Emotions Run High at Tubman House Meeting

The first meeting of the Impact Advisory Group (IAG) on the Harriet Tubman House redevelopment project rolled out Monday night, Aug. 29, but try as they might, they never got to the meeting.

The Tubman House, which was sold by United South End Settlements (USES) to South End-based New Boston Ventures, has been slated for a 66-unit, by-right development of condos and commercial/community space. The sale came, USES said, to save their organization from folding, but at the same time it has also been a major point of contention for those who oppose the sale because they feel it is a sacred space on a sacred corner – the last refuge of the black and low-income communities that existed in the South End exclusively in the past.

Bernard Johnson passionately confronts BPDA Coordinator Mike Sinatra and New Boston Ventures Co-Founder David Goldman during the first meeting Aug. 19 on the demolition and redevelopment of the Harriet Tubman House at the corner of Columbus and Massachusetts Avenues. The unruly meeting seemed to bring to the front a generation of frustration with housing, race and wars within the non-profit world.

Monday night, one thousand different points of emotion and perspective flooded down on 566 Columbus Ave. (Tubman House). As the members of the IAG were being introduced by Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) Coordinator Michael Sinatra – an unruly tirade began and it didn’t subside for nearly three hours as some in the audience argued, some scrapped in the corner and others expressed genuine emotion on both sides of the issue that had been carried with them for years – if not generations.

It was unprecedented, with strong racial overtones, and gentrification top on the agenda.

No one had seen anything like it in a City meeting for a long time.

As developer David Goldman began to explain the project, a group that had been protesting outside made their way slowly into the Tubman House community space playing drums and chanting, “We will not be erased.”

Goldman began to try to out-shout them, and they upped the ante with their chants.

Sinatra tried to keep order, but it was useless as the meeting descended into a dark place that it never seemed to be able to get out of.

“I am a Southender,” yelled Goldman. “My husband and I moved into the South End nearly 40 years ago. We believe in this neighborhood and it is our home.”

That was countered by Destiny Polk – a performance artist from Concord, who said she had been displaced from Boston, and who had led the marchers in the building.

“I’m not interested in hearing your presentation,” she yelled back over the chants. “We no longer want you to take our space. We’re not interested in hearing you. Leave this place now.”

Goldman pleaded that he get enough respect to be able to explain the project, and BPDA employees called for some calm.

“Sell the building to people of color,” yelled the crowd.

“This meeting is disrespectful,” yelled another.

“We don’t need more condos” came another shout.

Despite, the development team pressed on amidst the catcalls, harangues and high emotions of those in the crowd – some who were there to put on a show – which they did, and others who were feeling genuine emotions about losing a treasured community space.

That’s when Bernard Johnson, who said he was from Codman Square in Dorchester, came from the back of the room and took over the meeting – getting into the face of Goldman and Sinatra to curse them and call them liars. He confronted them at the podium for nearly five minutes and then went into the crowd to confront those telling him to sit down.

About 30 minutes later, after finally sitting down next to the podium, he arose and apologized for his behavior.

“I apologize for coming up here and cussing and being so passionate,” he said at the podium. “I will literally die for my community.”

That was carried on during the fracas as Anthony Brewer, of Roxbury and associated with the Columbus Avenue Zion Church, got heated about the sale of the building and called USES Director Maicharia Weir-Lytle a “sellout.”

He later apologized for doing that, and said as a Christian man, he was way out of line.

All of it, however, set the free-for-all tone that often overshadowed mixed the real concerns and frustrations.

Nina LaNegra of the United Neighbors of Lower Roxbury said the anger goes back 50 years to Urban Renewal and the taking of property.

“This community process was duplicitous at best,” she said. “There’s a better word for it and it starts with L and ends with R…The BRA gave this to USES for $0. Why? To ameliorate the damage done to the community.”

Bill Singleton, president of United Neighbors and a landlord in the South End, said people were angry because they were losing something.

“Look around, those that are not angry have things,” he said. “You’re not angry that you’re losing something because you have things. I want others to have things too. Anger is a method for being heard. You have so much and this is one little thing people want, and you’ll take that too.”

Goldman and his development partner, Dennis Kanin, did give a presentation, but few paid attention, and even fewer could pay attention given the antics that continued – and became even more personal as the night went on.

Goldman pointed out that the building has 17 percent affordable units – which will be marketed to artists being displaced from the Piano Factory Guild on Tremont Street and will average a monthly mortgage of $1,500. That, he said, is lower than many of the rental properties advertised by local community development corporations.

He also touted the social enterprise café, noting that he has talked to the Haley House about possibly operating it – and he noted that there would be community space on the first floor deeded to USES. He, and investment partner Richard Taylor, emphasized this isn’t going to be a luxury development that leaves the community behind.

“You’re dealing with people of integrity who understand what this institution stands for,” Taylor said of New Boston.

USES folks mostly listened during the first part of the meeting, but Camp Hale Director Jerrell Cox was quite frustrated by the meeting. Having attended USES as a kid, he said he was sad to lose the Tubman House, but said it’s more important to keep serving needy children in the neighborhood.

“We are not a country club,” he said in regard to criticism from the crowd that indicated USES was only serving wealthy, white children. “I welcome the opportunity to prove to you we have a diverse population. I go to the schools, to the housing developments and to the shelters to make sure it’s diverse. We had to do this to survive. It’s been extremely difficult to grow up here and see the hardship we go through every single year to survive. I grew up here, but these are just bricks and we’re trying to change children’s lives.”

The only young man that attempted to make public comments, Julian Rodrigues, 14, wanted to express how much Camp Hale means to him and how much he wants it to continue.

However, few even heard him due to the confrontations, yelling and scrapping going on in other parts of the room.

City Councilor Kim Janey was one of the first to speak, and the only elected official to venture into the fray, delivering a diplomatic speech.

“I don’t think any of us wanted to see this building sold,” she said. “It represented the last foothold in the South End for communities of color before gentrification. It is painful. It is important we hear those voices. I hope people can separate this development from being angry about the building being sold.”

Quanda Burrell was one of many in opposition to the sale who said the community process was flawed. She said she worked at USES and had her kids attending and was never told about the plans for the Tubman House.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without USES and my kids wouldn’t be where they are,” she said. “However, I was never informed of this. People were walking by the classroom when I worked here and no one invited me to any of the meetings. I had to find out from another neighbor.”

Melody Valdes, an early childhood teacher at USES, rose to dispute that and to say that the financial troubles were very real.

“We’re being told we don’t care for the kids and all we do is care,” she said, in tears. “I have had to write five grants to get $50,000 to keep my program. Where do we get all this money from that people keep talking about? We keep talking about all this money and I don’t know where it is.”

Weir-Lytle rose to speak at the end of the meeting – nearly three hours into the taxing affair – to state that the sale had to happen so USES could remain solvent.

“I inherited an organization that suffered operational deficits for 19 years,” she said. “I came to this organization because I did not want to see another black and brown organization close its doors…We are doing everything we can to keep it alive…We knew something had to change and we did not have people come out to help us. We asked. It wasn’t on the radar.”

Arnesse Brown, of Tenants Development Corporation (TDC) and an IAG member, said that was insulting and incorrect.

“For me to hear that no one offered help when I know for a fact that TDC offered is shameful,” she said. “We offered our help because we could have fixed these things that are broken. They didn’t want our help.”

Valerie Stephens, a long-time Southender who said she had been priced out years ago, chided the audience for its behavior, but also said the passion that had been on display was exactly right.

“For those that don’t get it, too bad,” she said. “That’s the South End where I grew up. It is insulting to tell people to shut up because of their passion. It was passion, love and need that built this building. Hold your feet to the fire. Show up. I came to meetings and you all weren’t there. I’ve sat here and listened to people suck their teeth and give a snide remark…The South End should know how to show up and hold people’s feet to the fire.”

Everyone will get that chance to show up again on Sept. 11, when the BPDA will have its next meeting on the Tubman House. The details are still to be determined.

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