Stealing the City From Under Our Feet

When I came to Boston 40 years ago the first place I stayed was at the old Harbor Lights shelter on Shawmut Ave in the South End. Back then the South End was one of the few neighborhoods in Boston where a young black man could feel safe. 

At the time Boston was still dealing with the repercussions of busing, and as a black person – or even white – you needed to be careful where you walked in the city unless you hung out in the Combat Zone where the only color they cared about was green. The South End was different. The neighborhood was racially mixed, and black, Latinx, and yes, white people lived there and got along just fine, thank you very much! 

There were always good places to eat and drink, like the old Bob the Chefs and Slade’s Bar and Grill, If you wanted to grab the T to downtown the old elevated tracks at Northampton station was a safe bet and easy to get to. But to hear the ruling class and their cronies tell it, the South End was a dangerous place. Yes it had its issues, but dangerous? Hardly! At least you could walk through the neighborhood, or play a football game without worrying about getting shot. 

Times change and unfortunately so do neighborhoods. It’s slow at first, then the next thing you know the restaurants are gone, the elevated tracks are gone, a lot of the people are gone. The South End changed quite a bit in the 90s and 2000s. Rents went up, forcing many to either move deeper into Roxbury or leave the city altogether to be replaced by younger more affluent white families. Some people will say it didn’t really change the culture of the neighborhood, but it did. 

Now as if to add insult to injury, one of the last symbols of this community may be going away. 

United South End Settlements (USE), which has served black and brown people for over a hundred years, is being forced to sell the Harriet Tubman House. The House has provided trainings, programs for youth, and other services since it was built in the 70s. USE says it is selling the building because it has become too expensive to keep up and continuing could put USE itself out of business. 

The building is to be sold to New Boston Ventures, which plans to turn it into -what else? Condos! But the developer intends to keep the mural of brown and black historical figures that are outside the building, as if that makes it all better. 

There is a plan to build another Tubman house not far from the old one but people are upset and rightfully so. Why is it that every damn time someone wants to build a condo we have to move, uproot ourselves from neighborhoods that we grew up in, where our kids were raised. What about what we want? And where are our leaders on this? They should be out front on this, denouncing it. 

And what of USE? Yes it may cost $400,000 a year to keep the place running, but were all other options looked at? 

And finally, where is the city of Boston? The city’s leaders like to brag about how much they care about neighborhoods, community and all that. You’d think they would be on top of this, but then again, Boston has never cared about its poor whether  black, brown or white. Once again, the ruling class is stealing the ground we stand on.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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