For a strong contingent of Southenders and former Southenders, no amount of new, donated space will replace the historic nature – and central community gathering area – that has been the Harriet Tubman House on the very visible corner of Massachusetts Columbus Avenue.
The building is owned by United South End Settlements (USES), and has been options to New Boston Ventures for a mixed-income, mixed use development that will replace the Tubman House, and will include community space donated to the organization. USES has a plan to use the proceeds to stabilize the organization and consolidate its operations at a property on Rutland Street.
Last Wednesday, with the developer now having a demolition certificate, about 30 supporters gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Tubman to unveil an effort to save the building before it’s torn down – dubbing the effort ‘I Am Harriet.’
“I’ve been living in Boston for about 35 years and I’ve been coming here during that time and it is a cornerstone for the black community,” said Ife Franklin. “It’s at the corner of one of the largest spots for black energy in the area. That’s the last piece of that energy left here. The neighborhood has now changed. Ok, it’s changed, but it’s like we’re being erased. And I’m tired of it.”
That was the tenor of the rollout as several speakers spoke about the rich past on the corner, which contained jazz clubs like the Hi Hat and Rainbow – as well as the existing Wally’s. There were historic people who did historic things, and supporters said the building was placed in its location by USES and community leaders for that exact reason in 1969.
“I was here in the late 1970s, `80s and `90s and this is about the second wave of us being pushed out,” said Curdina Hill. “This neighborhood had a lot of black people in the 1980s…It just seems we are not being considered and ultimately everything we had here will disappear. A lot is at stake right now.”
Rachel Goldberg, a commercial developer in the South End for 35 years, said there are still options.
“This is Harriet’s sacred space,” she said. “They can’t come here and demolish this block. One of the things in real estate is talking about re-positioning assets. This building could be re-positioned. Harriet was a conductor. Well, there is no stop on this line for Tubman Place. We don’t need more condos.”
Arnesse Brown of Tenants Development Corporation (TDC) said their organization rents space from USES in the building. She pointed out that TDC was born in USES to help fight for tenants’ rights – to keep people from being unfairly evicted – and now TDC is being relocated by USES.
“This is an historic site,” she said. “There is a tremendous amount of African American history here. It’s why community organizers in the 1970s built it here.”
USES did respond to the rollout of the movement in a statement distributed at the rollout.
“We understand and share the passion for, and connection to, the building named Harriet Tubman House,” read the statement. “…The funds from the sale of 566 Columbus Ave. will be reinvested to address persistent and significant financial costs for revitalizing our aging facilities and alignment of programs for our children and families in need…New Boston Ventures was selected because we appreciated their vision, their conscientiousness as developers and their respect for community as shown in their other projects they have undertaken over the years…”