Jamaica Plain’s annual Wake Up the Earth Festival, which turns 39 this year, is one of the most celebrated events in the Hub for an eclectic array of performers and artists who end our harsh winters with a breath of spring air and music. But with those warmer days upon us, it’s critical to think about some colder times—namely, the turbulent events that helped forge the first WUTE parade and extravaganza.
The relevant history dates back to the early 1970s, and according to Jim Vrabel, author of A People’s History of the New Boston, a book that details Boston grassroots activism, even before that to 1956, when Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act that “guaranteed states to be federally reimbursed [for] up to 90 percent of budget spending.” “This was a way for the Commonwealth to essentially get free money,” Vrabel said.
The historian added that the streets and corridor on which people host WUTE wouldn’t be there for any kind of celebration if not for the protests that sparked the event so many years ago (the first celebration was in 1979). As Boston transitioned into the modern metropolis it is today, the state’s Department of Public Works began cooking up plans for an eight-lane highway that would run I-95 through JP, Cambridge, and places in between. It would also carry a stretch of Orange Line along it that would replace the old elevated railways on Washington Street. Plotted as a southwest route that would have slashed right through the heart of Boston, the project was notoriously dubbed the Southwest Corridor.
In order to make such a corridor for motor vehicles possible, housing would have had to be demolished. As the city saw in the West End and other neighborhoods, “the consequential displacement would affect thousands of longtime residents,” Vrabel said.
As locals began to group together and attend public hearings, activists turned to Brighton’s Fred Salvucci, a civil engineer whom Vrabel described as “a guerrilla within the bureaucracy,” for leadership. Salvucci voiced the concerns of the community to the DPW and other agencies, and assisted in the creation of a presentation illustrating the damage the highway would do to areas, including JP. After numerous events, Boston city councilors held a public hearing at the Curley School on Centre Street, where upward of 700 attendees expressed their concerns.
The opposition found some early success in 1972, when then-Gov. Francis Sargent declared a moratorium on all new highways. That put a stop to much of the construction, relieving the concerns of those who would have been affected in the process. Another win came two years later when Tip O’Neill, the Cambridge native who became the speaker of the US House of Representatives in 1977, worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy to change the highway act, allowing states to reallocate federal revenue for mass transit.
In the following years, the Southwest Corridor was deemed unnecessary, while the torn-apart land was transformed into bike and walking paths accompanying a semi-underground Orange Line to Forest Hills. It’s also a become a phenomenal place to host Wake Up the Earth, which will have its 39th birthday in JP on May 5.