Shaping a City: After a Lifetime in the South End, the Hershfangs Leave the Neighborhood

Boxes of old photos, remembrances of friends long gone and paperwork that was once critical to changing the shape and culture of Boston and the South End have been leaving the long-time West Rutland Square home of Herb and Ann Hershfang over the last month by the boxful.

It was all a signal to the end of a 56-year history of the neighborhood and their life in it – being the only white family on the street to being one of many, raising kids through the school busing era, fighting against the planned highway that would have rifled down the Southwest Corridor Park, and having energy, will and power to change things that were thought to be unchangeable.

Herb and Ann Hershfang in front of their long-time home on West Rutland Square – a home they’ll leave this month after 56 years spent in the South End observing changes and making changes in the neighborhood they love.

The Hershfangs were a couple that took a chance on the South End before such a thing was “a thing,” lived their lives here and grew old here, but now they said it is time for them to move on – such is life.

Both said it was a hard process, and a struggle, but something that came natural as they aged and wanted to be closer to family in Newton.

There is the maintenance, snow shoveling and grandchildren to consider, but also the changes in the neighborhood that they are saddened by, they said.

“The other reason is we have been constantly bombarded with construction noise now,” said Herb. “It’s been so sad to see how wealthy people are attracted to the South End and then move here and create castles with moats.”

Very little of it resembles the South End they moved to in 1965 – when parking wasn’t a big issue, but crime was; and repairing the home meant starting from scratch and doing it by oneself, not gut renovations to make pretty prettier.

At the end of 1963, Herb and Ann Hershfang were married and began looking for a place to settle down. With Herb from the Bronx and Ann from suburban/urban Washington, D.C., they were open to about anything in Boston. Herb had done work with the NAACP in Boston on the Legislative Committee for some years, and they had met at 451 Mass Ave., making him acquainted with the South End and its tight-knit, but gritty charm.

“We looked in the South End first and then the South Shore and west and North,” said Herb. “We discovered we were urban people and began to look more closely at the South End. We were interested in a home on Rutland Street and wanted to know what the City wanted to do with the empty lot next door. The City had no idea.”

Said Ann, “The reason I didn’t want to live in the suburbs is I liked the activity when you walked out your door. You could sit on the stoop and that’s what people did. In the suburbs, people had to call each other to get together and no one was outside like here.”

Then they heard about their current home, which was abandoned, boarded-up, City-owned and on West Rutland Square where most of the places were rooming houses. No one knew what the home looked like on the inside, but Herb had done some reconnaissance with the neighbors – who had broken in a few times and had seen what it looked like.

“They said the floors were solid and the heating system might work, and that’s exactly what we found,” said Herb.

On the day of the auction, the John Sullivan Auction Co. set up with a big banner and a major production. There was a bidding war between two other gentleman, and Herb said he played it cool while Ann said she was scared and worried. The price went from $1,000 to $2,500 and then $4,100.

“Then I said $5,000 and there was silence,” said Herb. “That’s the price it sold for…We thought it was a great deal.”

“It was very dramatic,” added Ann.

They moved in on Aug. 1, 1966 after major renovations – much of it done themselves, with Ann recalling stripping woodwork and Herb recalling replacing ceilings falling down.

The neighborhood at the time was almost all African American, except for a Berklee student who played the saxophone and two single-women on the next street. They befriended their neighbors, the Cephus family, who remained close to them until moving away a couple of years ago as well.

“Otherwise, we were the only white family,” said Herb. “Race was a really big deal and without talking about it, we had a silent agreement with the Cephuses that if there were racial troubles, they would step in. If there were problems with the City, which absolutely ignored black people, we would step in.”

They recalled tenants they had in their garden apartment, political campaigns Herb helped to run for Tom Atkins and others, but they had differing memories of the crime. Ann said her memories of the crime was much more pronounced.

She recalled when a neighbor broke in to the house and didn’t steal the jewelry, but rather stole the TV and some of Herb’s suits.

“They took the TV and Herb’s suits and were selling them down on Mass Avenue,” said Ann. “It was the man next door and he saw us move in and saw an opportunity and took it.”

Added Herb, “Hearing glass break was the worst sound you could hear in the South End at the time. It was ominous.”

Soon after moving in, though, Ann and Herb found themselves fighting against a highway that was to be located at the end of their street – where the Southwest Corridor Park now sits. It was a fight Ann was at the center of and one that changed the face of the South End and the City – perhaps saving it and helping to make it what it is today.

The South End at the time had no real representation, and most of the African American residents were not empowered. The Hershfangs said they often would take neighbors to testify at meetings about the highway to Park Plaza and many had never been to that area of Boston – just a few blocks away really – for years. Another strategy was to take over the Ward Committee, which they did and seized some power in that way.

“We won 68 percent of the vote and decided we were taking on community issues,” said Herb. “The top of the list was to take out the South End Bypass.”

Ann recalled the night the state announced they were abandoning the plan.

“We were on the edge of our seats; we were all so nervous,” said Ann. “It saved the City. The City would have been ruined if it had happened.”

It was fights like that, and changes that included restricting the direction of the streets that helped bring in more neighborhood businesses, and starting resident parking to block out commuters from the suburbs. All of those things shaped the City and the South End in immeasurable ways, and Ann said it came from a confidence of the times and their age.

“The thing that was so fun and was an amazing experience is we could do so much,” she said. “We were professional people with a sense…we could do things and change things. That came in a neighborhood that had no sense of that at all. Whether trash, parking, crime, highways or parks, we did all of that.”

In time, though, as newcomers were attracted to the South End, they said their long-time neighbors began to leave. Try as they might to convince people not to sell their homes quickly and leave, many of the long-time families did. That led to a very quick turnover in the neighborhood and displacement of others that didn’t own, and the racial and economic demographics that are present today and so different from the past.

“One reason the South End turned over fast is people couldn’t sell their homes for a long time,” said Ann. “No one wanted to live here. Once people were interested, neighbors sold right away. They didn’t wait for the highest price. They go the money and ran.”

Now, they will be saying good-bye to their South End Seniors meetings and to so many friends they’ve known for decades and others only a few years. It is a neighborhood that has changed in front of their own eyes over 56 years.

And now it will change even more without them, but would have certainly not been what it is today without them. That said, there is a plant they put in many years ago in the backyard that they said a friend is going to take and plant in his garden, leaving a part of them behind as they depart on Aug. 31.

“It’s part of this situation that won’t be destroyed,” they both said.

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