Tubman House Process a Line in the Sand for All Parties

The Harriet Tubman House sale and redevelopment process is quickly becoming a line in the sand for all parties involved, and that was realized with certainty at a Sept. 11 meeting after about 150 unruly minutes of screaming, chanting, hurling insults, apologizing and even reciting long local history lessons transpired.

And it was the second time in one month such a meeting has taken place.

From the outset, it was clear to all in the packed Tubman House community space that the meeting and the goings-on had little to do with the development by New Boston Ventures, and more to do with the overarching issues of gentrification, racial discord (historically and in the present), social service siting and affordable space for vital non-profits.

There was also a healthy amount of personal dislike that played out between leaders of some of the organizations – an issue that has grown throughout the process and seemingly taken over at times.

For those in the United South End Settlements (USES), which is selling the building, the line in the sand was their survival – as they noted they would close their doors in a year without the sale.

For those who opposed the sale – who did come in smaller numbers at the second meeting but still made their voices heard – the line in the sand was taking a treasured and sacred place for the black community for luxury housing, essentially what they said was the last remnant of what once was a thriving multi-racial corner.

It was at those crossroads that an audience of more than 200 stood for the evening.

The meeting was officially conducted by the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), but the Agency took the odd step of turning over the meeting to Anthony Brewer, a trustee at the Columbus Avenue Zion Church. From the opening minute onward, Brewer ran the meeting for the City – at times very effectively and at times giving in to the mayhem.

After protesters marched in shouting “We will not be erased,” things started out rather tame as USES gave a 20-minute, detailed presentation on their financial situation. Board member Aaron Miller, of Shawmut Avenue, noted that the organization was on the brink of collapse.

“I am here as part of the Board because I care about the survival of the organization,” he said. “We will close our doors in 2020. There is a clear and direct path to closing this 127 year organization in 2020. We’ll be talking about Harriet Tubman, Rutland Street, Camp Hale and USES not existing…We will close without this sale and all the assets will go somewhere else and will likely end up in court…That process is difficult and not usually guided by the community…Some 127 years of the organization’s good work, it gets erased starting next year. That’s where we are.”

He shared that the organization ran into trouble some years ago and has run a deficit at about $500,000 a year. The Tubman Building costs them about $450,000 a year to run and operate. A key problem in the past for USES was losing major annual funding from the United Way in the early 2000s. Aside from a $20 million private donation, he said the sale is the one way to keep USES solvent and secure for the long-term future.

“This is economics,” said USES Director Maicharia Weir Lytle. “I’m telling you we looked at everything. We can’t sell the building for 20 percent of the value and go out of business in two years…We actually sat down with TDC (Tenants Development Corporation) and talked about the money we needed to solidify ourselves. It goes back to economics and to secure us for the long-term. I’m not going to talk about the truth and lies because we’ve not been aligned on anything we’ve done in the last two years.”

She said there were nine offers, and New Boston – the preferred buyer – was not the highest bidder, but one they felt was local and would show consideration to the community.

One overriding concern has been that many say the community wasn’t informed of the process to plan for the potential sale of the Tubman House. Many have expressed time and again that they weren’t informed of the process, and Board Member Gary Bailey said he organized the effort and took responsibility for not getting the word out better.

Even so, he said there was a situation where people just didn’t show up to meetings many times.

“People don’t show up,” he said. “What were we supposed to do, walk down the street and pull people into groups? Even our small groups, Arnesse (Brown of TDC) was in the group when we talked about the sale of the building. So, some people did know about this.”

Quanda Burrell said she had children in the program and would have liked to know more about that process, particularly for the fact that they could have raised money to try to save the organization if there had been time.

“The Harriett Tubman House is an oasis of hope,” she said. “Where are these people going to find hope when you take away their programs? We needed to raise money to help you stay open. That’s what we needed to be able to do.”

Destiny Polk, who said her family goes back many generations in Boston, said there was a problem with those leading the meetings, and she also had a problem with the mission of the organization changing in the recent past.

“For those not here for the last meeting, that was operated and directed by white faces,” she said. “Now we’re at a meeting where that is not the case…Just because someone looks like you, don’t assume they have your best interests in mind.”

Board member Bandita Joarder, a long-time Southender, attempted to explain the change in mission, but instead enraged the crowd by making an unfortunate statement about the change in mission.

“We changed the mission to figure out how USES can serve the right people in the Boston community because the work USES does changed to focus on immigrants and people in need,” she said. “We focused on the people in need and not people holding on to memories – sorry to say.”

Safe to say she and everyone on the Board regretted that answer.

The room immediately went  

Then the elders in the room came forward, and silenced the raucous behavior.

A man who did not give his name, but said he had been the first executive director of TDC long ago, gave the room a history lesson that seemed to stop at every train station along the journey.

“All this is, is a way to remove the people you don’t want in the way anymore,” he said. “If you need more services, you move to Brockton or Lynn or out of Boston. That’s because you don’t have the $33.80 per hour to pay the rent or mortgage in Boston. It’s taken 30 years to get to this point. The Board here is trapped. They can be well-meaning…Without all this history, you’re just going to continue arguing. The only thing you need to argue about is do you need the services USES offers. Do not get hung up in advocating for and around this building. Get hung up with the services the community needs. If that’s not here, form that organization – a permanent organization.”

That was seemingly a call for those in opposition to repeat history, forming their own, new USES that would address the issues they had been fighting to preserve for the past two meetings.

Capping off the night was the former director of USES, long-time Southender Freida Garcia. Speaking passionately, she said USES’s problems didn’t start in 2017 when the senior programs shut down. She also gave some history about the Tubman Building as well, saying it nearly ruined USES. She said there has been too much turnover in leadership, and running a deficit has chased away major funders like United Way.

“The minute an agency begins to show a deficit foundations stop funding,” she said. “The list is long of all the agencies that disappeared in the past 18 years from Family Services to Roxbury Multi-Service. The question at this moment is whether USES can survive and continue to provide needed services. In 1975, the decision to build the brand new building on Columbus Avenue almost ruined the agency financially. During my tenure it took almost 10 years to regain the endowment to its pre-building totals. It is only fair that now, in 2019, to the sell this asset which USES built in 1975 to save USES for the future. That is the question before us.”

Certainly it is, and the building project for which the meeting was called, received little to no discussion at all in nearly three hours of meeting. The next BPDA meeting for 566 Columbus Ave. has not yet been called. It is uncertain where the process will go from its current status.

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