People's Tours: A social history of the South End walking tour Favorite 



Jun 16 2012



In early 2012, a group of artists, activists and assorted other odd balls got together to form People's Tours. The idea was to give walking tours in the Boston area. Standard enough. But instead of the usual history, we would talk about social justice, contested spaces, important protests, and shady corporations.

So far, the group has consisted of Dave Taber, Heather McCann, Kristin Parker, Neil Horsky, and Tim Devin.

"A social history of the South End"

On June 17th, 2012, we gave our "Social history of the South End" walking tour. It was part of the Common Boston festival, which helped get us a nice crowd of people. Afterwards, we had a discussion about public space and activism, which was put together by Artists in Context.

The tour got going at 1:45pm. Dave led us over from the starting place at Back Bay Station to Copley Place, where developers were planning on building a high rise. Locals weren't too happy about the plan, since the building would block a lot of the natural light that the surrounding buildings and plazas get. Dave told us about how these locals had been fighting against the project through a series of protests and sit-ins. Unfortunately, all of this action had no effect; the development will be going through anyway.

Heather then led us over to the Southwest Corridor park, where she told us about the history of the adjacent Tent City housing development. In 1968, the city demolished a group of homes in order to make a parking lot. At the time, the Boston Redevelopment Authority didn't provide new homes for people who were forced to relocate due to development; this meant that hundreds of people were now without a place to live because the city wanted more parking. A number of community activists, including Mel King, established a tent city protest--and over the next three days, dozens of people camped out in the now-empty lot. This action called enough attention to the situation that the plan was scrapped. After a delay of 20 years, an affordable-housing development opened up on this site, and was named "Tent City" after this protest.

Neil told us about the history of the Southwest Corridor park itself. In the middle of the 1900s, during the rush to build more intercity highways, a long corridor of residential buildings was demolished for a proposed highway. The community had fought the demolitions and lost, but finally managed to block the highway itself. The land was then used as a park, and a tunnel for the Orange Line subway.

Next on the tour was Harriet Tubman Square. Kristin told us that, inspired by Harriet Tubman, a local abolitionist named Julia Henson had created a settlement house for African American women nearby in the early 1900s. This house was part of a growing settlement house movement. Kristin also spoke about the area's small press publications, which helped spread minority viewpoints and alternative ideas. The section of the city was home to a number of such newspapers, such as "The Liberator" and "The Boston Guardian", and was later home to the left-wing South End Press.

From there, we walked down the street to Villa Victoria, where Heather told us the history of that affordable housing development. In the late 60s, the area's Puerto Rican community was heavily engaged in making their section a better place to live-including a rent strike to protest poor living conditions, an attempt to force the city to remove a trash facility, and a fight against urban renewal. Banding together, they succeeded in getting the city to remove the dump and build the 435-unit Villa Victoria affordable-housing development. A number of community and cultural organizations were born during this struggle, including the Emergency Tenants Council (ETC) and Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA).

Dave was up next, telling us about how the area's numerous rooming houses had provided affordable homes that drew African Americans, who needed housing near their jobs. These houses also provided a safe space for the burgeoning gay community. Both communities would have a lasting impact on the South End.

Next was Tim's turn. He brought the group down Tremont. We discussed how many of the improvements that the community had fought for (parks, preservation of historic buildings) had led to astronomical housing costs and the displacement of long-term residents. The rooming houses, which had provided cheap housing for so many for so long, were now million-dollar homes. As a group, we talked about ways to make your community a better place without losing your own home.

At the corner of East Berkley and Tremont, Kristin told us about food riots that had taken place in 1917. After World War I, food prices had risen dramatically. In New York, women began rioting; this soon spread to Boston, where women picketed in front of a nearby slaughterhouse, among other places. Protests and pressure from women's groups lead to governmental inquiries into higher food prices, and an embargo on the export of food.

Tim then talked about two adjacent neighborhoods that had been leveled for redevelopment in the mid-1900s: New York Streets and Castle Square. The first had been a disaster, where thousands of people were displaced to make room for a plant for "The Herald Traveler" (as the Herald was known at the time), since the Traveler was making noises about leaving the city of Boston. The second redevelopment ended in a better way: the demolition still went through, but the buildings were replaced with a large affordable housing development, after considerable protests by residents

We then started heading back to Back Bay Station. Before the bridge over the Pike, Tim gave a short overview of the failed Columbus Center development. The community had fought against it, only to see the city give the developers a green light anyway. After a series of dirty dealings that were brought to light and financial set-backs, the development stalled out. Which was good for the neighborhood--except for the fact that the building site was never cleaned up by the developers. Residents then fought the city over this--and this time, they won.

From there, we went back to the Corridor park, where we had a discussion about public space and activism, which was put together by Artists in Context.

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