The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) Urban Renewal policies in the 1950s and ‘60s dramatically affected Boston’s cityscape and culture. Dense low-income neighborhoods were labeled unhealthy outdated slums. Gradually they were demolished, their residents displaced, and replaced with large-scale public and luxury housing, government, commercial and industrial complexes, and highway infrastructure.
On April 27 1968 activists occupied a South End lot, a former residential block slated by the BRA to be redeveloped as a high-rise parking garage. Led by Mel King, the Community Assembly for a United South End (CAUSE) rallied 400 people to camp there and refuse to leave until their demand was met for the site to be developed as much-needed affordable housing.
Within their self-proclaimed Tent City, protesters chanted, sang songs, played music and danced; painted and hung signs; and ate food donated by Boston Celtics star Bill Russell who owned a restaurant nearby. The festive spectacle of Tent City and the vigilance of the occupiers drew in many passersby and garnered strong media attention. Within three days public support for the protest had swelled and the BRA conceded to halting their redevelopment plans.
CAUSE continued to advocate for the housing rights of South End residents and 20 years later, on that lot, the Tent City mixed-income apartment complex was dedicated. Sited across from Back Bay Station and Copley Place in a highly desirable area, Tent City houses over one hundred units for families of a broad income range, serving as a successful planning model that privileges diversity and access over homogeneity and isolation.
King was raised in the South End’s New York Streets “slum” district, which was razed in 1955 for the Herald Traveler plant, later known as the Boston Herald. He is a former State Representative, MIT Professor, and founder of the South End Technology Center for community-based education.
Written by Neil Horsky, this article was originally published in the April Boston Compass. If you’re interested in volunteering for the Compass (distributing, layout, art submissions, etc.) send an email to [email protected]