Image via City of Boston Archives
North Allston, known to many as Lower Allston, is a quiet area that largely goes unnoticed. What few outside that neighborhood know is that 50 years ago, hundreds of residents fought in the streets to save their homes from the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Now, after a series of land swaps, Harvard’s ivy vines are creeping in again. As we look to the future, it’s important to remember the past. This is for those who fought, and who fight, for their homes.
Morning rush hour, summer 2015. The bus stop at North Harvard Street and Western Avenue in Allston is populated with commuters waiting for the 86 or the 66. Harvard Square is close, yet just far enough to warrant waiting for the bus instead of walking across the Anderson Memorial Bridge.
The waiting commuters watch as trucks pull into the construction site across the street. Behind them, there’s a small grove on the corner with benches. It’s supposed to be a park where people gather for leisure, but for now the grove serves mostly as a gathering place for construction workers to eat lunch or take smoke breaks. At night, a public art display of lights, meant to rejuvenate the area after years of neglect, seems like an ambient projection of the blue light of the emergency phone on the corner, a reminder that this is part of Harvard University’s Allston campus.
This area, 9.3 acres in all, was once known as Barry’s Corner. Fifty years ago, this strip of North Harvard Street was bustling not with construction workers and commuters, but with protesters and picket signs. Now, its future is being molded by Harvard’s ivied creep further into Allston. But it has a storied past of upheaval, a plot of land that, for decades, lay at the mercy of Harvard and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Image via Boston Redevelopment Authority
THE BRA TOOK MY BABY AWAY
On any given day in August 1965, Annie Soricelli of North Harvard Street, 76 years old, would wake up early in the morning to pray with her neighbors near the Virgin Mary statue in her front yard.
Four years earlier, in 1961, Soricelli and her community—working-class families, mostly Irish and Italian immigrants and their descendents—learned from a nightly news broadcast that Mayor John Collins and BRA Administrator Ed Logue were going to raze their neighborhood and put up a luxury apartment building. The first public hearing wasn’t until a year later, at which time North Allston residents booed and hissed until Logue walked out, visibly shaken, according to newspaper archives. Those residents went on to form a group called Citizens for Private Property, which picketed at Park Street Station and at the mayor’s home in Jamaica Plain, and held a rally in Faneuil Hall. They also erected a large sign in Annie’s yard, right next to the Virgin Mary, that read “To Hell With Urban Renewal.” Nobody paid them much attention, not the press or the politicians.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1964, residents of Barry’s Corner received letters that their homes had been seized by eminent domain. They were to start paying rent to the city. Rather than wait and face eviction, more than half the families left by June of the following year. When the city sent moving vans to evict the remaining residents in August, the situation erupted.
Images via newspapers noted herein
“LOOKS LIKE BATTLE” read a headline in the Record-American newspaper on August 8, 1965, and the next day the battle ensued. Joined by victims of urban renewal from elsewhere in the city and activist student groups from Harvard, the residents took to their streets. They picketed and sang songs. They cursed and sat in front of moving vans. They formed a human wall. Under the cover of night they threw eggs at a BRA trailer, and during the day they threw tomatoes at police. Authorities pushed back. In one case, a police officer entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Wheelis and took their 8-month-old baby from Mrs. Wheelis’ arms, forcing her to follow the cop outside. Mr. Wheelis, a Harvard student, was among 12 people arrested on charges of trespassing.
During the protests, Soricelli brought cold drinks to her neighbors picketing on the sidewalks. “The only way they’ll evict me is when they carry me out in a casket,” she’s quoted telling the Traveler newspaper. She passed away in December 1966, becoming a symbol of resistance. Three years later, a new sign was erected. “To Hell With Urban Renewal,” it read, with amendments: “We Still Won’t Move,” and at the bottom, “In Memoriam: To Annie Soricelli and others who have died in defense of their homes.”
Eventually, Collins caved to the pressure of bad publicity, nixed the luxury apartment plan, and instituted a blue ribbon panel to evaluate the situation. Though the panel recommended letting residents buy back their homes, Collins instead gave the development bid to the Committee for North Harvard, a nonprofit ecumenical group, to erect low-income housing. Bulldozers demolished the homes of the last holdouts of Barry’s Corner in 1969, and in 1971, the doors opened at the Charlesview Apartments, a low- and moderate-income housing complex. In April of this year, those buildings were demolished to make way for new development by Harvard University.
A TALE OF TWO ALLSTONS
“I always am quite offended when I read in the Globe or any other pub that we’re described as ‘gritty,’” says Joyce Radnor, a resident of Hopedale Street for the past 22 years. “This part of Allston is certainly not gritty. Quite the contrary, we’re a little dull. Just people going to work, coming home, kids going to school. Just a regular neighborhood. And whenever I see the word ‘gritty’ I flinch. That’s not where I live.”
Radnor describes her neighborhood with the same language the residents of Barry’s Corner used 50 years ago to protest the labeling of the area as blighted. “People care about each other. Nobody ever takes a cab or an Uber to the airport, your neighbor drives you in. You need a cup of sugar, you go next door. It’s that kind of place.”
The area of Allston north of the Massachusetts Turnpike, sometimes called Lower Allston due to its lower elevation, is markedly different from the image of a happy college party town with which Allston is often associated. Allston-Brighton overall has one of the lowest rates of homeownership in the city of Boston; according to American Community Survey five-year estimates from between 2006 and 2013, that number drops to lower than 2 percent in certain college-heavy corners. The ownership rate is higher in North Allston though, hovering at close to 25 percent. On those streets, property owners tend to be more invested in their neighborhoods than renters south of the Turnpike, and thus are more interested in having a voice in the development process.
“It’s easy to rally the troops” for community meetings, petitions, and barbecues, says Allston resident Paul “Chip” Alford of Windom Street, speaking fondly about the seven contiguous blocks that surround his home. Despite the rapid development underway up North Harvard Street—including the Continuum apartment complex, which is currently advertising studio rentals for around $2,500 a month—Alford emphasizes that his neighborhood, which he says local police call the “Gem of Allston,” is largely unchanged. “It’s almost the way it was 20, 30, 40 years ago.”
The reputational divide between Allston Village and North Allston is historic. Brighton, which Allston used to be a part of, was a center of the cattle industry well into the 20th Century. Local workers settled in Lower Allston, away from the town’s hub of abattoirs, hotels, and bars where traders came to town for the cattle market. In one of his books on the history of the area, author William Marchione quotes an account from an 1872 edition of the Boston Messenger:
Brighton, I believe, is considered the refuge of all that is bad, and the den of vice. Go where you may, and a slur is cast upon her fair name. Now it is not Brighton or her towns-people that are so much worse, but it is the people who come into the village, and think when they get here it is no matter, only Brighton, we can do just as we please.
Replace “people who come into the village” with “undergrads,” and this could have been written last week. Parts of Allston have been shitty for a long time.
Fifty years ago, when the neighborhood was targeted for urban renewal, Allston had no dedicated representation in City Hall. Nowadays, Allston and Brighton have City Councilor Mark Ciommo, whose support base is predominantly in the latter. Home to some of the lowest voter turnout rates in Boston—in the election that produced Mayor Marty Walsh, the ward stretching between Kenmore Square and Cleveland Circle turned out the least people anywhere, with only 19 percent of possible participants casting ballots—Allston constituents have little political clout.
“We get the short end of the stick,” says Alford. “Any infusion of cash or development is going to come through Harvard University.”
Property owners like Radnor and Alford aren’t the only ones feeling burned. Although the percentage of homeownership increases north of the Massachusetts Turnpike, renters make up the vast majority of Allston’s population. Renters may not have the same kind of investment in the neighborhood as homeowners—they are less likely to vote in local elections or participate in civic groups—but some residents love the grittiness that Radnor derides.
“I always described Allston as a big dirty rock ’n’ roll summer camp with no adult supervision,” says Allie Caporale, 33, a punk musician and seamstress. Currently of Brighton Center and formerly of Allston Village, Caporale laments the ever-increasing cost of rents that are pricing out the rockers and the artists that give Allston Village its flavor. Indeed, in many cases properties in formerly affordable buildings now fetch more than $1,000 per bedroom per month. Caporale continues: “It’s fucking frustrating. I’m mostly dealing with a sense of long-term instability … I feel squeezed out, like I don’t deserve to be here anymore.”
In response to such sentiments, Mayor Walsh has suggested that creating more housing stock will bring rents down for everyone, but with so much of that supply comprised of luxury apartments like Continuum, Caporale doesn’t buy it. “I don’t need a granite jacuzzi with a waterfall shower. I just want to live with some sort of dignity.”
Rendering of Lower Allston via Harvard’s Final Environmental Impact Report (2014)
Although Harvard is Cantabrigian at its heart and by reputation, the university owns more land in Allston than in Cambridge. It’s had property across the Charles since the 1870s, and its relationship with the neighborhood has been fraught since the late 1990s, when it came out that the institution had secretly acquired 52 acres of land in Allston, buying piecemeal over the course of eight years.
“It was just around the time that I put my life savings into this house that I found out that Harvard basically owned everything around me,” says Radnor.
Harvard eventually presented its Institutional Master Plan (IMP) for the area, but construction was stalled in 2009 by the recession and the land sat vacant for years, a virtual ghost town. Quoting Service Employees International Union organizer Wayne Langley, Harvard historian Shin Eun-jung writes in his book, Verita$: Harvard’s Hidden History, that between wages and economic opportunities, the overall losses to the Allston community caused by said halted construction totaled over $100 million.
Harvard presented a new IMP in 2013. The 298-page document outlines details of existing conditions, a 10-year plan, technical reports, community benefits, and more. It also mentions “activating Barry’s Corner,” with goals including “making Allston a campus anchor,” and “extending Harvard’s iconic character.” The re-institution of the very name “Barry’s Corner” is a Harvard invention—some long-term residents said they were unfamiliar with the label until Harvard started using it.
“I never heard of Barry’s Corner before,” says Alford, whose father also lived in Lower Allston. “Harvard doesn’t want this to be called Allston anything.”
In a 2007 land swap, Harvard acquired the parcel underneath the Charlesview apartments, which were relocated to updated new digs farther down Western Avenue in 2013. While Continuum goes up across the street, the IMP reserves the land that was formerly occupied by Charlesview, and before then by Annie Soricelli’s neighborhood, for a coming “mixed-use institutional building” called the Gateway Project. There aren’t a lot of details in the IMP about the Gateway. Pressed for details, Brigid O’Rourke, a communications officer with Harvard Public Affairs & Communications, said, “The Gateway building was included in the approved IMP. The details and specific timing of that project is still under review.”
What we do know is that the so-called Gateway will be between six and nine stories tall and have 300,000 square feet of space split between academic/institutional use and service/retail use. According to the IMP, construction of the Gateway is scheduled for the midway phase of the 10-year plan, between 2018 and 2020. In the meantime, the area will be used to stage construction for the neighboring science complex, which university President Drew Faust made the center of Harvard’s capital campaign in 2012. Harvard began work on the massive science complex in 2008, but halted construction in 2009 because of the recession.
“They bought the land. They dug a five-acre hole, bigger than the Filene’s Basement hole, a lot bigger, and it’s been there longer,” says Alford. Although construction resumed early this year, no details had been presented at the time I spoke to residents. Floor plans and renderings were finally made public at a recent public meeting on September 30.
“This is Harvard,” says Radnor. “Harvard plans out 200 years.”
Harvard’s IMP includes a $43 million community benefits package, including street improvements, educational programs, workforce development programs, and other initiatives designed to benefit the neighborhood. In addition to the mitigation package, Harvard seems to at least be making an effort to keep Allston’s community members involved. Alford and Radnor are members of the Construction Mitigation Subcommittee, an offshoot of the Allston-Harvard Task Force charged with addressing residents’ concerns. Their meetings cover heated topics like construction worker parking, environmental concerns and, of course, rats.
When asked how it has been to work with Harvard, Radnor responds with an emphatic, “OK.” She remembers a time 20 years ago when Harvard’s only overtures to Allston residents were tickets to Crimson football games—where they had to sit in the visitors’ section. Relations have improved since then, and Radnor acknowledges that progress is needed both on the part of Harvard and on the part of the community. “I’m really quite optimistic about it, but it really requires a different way of looking at each other that heretofore really has been an Us and Them.”
Alford is more skeptical. “The community sometimes gets hoodwinked by Harvard University. We certainly got hoodwinked on the 10-year Master Plan. We got hoodwinked on the science complex.”
Image of Barry’s Corner circa 1960 (left) via City of Boston Archives and today (right) via Jason Pramas
BARRY AND THE BEAST
Harvard’s efforts to include the community in its planning, whether successful or not, are a refreshing departure from the kinds of tactics the BRA deployed in the 1960s. The BRA’s tenacity was driven by a need to show its power. “If the Authority had been persuaded to drop the project by that kind of demonstration [at the 1962 public hearing], it might as well have gone out of business right then and there,” then-BRA administrator Ed Logue told the Sunday Herald in August 1965. About a week earlier, he told the Morning Globe,“Let them keep their picket lines, I don’t care.”
On BRA planning maps from the early ’60s, this triangle of land and its surrounding streets are shaded gray, like a bruise on an otherwise shiny apple. “Blighted or deteriorating area,” the map key reads. The residents scorned this characterization. Their neighborhood was not a blight. They weren’t merely speaking out of pride—they hired an independent architect to evaluate the neighborhood, and the resulting study found that there was no need to come scorch the earth.
There were fights on many fronts. When residents asked Harvard to better maintain vacant houses on university-owned properties adjacent to the neighborhood—to avoid a sort of “broken window” perception—Harvard did not cooperate, and instead shut off utilities and boarded up the empty homes.
In a Herald article from August 6, 1965, a BRA staffer claimed the aforementioned maneuvers were not to renew a blighted neighborhood, but rather to make sure Harvard didn’t buy the land for a tax-exempt soccer field. This was a matter of keeping property taxes in the city’s coffers, but the reasoning did not sit well with residents. James Wheelis, the Harvard student who was arrested in the 1965 commotion over Barry’s Corner, pointed out that the BRA had no problem with Tufts University buying land elsewhere in the city. Harvard denied plans to build a soccer field, though today their Ohiri Field, used for soccer among other sports, abuts the former Charlesview site.
Brian Golden, who has served as director of the BRA since last year, has vowed to undo decades of backdoor deals and organizational mismanagement. He says he has a personal connection to the BRA’s rather infamous history in the area—his family lived in Barry’s Corner, though he was an infant at the time of the demolition—but only time will tell whether his sympathies manifest as positive change.
THE NORTH REMEMBERS
Annie Soricelli’s death notice ran in the Boston Globe on December 15, 1966. She has no obituary. The December 20 issue of the Globe lists a Secret Santa donation for $2 in her name. Soricelli’s name is written on the pentagon representing her former property on an old ward map that tiles the floor in front of the circulation desk in the Honan-Allston branch of the Boston Public Library on North Harvard Street. In the place where her sign decrying urban renewal once stood is a bus stop shelter with a perpetually overflowing trash can.
Between Harvard’s construction and the Mass Department of Transportation’s I-90 Interchange Improvement Project—not to mention the New Balance development in neighboring Brighton—Lower Allston, indeed all of Allston, is undergoing its most radical change since Harvard first moved in more than a century ago. To preserve and honor the memory of the residents of Barry’s Corner, Jim Vrabel, author the book A People’s History of the New Boston, suggests establishing a permanent informational marker either at Barry’s Corner or at the nearby library branch, as well as a Redgate Scholarship/Internship Program at Harvard for local students studying urban planning, government, and public service.” The program would be named after leading Barry’s Corner organizer Marjorie Redgate.
At City Hall, Mayor Walsh calls his Imagine Boston vision the biggest initiative of its kind in 50 years. But despite politicians’ promises to build thousands of new housing units accessible to all types of people, for now the likes of Allston-Brighton-based musician Allie Caporale, like Annie Soricelli long before her, are being displaced in the name of improvement and renewal.
“Shit,” says Caporale. “Why does improving an area necessarily mean removing the original people? It’s such capitalism at work, where your value as a person has to do with how much you can pay.”
Continue the conversation about gentrification in Allston through our virtual town hall on Agora, and join us at the Fiorentino Community Center for a panel discussion on October 20.