Looking at the News — the Last Meeting

One year ago on March 10, 2020, I pulled up and parked on Washington Street near Ramsay Park – a little early for a 7 p.m. meeting of the Alexandra Ball Neighborhood Association, a meeting that would actually be the last traditional public meeting I attended up to this day.

That, of course, is quite a statement for a reporter that has made a living of attending public meetings, and likely has attended thousands and thousands of those meetings around the region in a long career.

There have been no more meetings, though.

Of course, Zoom has taken over the civic space, and there have been a few outdoor meetings last summer, but none of the traditional, crowded room, contentious battles that have defined the South End and Boston civic life for generations.

Sitting in my car that evening one year ago, I began getting ping after ping on my phone. E-mails and texts and the like flooded in cancelling just about everything for a three-week period. For our network of papers, there were high school sporting events, elementary school plays, then the memory-makers like Junior Prom and the Catholic First Communions later in the spring.

Then the City put a stop to all in-person public meetings – from the Boston Planning and Development Agency to all neighborhood associations as well. Fundraisers and galas, banquets and pro sporting events – even memorial services were now in question.

Mayor Martin Walsh’s St. Patrick’s Day senior luncheon in Charlestown, Councilor Ed Flynn’s annual St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser at J.J. Foley’s in the South End, the annual meeting of the Friends of the South End Library and a Women’s History Month event in Beacon Hill – all cancelled. All of it had flooded into my phone within a few hours on March 10, and all due to this new threat of COVID-19.

‘Cancelled’ was the word of the day, and it was also a headline in a small story in the Boston Sun a few days later. I can recall sitting in my car and analyzing all of the changes to the calendar so suddenly. I phoned a colleague with a bit of desperation asking what it was that we would put in the paper over the next few weeks if nothing was happening. I had been following COVID-19 in China since early January, looking at shocking and quickly-censored videos online from China and some early public health officials signaling an alarm. That said, I had heard the same thing for Swine Flu and it was hard to figure it would be much different.

Still, as I walked into the church, and down to the church basement, I knew things had changed.

First of all, everyone else was freaked out as well – most in an uneasy laughing way. Everyone at the meeting was on edge; there were questions about hand-shaking posed to Mayoral Liaison Faisa Sharif, but the business of the day went on. It cannot be ignored that I, and as I learned later – others – were on edge there all night.

I was almost afraid to breathe.

We left not knowing what to expect, but I do recall everyone telling people to be safe. That was new at the time.

As I walked out of the Grant AME Church, I explicitly remember stopping on the sidewalk and gazing at the outside of the church. I’m not sure why; I looked at it a few moments in the darkness – then went on my way.

One year later, last week, I stood on that same spot and looked up at the side of that same church. But this time, there were well-over 16,000 ribbons hanging from that same façade to denote the number of people in Massachusetts who had officially died of COVID-19.

I don’t even think I was able to write a story about the Alexandra Ball meeting that night as everything shifted so fast starting the next day. Clearly, it was a slow descent to a full shutdown over a period of many days. Friday the 13th stands out, as does the following Tuesday, March 17.

But the moment I know I realized that things would be different, that I’d likely attended my last neighborhood meeting as I had always known them, was on March 10 coming out of the basement of the Grant AME.

That is my moment, just as everyone else has their moment.

Will there be another neighborhood meeting ever again?

Yes, I think so. The South End Forum will fight again one day in the cramped quarters of the Library’s upper room. But will there be a computer in the corner running Zoom for those at home as part of it? Yea, I think that will happen too.

We often, however, just move forward with life and forget what we lost or what it used to be like. I remember going to great lengths to get money out of the bank on a Friday, but I’ve forgotten all about that routine since ATMs came on the scene 30 years ago. Likewise, I remember pulling up to the airport 30 minutes before a flight and walking to the gate with little to no security and hopping on the plane. There were no hassles, no worries and no taking off my shoes and belt. But I had to be reminded of that recently because I forgot I used to do that.

Time will tell if our civic space will be forever changed too.

I’m guessing that early March evening in the church basement might have not only been the last meeting like that for a year’s time, but maybe also for a long time.

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