City Living, It's Not All Kumbaya

I first fell in love with city living when I posed as a wannabe hippie setting up house in South Allston, a funky neighborhood in Boston in the 1990s.  I was fresh off a five month immersion on a kibbutz in Israel and still held onto those socialist ideals I had incubated in college.  I didn’t want just to theorize.  I wanted to live my values, feeling really lucky I found the Ashford Metaphysical Society, a crazy cooperative house on Ashford Street.  Half of the house was devoted to communal living where we shared chores, meals, conversation, birthdays. The other half of the house had three separate apartments on three floors.  We were all friends and our cooperative lives spilled out in the neighborhood streets at the local food coop and the community garden a skip away.  I loved walking down the street, past large multi-family homes and hearing a variety of languages spoken from the porches and yards.  My neighbors hailed from Kenya, Laos, China, Cambodia, Russia and El Salvador.  South Allston was curious mix of immigrants, students and assorted misfits.

Everything I truly needed was within walking distance – restaurants, book stores, thrift shops for clothes, the food coop for groceries.  Otherwise, I could just hop on the “T” (Boston’s nickname for the subway) or my bicycle.  For a couple of years, I commuted a half an hour each way on my bicycle along the Charles River bike path to my downtown job.  I was always shocked when the car my father had generously given me was still parked across the Allston bridge in a more secluded neighborhood. I never used my car unless I had to make a rare trip to the suburbs.

During those Ashford Street years, I got to meet a host of interesting characters who passed through my crazy house.  Sonia was by far one of the most colorful.  At one point, she became entranced with the lifestyle of S & M.  In a time before social media meetups, she somehow found like-minded enthusiasts, holding weekend long parties in her second floor apartment.  Once I knocked on her door to observe sociologically what the hell was happening in there.  When I noted people walking around naked holding little whips or writhing around on the floor and Sonia’s couch, I quietly walked backwards out towards the door.  I guess I wasn’t that alternative.

Ashford Street was a way station for visitors from all over the world.  Sacha and I became fast friends when we lived on a kibbutz in Israel.  Once his parents who were visiting, sprung us from the kibbutz. I remember our driving through the Israeli, Judean hills with his family from England listening to American country music on the car stereo.  Surreal!  Later on, Sacha sent me tape he compiled of the music of The Judds to remind me of this adventure.  He came to visit me on Ashford Street for a month.

Ashford Street was a way station for visitors from all over the world.  Sacha and I became fast friends when we lived on a kibbutz in Israel.  Once his parents who were visiting, sprung us from the kibbutz. I remember our driving through the Israeli, Judean hills with his family from England listening to American country music on the car stereo.  Surreal!  Later on, Sacha sent me tape he compiled of the music of The Judds to remind me of this adventure.  He came to visit me on Ashford Street for a month.

Halloween was a time of reunion for us.  For a month, housemates, past and present, planned our annual Halloween haunt open to the neighborhood.  The year that Meesh’s rabbit mysteriously disappeared from the hutch in the backyard, we settled on the theme, “Who stole the rabbit?” setting up an elaborate show complete with a courtroom and fake electric chair.  The three neighborhood girls we suspected of stealing the rabbit, started to cry during their interrogation.  Remembering this incident, I feel terrible.  We scared the shit out of those kids.

Janine played the role of the prosecuting attorney in our "who stole Meesh's rabbit?" Halloween skit.  Hell! I would have been terrified too if she interrogated me.

Janine played the role of the prosecuting attorney in our "who stole Meesh's rabbit?" Halloween skit.  Hell! I would have been terrified too if she interrogated me.

The main commercial drag was just a two minute walk away.  This district was filled with ethnic restaurants, an ice cream store, cheap, student furniture places, used book stores and even a Chinese herbal apothecary. The year I couldn’t afford health insurance, I swear I didn’t get sick because of all the foul tasting teas I bought from E Shan Tang.  One evening, I was eating noodles at a Chinese restaurant with my best friend, Lauren when she whispered to me the secrets of Buddhism’s four noble truths.  I almost fell off my seat, bowled over by hearing what still seems to me “the truth”.  It was at Yolanda’s used book store where I discovered books that would shape the contours of my deepest thinking – The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and assorted translations of the Tao Te Ching.  Yolanda got to know my book tastes so well that she would wrap on the window when I passed by if she had a book she knew I would like. 

Don Lubin co-owned my house at 6-8 Ashford Street.  It was the best purchase of his life right after he graduated from Brandeis years in the 1970s.  He didn’t need a real job.  He could spend his time collecting ferns, volunteering at the food coop or later eradicating poison ivy from all the local parks because for money, all he had to do was collect our rents.  Don was the one to teach me how to become an urban adventurer.  During mid-winter around the time of Groundhog Day, we had a ritual of trekking up to Ringer Park past midnight.  Circling the park at least four times, we collected wood to build a small fire.  “Begone Winter, Winter Begone,” we called out to the wind, chanting to each of the four directions.  Don was the one to teach me how to become an expert dumpster diver.  When the Boston University students vacated their apartments in August, he knew the best places to go within a mile to find the thrown-out goodies.  We really dove into those dumpsters!  When the students returned to school in September, we sold the junk back to them in our annual yard sale.  I could make a whole month’s rent in just one weekend off the crap I found in those dumpsters! 

Don taught me everything I know about dumpster diving.

Don taught me everything I know about dumpster diving.

I grew to love city living.  It was acceptable to be as wacky and as weird as you wanted to be.  No one cared if I wheeled my barrel of compost down the main street to my community garden plot.  No one looked twice at Sonia when she walked to the main drag with her pet snake wrapped around her neck like a scarf.

But before, we all link arms, sing “Kumbaya” and walk off happily into the sunset…. South Allston was not complete paradise. Social acceptance is not the point of this story!

A leaflet arrived in our mailbox in October 1990.  The local Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation (CDC) invited the residents around Ashford Street to hear about their plans for a property at 40-42 Ashford Street.  Curious, I showed up to the meeting at the Jackson Mann Community School.  The CDC presented their plan for the property long known in the neighborhood as a haven for drug dealing.  The CDC had purchased the property to convert it into single room occupancy (SRO) housing for a mixed population of AIDS patients, people suffering from mental illness and those with low income. 

Fireworks exploded at this contentious meeting.  Homeowners cited a concern about decreasing property values if the project went forward.  One man didn’t want mental patients “going violent and hurting my grandchildren.”  In those panicky days of the AIDS crisis, others feared they would contract the disease if “those people” moved in.  I was one of the only ones to stand up to support the project.  As a psychological counselor at the time, I informed the crowd that people with mental illness are no more likely to become violent than the average person.  A neighbor I knew on the street shook her hand at me and yelled, “You have nothing to tell us here.  You’re a student and you’ll be moving out.”  Was she right?  Should the homeowners have more of a say because they had a financial stake in the success of the street? Who may speak for the neighborhood?

After the meeting, I offered my community organizing skills to the CDC to put together a neighborhood advisory committee composed of Ashford Street homeowners and other residents.  This committee drafted a written agreement with the CDC that covered such topics as management of the facility, resident selection and communication.  However, the core group of naysayers was not deterred and even initiated a lawsuit against the CDC.

So, here was my values dilemma.  Of course, I supported a project that would house some of the most vulnerable members in need in our community.  On the other hand, the opponents were right too.  How could a community development group that is supposed to base its projects on the wishes of “the community” be sued by  a fair amount of its members?  Shouldn’t the people have decided what exactly would have been the use of that house? But then again, what if these neighbors collectively decide to ban some of the most vulnerable people in our community from our neighborhood?  Do you see the conflict I had as a person and as a community organizer? 

We community organizers have never found an answer to the potential negative consequences of giving “power to the people”.  Even Saul Alinsky, the modern day founder of American community organizing, witnessed the group he formed, the Back of the Yards council in Chicago, use their newfound power to exclude people of color from their neighborhood.  This is not just an irrelevant or academic question.  What if the people elect a leader who denigrates women or whips up hate against Muslims or wants to build a wall to keep out the damn foreigners?  Is “the demos” always right?  And who judges what is right anyway?  And what are we going to do, throw away the ideal of community-driven planning or democracy because the people might make wrong, racist, mean, non-inclusive, xenophobic choices?  I still don't have the answers. It's 2016 and again, I'm in a time warp, the same dilemma I found myself in, what I once believed to be, the accepting neighborhood around Ashford Street.

Oh, but a little end to this story:  The Allston Brighton CDC did purchase 40-42 Ashford Street.  Despite the active and vocal objections of abutters to the property, the CDC converted it to house people with mental illness and people with AIDS.  These new residents turned out to be great neighbors, way better in fact than many of the drunken, noisy Boston University college students that rented apartments up and down the street.  

Friends from the Ashford Metaphysical Society in the 1990s and at a reunion in 2007.  I love the old and newer photos of Jim and Kerry.  Jim died from cancer three months later after the photo on the far right was taken.

Often caught in a 1989 time warp....

Often caught in a 1989 time warp....