Monday, February 27, 2012

No Thanks to Urban Renewal for Jamaica Plain

Continuing my recent look into recent Jamaica Plain events, the story becomes depressing. As the disaster that would be the Southwest Expressway property-taking approached, Jamaica Plain residents were already up in arms over the threat of 'urban renewal.' These people had seen what urban renewal meant in Boston, and they wanted no part of it.

Boston Globe Aug.28, 1965

Renewal Foes Protest JP Plan

Urban renewal foes turned out in large numbers in Jamaica Plain Friday night to protest, often with boos and catcalls, what they regard as the malice of change.

A crowd of more than 2000 jammed the auditorium of the Mary E. Curley School, spilling out into the lobby and the street, for a sometimes tumultuous meeting that resulted in:

-- Hundreds of signatures on a petition demanding a change in state housing laws to permit a voter referendum on any urban renewal project that may be proposed for Jamaica Plain.

-- An expression of broad support for a neighborhood "cleanup, fixup program" independent of the Boston Redevelopment Authority - a plan advanced by Edward Dalton, president of the Jamaica Plain Action Committee.

"We'll have our own renewal program," said Dalton. "We don't need outsiders here in Jamaica Plain."

John Stainton, a B.R.A. planner representing Authority Director Edward Logue, and City Councilor George Foley, chairman of the City Council's Urban Renewal Committee, were interrupted repeatedly when they spoke.

Stainton told the emotion-charged crowd no large-scale demolition is contemplated for the area and the only thing under consideration was "a careful program of rehabilitation and improvement."

"But whether anyone likes it or not," Stainton said, Jamaica Plain is changing and, if you walk around the district, you'll find conditions that don't speak well for the future health of the neighborhood."

He said some property values had already declined drastically and others are being threatened.

George Foley was shouted down by cries of "you're a liar" and "you don't know nothin'" as he attempted to assure the crowd that "if you don't want urban renewal, you won't have to have it."

Foley was echoing Mayor Collins' assurances, given Friday, that there will be no urban renewal program for Jamaica Plain unless the residents of the area show strong support for it.

Several times, as Stainton and Foley pressed their points, Dalton had to take the microphone to plead with the crowd to give both men a fair hearing.

Foley himself asked his critics to "show some respect for the people who came here honestly to learn something."

Monday, February 20, 2012

Through the Eyes of the Boston Globe - 1967

This article was from a series produced in 1967 on the city's different districts. It is a window into the time, but don't take it without a grain of salt. The fact that they chose to feature a photo of a Lamartine street back yard, including laundry hanging on the clotheslines, should tell you something. I suppose there were muggings during those years in parts of Jamaica Plain, but I walked the streets those years in my neck of the woods, and I don't remember women living in fear of attacks. And people I talk to now reminisce about walking to the Pond, the Arboreteum, and travelling across the city on public transportation in those years without fear. In fact, times would get much worse in Jamaica Plain in the coming years, but in 1967 it hadn't happened yet.

Boston Globe, July 14, 1967

BOSTON: A Closeup of Its Neighborhoods, Its People and Its Problems

There is no one Jamaica Plain.

There are countless Jamaica Plains - the Jamaica Plain of the elderly Yankee widow and the poor white, of the old Irish precinct worker and the newly-arrived Portuguese laborer, of the owner-occupied three-decker and the dull, gray mansion turned into a nursing home.

Perhaps more than any other section of the city, Jamaica Plain is a cross-section of Boston a district whose 51,000 inhabitants go from the very top to the very bottom, both geographically and economically.

At the top is Moss Hill, one of the classiest sections of the city, whose fertile fields made up the estates of the Yankee Bowdithes and the Balches, fields now subdivided into split-levels and ranch homes, ranging from $20,000 to $60,000. The occupants are predominantly Catholic.

You go to Moss Hill by driving down a bucolic, suburban road from Brookline. You go through it on winding, tree-lined streets, featuring large lawns and single family homes.

Here are the homes of the professionals - the dentists, doctors, lawyers, real estate and insurance men. When you press their doorbells, you are answered by chimes, followed by housewives who will tell you that Pond st. should be straightened, the Arborway traffic should be slowed down, garbage should be collected twice wekly in the summer, a recreation area should be built for the kids.

They will tell you that Moss HIll is "an ideal neighborhood," well protected by a strong association that will allow no beauty parlors, funeral homes, schools, or anything else that does not fit into the scheme of things.

Move down from Moss Hill, and the roads become congested and bumpier; the neighborhoods more closely settled; the zoning mixed commercial and residential.

Cutting through the guts of Jamaica Plain is Centre st., the tributary for the district's blighted busines section, a bockmarked two-way avenue of potholes sliced down the middle by the Huntington av.trolley line.

West of Centre st. leading to Jamaica Pond, east of Centre st. leading to the railroad tracks and south of Centre st. in the Forest Hills area are the single-family, two-story and triple-decker hoomes that for years have given stability to Jamaica Plain.

Here lives the traditional Jamaica Plain resident, white Catholic (not necessarily Irish, perhaps Ukranian, Latvian, Italian), a skilled worker who pays between $75 and $100 rent (unheated) to live above his landlord in a three-decker worth $24,000 or so on the market.

But the contrast is not simply between Moss Hill and this vast working man's area.

On and around Amory st., for example, lower income Negroes, whites, Cubans and Puerto Ricans now mix with the older residents. A neighborhood committee meeting features Irish and Negro faces.

A block away from the well-clipped lawn at 56 Lochstead av., the home of Kenneth O'Donnell former aide to President Kennedy, is a smudged brick apartment ouse, where a white-haired woman lives along and wonders in the Winter whether the ice will be removed from the sidewalk so that she may go shopping.

Here, surrounded by stability and blight, are the landmarks and last bastions of an older society such as the Eliot School, a well-kept 191-year-old structure named after the Rev. John Eliot, who preached to the Indians, the Footlight Club, the oldest amateur theatrical club in America and Eliot Hall, where Margeurite Souther holds her dancing classes for debs.

Not far away are back streets were elderly women fear to tread lest they be mugged.

In this vast neighborhood is the home of Mayor John F. Collins, and here too are the midle income people who feel alienated from the city regardless of who the mayor may be.

They are people like Mrs Hugh O'Neill, of 70 Weld Hill st., a young mother born in Ireland and now living in her own home in the Forest Hills area.

Mrs. O'Neill is disgusted that halfway down her street are two triple-decker houses "that are a disgrace to the street." One is abandoned and boarded up. The other perhaps should be. They are examples of the blight that has begun to creep into the solid middle-income neighborhoods.

But the worst blight is at the bottom, across the tracks from Moss Hill and the middle-income areas.

You get there by picking up the train downtown at the Washington st. Station. In three of four minutes you are on the elevated, looking down on the South End and Roxbury, on vacant lots, rooftops splattered with broken glass, slums and rubble.

The train clacks rhythmically on the tracks. It hisses, It squeaks around turns. Egleston sq. In the distance are the projects, which are the very bottom.

When you ring the doorbells under the elevated on Washington st., you are answered not by chimes but often by silence. Silence because everyone is out working, or because everyone is too scared to answer the door, or because the ancient earphones and mouthpieces in the grimey apartment building no longer work.

When someone does answer the bell, he will not talk about tough zoning or ideal neighborhoods. He will speak little or ill of politicians. There is no candidate for mayor around the block.

There the merchants, the residents and workers talk of a friend mugged, a pocketbook snatched, a teenager drunk, a cop who wasn't there. A candidate - what's a candidate?

Alienated voters, the sociologists would say, and their kind are legion in a community once regarded as politically savvy, a community where you can still see the Jamaicaway home of James Michael Curley, the school named after his wife, and the oldtimers who remember the old pols.

But old pols die, and neighborhoods change. Jamaica Plain is changing.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Old Curtis Farm

I remember this old house beside the Curley school as a funeral home. Many such large old houses had been turned into funeral homes, nursing homes and fraternity houses by the 1960s, and most have now been recycled again into condos. The Curtis family was one of the first to settle Jamaica Plain, and the original homestead, located near today's Stony Brook T stop, survived to the 1880s. The story is that the first Curtis settled on the Centre street land in the 1720s with a horse and a slave. Later, one of his descendants would be one of the first tenants to sell produce at Quincy Market.

Boston Globe September 13, 1970

Old Curtis farm

Jamaica Plain mansion has 18th century flavor

Most of the inhabitants of Jamaica Plain wold be astounded by the changes made during the past 100 years in their pleasant community. In the Civil War period, this area was a part of West Roxbury. The city of Boston later separated the portion near Jamaica Pond to make the present-day suburb with its imposing mansions, built on ample, landscaped grounds.

Once Farm

All of this land, 100 acres or more, was the Curtis farm 250 years ago. It was owned by Joseph and Charles Curtis, brothers, who built the original house at 509 Center(sic) St, in 1721. This house is still standing by is swallowed up by the huge mid-Victorian structure that Charles E.Curtis added at the front several generations later, in 1862 [This is wrong. The JP Historical Society cites an 1882 date, which would make it an early shingle design].

To the casual passerby it's a typical three-story house of the period that was marked by grotesque architecture. It has all the gingerbread found in such houses and some features all its own. Shingles on two upper floors are cut in fanciful designs, each floor in a different pattern. A large dormer has an elaborate hand carving in a floral design. The tallest pinnacle of the roof is adorned with a bronze or copper griffin, covered with the green patina of age.

The exterior is substantially the same as the day it was built, but the interior has modern improvements, including hot water heat in the 14 rooms, to take over the function of the 10 fireplaces that were in use a century or so ago.

And inspection of the house shows some unusual features. The large rooms on the first floor have lofty ceilings and appear to have no doors, but each room can be shut off from the others by simply pressing a button in a partition. A handsome 1-2 paneled double door then slides out to close the opening into the next room.


Each of the fireplaces has a mantel of different design in natural-grained hardwood.

The front entrance hall is probably unique in New England. It has a pipe organ on the stairway, whose console is 20 feet or more away in another room. Across the hall is the music room and the broad landing is lighted by two stained glass windows. A long maple settee is set against some fine oak paneling. The newel post is of hand-carved maple, as are the ornate balusters that support the rail of the winding stair.

A handsome antique crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Bernard Gateley long a custodian of the house says it was rescued in 1862 from an old Boston dwelling that was being demolished.

When you step into the rear rooms you get the full early 18th century flavor. The ceilings are so low that a six-footer can lay the palm of his hand up against them. Summer beams, now encased, support the upper floors. The gunstock corner posts hold up long exposed timbers, all part and parcel of Early American post-and-plank construction. The rafters of the original attic are held together by wooden pegs. The smoking lounge in this section is paneled in wormy ash, no doubt an 1862 improvement.

The front yard of the half acre surrounding the Curtis house has the oldest beech tree in New England and also a large elm at least 300 years old.

The original Curtis farm extended north to Jamaica Pond and the Brookline town line; west to Beaufort rd. and east to Halifax st.

Early in the 1900s it was cut into house lots and the Jamaicaway was built through the backyard. Four other new streets were laid out - Lochstead av., Pershing rd., Moraine st. and Pond View av.

The residence of former Mayor James M. Curley is nearby, now a home of the Oblate Fathers, and the Mary E. Curley school, with its 20 new rooms, is virtually in the Gormley's backyard.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Al Curtis, Mr Jamaica Pond

Al Curtis was one of the bedrock figures of Jamaica Plain, like a long-time shop owner or school teacher, and remembered by many to this day. I think there can be little doubt that he was the last descendant of an original settler of Jamaica Plain to live in the community, which answers a question I've wondered about for a long time. The article transcribed below makes Honey Fitz JFK's uncle, rather than his grandfather. The Globe somehow repeated the error when they copied text from this article for Al's obituary in 1986.

Boston Globe April 11, 1978

The Admiral of the Fleet at Jamaica Pond

"Al Curtis," said Gov. James Michael Curley, "the is Gov. Louie Brann of Maine. He just brought us a present. His conservation staff is giving us 500 trout and landlocked salmon to supplement our stock in Jamaica Pond. Louie brought his tackle and we would like a boat to go out and catch some of those beauties."

"Thanks a million Gov. Brann," replied Al. "They are a welcome addition. But Gov. Curley, does the gentleman from Maine have a Massachusetts fishing license? No? Sorry, I cannot let you have a boat to fish until he gets one."

Outwardly fuming at his Yankee friend's firm stand, but secretly delighted, as he later said, the governor dispatched one of his aides to obtain the license.

Allan Curtis is known to thousands of Bostonians, many of whom had their first fresh water fishing experience in Jamaica Pond and return yearly to enjoy the sport. Al has the concession to rent rowboats there and sell fishing accessories and refreshments. Boats will be available for rent this year starting today.

Curtis was born into a family of concessionaires. his father and uncle opened the first stands to sell favors and refreshments at Franklin park and Castle Island in 1870. On June 12, 1912, Boston Mayor John F.Fitzgerald, President John F. Kennedy's uncle, dedicated the newly built bandstand, pier and concession building at Jamaica Pond. Al's father was the first concessionaire and it has remained in the family since.

The Curtis family settled in Jamaica Plain in 1632. In the eighteenth century, the Curtis farm bordered Jamaica Pond and took in about half of Jamaica Plain. Curtis Hall, the area's municipal building, was named for "one of my better ancestors," Al says.

Jamaica Pond covers 68 acres, its water comes from springs, and it was once a reservoir for the city. The pond is stocked three times a year with brook, brown and rainbow trout and largemouth bass. The largest fish ever caught in the pond was a 19 pound, 6 ounce brown trout. Boston is one of the few major cities in the East which has fresh water fishing within the city limits.

Al has served many celebrities. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy have fished the pond; Governors Bradford, Cox and Herter were regular customers. Jack Dempsey, Jack Sharkey, Harry Greb, Eddie Shevlin, Tiger Flowers and Honeyboy Finnegan were a few of the old time fighters who enjoyed the facility. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and many other Red Sox and Braves players were fishing fans.

Curley never missed the opening day and the next day newspapers would have a picture of him triumphantly holding his catch. "Jim was an excellent fisherman," said Al. "Most of the time the fish exhibited was his own catch. But he was not above borrowing one if he did not catch any."

Al, a stocky 5-foot-9 with bushy gray-black hair, is never without a cigar. He is an English High graduate and he started work as a copywriter in the advertising section of the Boston Herald. Later he went with Boston Edison and for years ago retired. He was able to arrange his working hours at night so he could operate the concession.

The next pleasant day, go yourself, or take a couple of the kids and enjoy a few hours fishing or boating. You will also have the privilege of making the acquaintance of Mr. Jamaica Pond, Al Curtis.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hoodlum Heist Hideaway Raided

Daily Boston Globe, June 2, 1949

Juvenile 'Gang' Rounded Up in Tent Hideout

Three 15-year-old Jamaica Plain "bad men" were under arrest last night after police raided their tent hide-out in the wooded hills overlooking Jamaica Pond, where the trio "lived like kings" for seven days and from which they launched nightly forays to steal food and money.

Capt Frank Hennessey of the Jamaica Plain Station said the arrest of three boys solved an epidemic of store breaks in the district and the thefts of several bicycles.

The Bureau of Missing Persons said the trio's apprehension ended a state-wide search for the boys, whose parents reported them missing May 22 and have been frantic with worry since.

Medical Examiner Timothy Leary identified the tent in which the trio had made their headquarters as belonging to his grandchildren, which was stolen from the rear of his home at 44 Burroughs st, Jamaica Plain last week.

The boys will be arraigned in West Roxbury Juvenile Court tomorrow.

Police said they found five bicycles, a wide variety of provisions, and a plentiful supply of comic books in the "gang's" hideaway.

According to the police, the trio set up the tent on one of the private estates overlooking the pond and moved the location from day to day to avoid detection.

A "Jimmy Fund" back containing $8.08, stolen in a break at a Centre st. bakery, was among the loot, police said.

The trio dieted on canned goods, candy and even prepared cooked meals according to detectives.

Police said the three boys would be questioned regarding handbag snatches in the neighborhood and said they answered the description of three boys wanted in connection with the theft of a purse from Mrs. Elizabeth Jones of 135 Williams st., Jamaica Plain.