Though it’s like a distant memory now – and to many new to the Town it seems inconceivable – but there was a time in Charlestown when the City moved in with a plan to forcibly take hundreds of homes and demolish the heart and soul of the neighborhood.
It was a plan in the 1960s under the guise of the trendy Urban Renewal movement, and die-hard Townies like Jim and Marie Sweeney organized and fought back – a strong effort in a sad time that is now going to be an exhibit in conjunction with the Sweeney family and the Charlestown Historical Society.
President Julie Hall announced that Sheila Sweeney, the only daughter of Jim and Marie Sweeney and who lives in the family home on Sullivan Street, has given over hundreds and hundreds of documents from her parent’s fight against the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in the 1960s through the organization called Self-Help Organization of Charlestown – commonly known as SHOC.
“We’re really excited to get these materials and have an exhibition later in the spring that shows what Sheila’s mom and dad did during those incredible times,” she said. “As the president of the Historical Society I am charged with preserving and protecting the history of the Town. So many times, we think of that as referring to Bunker Hill and the Colonial days, but it is as important to capture the culture from modern times too…It’s remarkable to see the efforts from people who lived here, and the letters from Ed Logue and JFK. We want to thank her for donating these materials.”
Sheila Sweeney had a rare front-row seat for two of the most tumultuous events in the Town’s history. Separately, she was a teacher at Charlestown High during the first two years of the busing era in the 1970s, but more importantly she was the only child of the Sweeneys – a couple that led a charge to fight back the BRA from destroying three-quarters of Charlestown to build suburban-like homes, parks and streets.
“I think more than anything these documents show people’s strength and the power of people when they get together,” said Sheila. “This generation didn’t see what that generation did. I was lucky and my parents’ friends’ children were lucky because we got to see what real resistance is. They had a schedule. They put out a secret newspaper. They had planning meetings every Thursday. They picketed Mayor Collins’s house every Sunday. It was the David and Goliath myth. They were just absolutely determined. No one else would help them…
“I think my parents would want to show what could be done,” she continued. “Did my dad lose his business on Main Street? Yes. But did they fight and unite with the community to thwart (former BRA Director) Ed Logue and prevent him from seeing through his plan to demolish three-quarters of the Town? That’s also yes. The plan Logue had for the Town did not happen.”
The experience with the BRA began in the early 1960s when late Mayor Tom Menino – in his first City job – began going around to residents and businesses to tell them about a great opportunity to relocate under Urban Renewal. First the conversations were cordial, but then they turned from being an opportunity to an order.
“No one believed it could happen here,” she said. “None of the plans really made sense. It was all like an illusion. Then they started coming out with lists of streets that need to go…They were bringing down brick buildings all the time. Nothing was considered out of range.”
Sheila said her parents formed SHOC with several other neighbors and friends after they visited an Urban Renewal site in New Haven, CT, where Logue had been previously. The degradation and emptiness that had been created was shocking to them, and they made home movies of it – which were part of the trove turned over to the Historical Society.
When they came back, things began to heat up. People began to get their homes taken, being paid a pittance for their property and being relocated to areas that were in disrepair. Meetings attracted 600 to 700 people routinely over five or six years, and a slick brochure was often circulated from the BRA about the new plan for Charlestown with suburban lawns, wide streets, shiny park benches and the elimination of much of the Town’s history.
It was an outrage to the Sweeneys and many others.
“They were evicting people from their homes using the police, policemen who knew the families they were forcing out,” she said. “Many of the people, particularly the older people, had immigrated here and lived in the projects. They worked hard to save money to get an apartment, and then saved their money as best they could and finally were able to buy a house in Charlestown and fix it up. Then 20 years later, someone from the government comes in and says they don’t want those houses there anymore. They have a new plan for Charlestown. People were forcibly evicted, and when they wouldn’t leave, they were arrested. Then at the Station they couldn’t use their home as collateral for bail because it had been taken from them overnight. My mom and SHOC raised a lot of money to help those people make bail. It was awful.”
Another big piece of the SHOC story in the archives is the secret newspaper that was produced in the basement of the Sullivan Street home – a paper known as ‘The Minuteman.’ Sheila said no one ever knew who produced the paper, but it was her parents. When her father felt that SHOC wasn’t getting enough press coverage, he and others decided to form the newspaper. The writing was brutally honest, and the history in it informative, and it was all done in a basement and distributed once a week citywide through a network of allies in Roxbury, Allston, West Roxbury, downtown and at City Hall.
“It was irreverent,” Sheila recalled. “I can still hear the old manual printing press echoing through the heating vent from the basement. They would all come to the house and get the bundles at night and then drop them all over Boston. They never told anyone and both died without ever saying they produced it.”
Sheila recalls riding on the SHOC float in the Battle of Bunker Hill Day Parade, sitting through long, hot hearings in the summers at the old Boston City Hall, and even going door-to-door in the Town warning people that their homes were on the removal maps.
In the end, Sheila said her father tired of fighting them and sold his hardware store to the Urban Renewal effort – McVarish’s Hardware on the corner of Main Street and Thompson Square where Citizen’s Bank is now. He sold it for a pittance, she said, and they relocated him to the block where Tuttle’s Cleaners is now, a block that was in much worse disrepair.
“He got about 20 percent of what it was worth,” she said. “The going rate at the time was $7.10 per square foot and the BRA was allowing for $1.50 per square foot. When they relocated you, it wasn’t to a comparable place. They knocked down my father’s property on Main Street, and it sat vacant for 15 years before they built the (Bunker Hill) Mall there.”
While the story is a sad one of government overreach, and how government at the time crushed a community and the dreams of the people in it – Sheila said she hopes the exhibit can also be about the power of people who unite.
“In the end, they got what they wanted after they fought and fought,” she said. “His plan was stopped. I hope people can see when you fight and know you’re right, how you can move things together where you need them to go.”
The exhibit has not yet been announced, but Hall said they will be announcing something soon.