Julia Martin learned community activism first-hand in the 1960s with other “Mothers for Action” who took on causes from stopping I-95 to fighting addiction. Today her name graces the Julia Martin House, JPNDC’s building in Jackson Square where low-income seniors live independently in a loving, supportive environment. Today we’re talking with Julia about her half-century of advocacy, the changes she’s seen in Jamaica Plain, and what makes the Julia Martin House an award-winning home.

S: How did you come to Jamaica Plain?

J: I’ve been living in Jamaica Plain now for 59 years. I moved here in September of 1958 or 1959. I’m now 87 and I don’t see me moving from Jamaica Plain any time too soon. I love it here.

When I was a child I lived on the Cape, but as a young girl about 12 years old I moved to Boston and was placed in a foster home. I was afraid of Boston at first, I’ll tell you that. I had never seen a train up in the air and I thought it was going to tip over. I was screaming. And I saw these tall towers and I thought, ‘people live there?’ How do they get to the top? I had lived in cottages!

It was just a terrible day. I went to this woman’s house, she was a tall, sturdy looking woman and she examined me all over, looked at my fingernails, made sure I didn’t have any lice in my hair. And I met all these other children, mostly girls and one boy. It was a beautiful home with chandeliers in the dining room. I had never seen anything so gorgeous in my life.

When I was going to bed she said to me, ‘tomorrow morning when you get up you’ll say good morning Mother Atkinson, or Mrs. Atkinson, it’s up to you what you’re going to call me.’ The next day I chimed in with the other children and said, ‘good morning, mother.’

Mrs. Atkinson was a wonderful woman. She had afternoon teas, and everything was educational. I went to private school, St. Joseph’s Academy, which is no longer there. I was in the drum corps, Cardinal Cushing’s Cadets. I played the drums.

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Scene from Bromley-Heath in the 1950s

When I graduated I went to the school of nursing at Children’s Hospital, and that’s where I met my husband-to-be. I got married at 19 and had my first child at 20. We moved to the West End, right behind Mass General. That’s when they began to demolish the West End, so I went to Boston Housing to apply for an apartment. I got picked to come to Bromley-Heath in Jamaica Plain and I’ve been here ever since. I was 28 years old.

S: What was it like then?

J: It was mostly white people here. I was the second black family to move into 12 Bickford. There was a huge factory where the Stop & Shop is now. There was run-down homes all up and down Centre Street. There was a hardware store, a Cumberland Farms, a drug store. It was not beautiful. There was no greenery when I moved here.

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View of the trolley heading to Jackson Square from Egleston Square (Courtesy JP Historical Society)

Ifyou wanted to go anywhere you had to go to Dudley on the trolley. There were trolley cars running up and down Centre Street. The elevated trains were up above. It made all this noise, nothing like what it is today.

S: Is it true you worked as a private investigator?

J: I did that for about 25, 26 years. I had a girlfriend and she took me to meet this fellow, a private investigator. He liked me right away. He hired me but I didn’t drive. He actually paid me to learn to drive.

I caught on very quick. It’s very interesting, the people I caught stealing. We had a big case in Belmont Filene’s. They said, ‘we know there’s money missing in the perfume department.’ It was up to me to find out why. So I brought these young white girls with me. The lady at the counter was saying to them ‘I can get you to model, I can get you a good job.’ I was saying to myself, ‘mm-hm.’ They gave her a $50 bill for a bottle of Opium and walked away but I stayed there. I saw she never puts that bill in the register. I said, ‘so, you have a program going on, to get children to be models? I have beautiful daughters, I’d like them to come in and see what you can do with them.’ Meanwhile I saw that she fixed her wig and the money went right into the wig.

And I got her. It made the papers. It turned out she was getting these girls, it was a big ring of something that she had going on in Belmont.

S: How did you start getting involved in the community?

J: I started immediately with the Jefferson School, now the Hennigan. I would walk my children to school and I would pick them up. And everything my children were involved in, I would be there. They had a Home & School Association, now they call it PTA. I kept going and they asked me to be chairperson. We did bake sales, making money for the school.

The Bromley-Heath ‘Cave’ (youth center) in the 1970s

When my children went to the Mary Curley School I got involved there and became the chairperson there too. I started the library. I taught the children etiquette, how to set the table, how to serve, all about the presentation of food.

But I really got involved when my husband passed away very young at 43, in 1972. The community, they all were there for me. When I buried my husband I said to my children, ‘I’m going to have to give back to the community.’

As I was going along I met wonderful great women, Mildred Hailey, Anna Mae Cole. There was 10 of us and we started Mothers for Action. We went around doing things for youth, raising money.

S: What kind of things were you concerned about?

J: Mothers for Action was because there was nothing in the community for children. They had no place to go after school. We got a basketball team started, we got a volleyball team started. When the children grew to be young adults there were drugs. I went to Mayor White and we got funding to start a halfway house at the old police station in Roxbury Crossing. And we started one right here where there used to be a church on Centre Street, and the young men would stay there till they got themselves cleaned up. They didn’t have enough funding for a cook at first so I did it for free for six months.

So I went from children to young adults who were on drugs, and when I got through with that I got to the elderly. Of course now I’m elderly and I’m still with the elderly! It keeps you busy.

S: What kind of work with the elderly?

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Mildred Hailey and Julia at the grand opening of the Julia Martin House in 2006 (© John Swan)

J: Mildred Hailey was the executive director of the Bromley-Heath TMC

[Tenant Management Corporation] and I was on the board. ABCD had a woman there who worked with the elderly but she retired. I went to Mildred and asked ‘could I use that space and call it a senior center?’ People could come in and we could talk, we could play bingo, watch TV, coffee hour, to get them out of the house. I did that and it grew. We went to Martha Eliot Health Center and got them to start wellness programs for seniors, for your heart, for sugar diabetes, high blood pressure. It grew so much it was too small in there.

S: You weren’t elderly yet, so what made you want to start that?

J: I was a home health aide and I saw how lonely the elderly were and the things they needed. If I see a need, I find a way. That’s the way I explain it.

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Julia Martin, friends (including Mayor Tom Menino) and extended family at the grand opening in 2006. (© John Swan)

I learned to go to City Hall and I got to know the mayor—all the mayors since Mayor White. My favorite was Mayor Menino. He was my buddy! And now I’m taking seniors all over the city. Boat cruises, dinners, lunches. Anything the mayor has, they call me and I get a group and a bus and I take them out.

S: How did the Martha Eliot Health Center get started?

J: At Bromley-Heath there was a well-baby clinic for infants to get their shots. One particular day someone got a polio shot and the child got infected. And we said, ‘we’re not going to stand for this.’ It was these 10 women again, Mothers For Action. ‘We’re going to get a health center of our own.’ We went to the mayor, we went everywhere. We started with Harvard University. Martha Eliot was started in an empty Bromley-Heath building and now it’s in its own beautiful building.

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The Plant Shoe Factory was one of the largest factories in Boston. After it burned, the site was vacant for more than 20 years (below).

That’s how I found out about JPNDC. Where the Stop & Shop is here, there was a big factory that burned down. It took a whole week to burn down. We had to evacuate everyone from the building next to it [where the Julia Martin House is now] because that’s how fierce that fire was. Then that lot stayed empty for 20, 25 years. There were weeds all over. It looked like a jungle.

JPNDC got the parcel of land and this is where we have the Stop & Shop and Martha Eliot Health Center. That’s how this area of Jamaica Plain got beautiful.

S: How did the Julia Martin House come about?

J: I was on the board of directors of TMC for a long time. HUD approached Bromley-Heath because we had managed the first elderly building built in Boston in the 1960s. The ss-sitebuilding was empty 20 years, and it was just going to waste. They came to Bromley and said, ‘can we do a building here for low-income elderly?’

Of course we jumped. We said ‘we’re going to build with JPNDC because we had worked with JPNDC before.’ So we approached JPNDC, and they said yes. When they walked out of the community room, I called them, and said ‘excuse me, could I be part of this, can I work on this with you on this particular housing because I’m interested in the elderly?’ Then, oh boy, was I involved. I got the people involved and I think it was almost three years to get the building together.

We worked with Steve Tise [the architect]. The original building was too bad to renovate, they’d had problems with it from the beginning. So it had to be knocked down. We worked really hard to make this Julia Martin House the success it is today. The ones who designed this building were the elderly.

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Members of the committee that helped design the features of the Julia Martin House.

We had Marcia who was in a wheelchair, we had Jackie Thomas who’s a maintenance person, I had worked with the elderly, we had a nurse. That was the makeup of the committee that made this building. To the closets, the bathrooms, the community room, the trash room, we got involved in it. We designed the kitchen so someone who’s handicapped can cook independently. They can wheel up to the stove. Their refrigerator’s at the bottom instead of the top. Jackie had the idea of having a trash room with a chute. I had the idea of no tubs because you can fall. Every apartment has a pull cord. When you pull it, the live-in responder will know what apartment needs help.

It was a success. It’s a beautiful building, state-of-the-art, we have people come from all over to come visit this building and they get ideas from this building.

S: How did it become named the Julia Martin House?

J: JPNDC said ‘we’re going to name the building. Can you think of anyone?’ I had this lady in mind that worked with the elderly. But then they said they were looking for was someone who was involved in the neighborhood, not someone who was paid.

When they said ‘Julia Martin’ I said ‘you’re out of your mind. Not me, I don’t think so!’ I told my daughter I was embarrassed. She said no, ‘you’re overwhelmed.’

So Julia Martin is up there and I’m proud of it, but it took me a long time to accept that. It’s an honor and I’m blessed. My work wasn’t done in vain and somebody noticed it.

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Exercise class in the community room

S: There was no guarantee that you would get to live here, right?

J: They had a lottery and I didn’t get picked right away. I got picked like everyone else. I had to wait my turn. I think I was the 3rd last to get into the building. Someone didn’t want it and my name popped up.

When we were cutting the ribbon I jokingly said I’d been accepted into the penthouse. So it got out in Bromley-Heath, ‘oh they’ve put her in the penthouse.’ But I was only kidding. I’m only on the 4th floor and the apartment’s the same as everyone’s! But now when I go up in the elevator I always say, ‘oh I’m going up to the penthouse.’

S: What’s it like living at the Julia Martin House?

J: It’s a very busy building and it’s exciting. We have an exercise class Tuesday and Wednesday. We have hot meals. Friendship Works comes in and does music. We have Big Brother for the ones that don’t have family. We have a buddy system. I work with the live-in responder to bring different activities, make-your-own-sundae, coffee hour, social night, movie night, bingo. We have Valentine parties, Christmas, Thanksgiving—all the holidays, there’s something going on here. We have potlucks where everybody cooks a meal and shares the culture of the food. The most beautiful time is Christmas. The tenants get together and we decorate the building and it’s beautiful. We even won a prize because of this building and everything we have going on here.

We all get along but with the diversity, it was hard at the beginning. It took a little while to work around it. We have Haitians, we have Dominicans, Spanish speakers, we have Black. I myself have picked up the Spanish language. They teach me and I teach them.

I tell you this from the heart. We’re all here for the same reason. If they don’t see you for a while they’ll knock on your door. ‘Are you all right?’ If you get sick in here, they’re there for you. It’s a very, very friendly building. Everyone is treated like family.

S: What do you think about the changes in the neighborhood?

J: I’ve seen a lot of changes. I saw different ethnic groups coming along. I’ve seen the place go down to up and downhill again. With crime, the shabbiness, the dirtiness. Parcels of land not being used, being littered with debris everywhere. I fought for I-95 not coming through here, with Mothers for Action. But as you go along and make it better, the price is going to go up.

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Celebrating the Julia Martin House’s 10th anniversary doing the Electric Slide (at age 87) in July 2016!

Some people don’t like changes. But if you want nice things it’s got to change and there’s a price with it. My son wanted to buy here but he had to go to Everett.

I reminisce a lot. When you get older you think of the past. I remember living in a cold-water flat. You may not know what I’m talking about, but your husband’s at work and you have to go to the gasoline station, with a 5-gallon can, carry it three flights of stairs, lift it up, put it in the stove to heat so you won’t be cold. So now I look around my living room and I say, ‘you’ve come a long way. You’re living in an apartment in the sky. You’re sitting in your reclining chair, big screen TV, air conditioning, you’ve got food on the table.’ So you look at where you come from.

And why do I say that? Because you have people who complain about little things. I attend these meetings with JPNDC, and sometimes I get aggravated. There was a man worried about a bench that’s not facing the right away. I say, ‘hold on a minute, do you know what this place looked like when I moved here? It was a mess.’ I see a change in Jamaica Plain for the better.

I came from a foster room to where I am today. I’m grateful to be around. I am so blessed at my age to be living at the Julia Martin House. I thank God every day. And as long as I can help somebody else I’m going to do it.