostalgic tidbits about iconic Mayor Honey Fitz leaving a time capsule in a cornerstone. Others called for a new Dearborn—but on an alternative site. Residential units, a few parties claimed, might better suit the area. The Boston Preservation Alliance agrees; they think a “housing rehabilitation” project would be swell. Imagine the possibilities, perhaps a mixed-use condo development with a rock-climbing gym in honor of BPS heroes who braved stones in the ’70s.
There were also voices calling for demolition ASAP, starting with one longtime BPS teacher who served in the Greenville building for decades. Sounding like she waited half her life to tell the world about conditions students have endured there, she spoke candidly about broken promises and physical decay, recalling the scraps of cloth she hung to hide the rotting walls: “The ceiling leaked when it rained … You could see daylight through the walls … It was unhealthy, unsafe on so many levels.”
Others chimed in. Though clearly partial to the planned demolition, architects of the approved STEM academy reminded the gallery that “no contest” remains, as in the project has already left the gate. Extensive feasibility studies have been conducted, and at a significant expense to taxpayers. In the words of one member of the Roxbury Presbyterian Church, where congregants have been instrumental Dearborn allies in the STEM proposal process, “If we break that promise to these young people, then shame on us.”
Sadly, the feelings of young people land squarely outside of the Landmarks Commission’s purview. So in granting a 90-day delay, as they ultimately did yesterday, members weren’t able to consider the dilemmas that those standing against demolition have decided can be glossed over with neighborhood camaraderie and exclamation points. From the petition to halt construction:
Alternatives to demolition can still be considered and the new STEM Academy can be built in Roxbury! The Dearborn building is across from the Federal Register Moreland Street Historic District and is of great importance to residents who live in Roxbury because of its history, alumni, Beaux Arts design and architect. Let’s think outside the box! Recycle! Reuse! Reinvent! Roxbury can have a new STEM Academy and save our beautiful building!
As Boston activist Shirley Kressel testified to the Landmarks Commission, the city may have indeed botched the entire process from the get-go. Like she wrote in a letter to commissioners, “The proponents [of putting a STEM school at the current location] have publicly and repeatedly admitted that, when they decided to build a new building, they did not investigate any alternative to demolition. No alternative sites were considered, although the investigation of alternative sites is a requirement of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).”
Kressel and her allies might be right. While many local interests and Dearborn families were certainly involved in securing STEM school funding, in a rush to build, it’s possible BPS, the Boston City Council, and the MSBA overlooked alternatives and undervalued the historic relevance of the Greenville Street building. Meanwhile, whether due to bureaucratic negligence, laziness, or sheer arrogance on the part of municipal officials, the kids, as is always the case, are caught in the middle.
At least at the hearing, delayers had to listen to a Dearborn student whose older sister was guaranteed a new facility, just as she had been, just as her little sister has again been promised. As this war over landmark status continues, all those involved should also consider the words of a Dearborn student named Lamont who explained to commissioners, “We’re in the ’Bury.” Without a proper weekday refuge, he added, “We’re stressed out. We can’t work to our full potential.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.