Welcoming 39 families to new affordable apartments in Jackson Square is how JPNDC will kick off its 40th anniversary year in 2017! JPNDC Real Estate Director Leslie Bos and Project Manager Teronda Ellis are two of the people who have made this project a reality. Today we’re talking with Leslie and Teronda about JP history, mothers, and how their own families’ search for an affordable home connects them to the people who will soon move into 75 Amory Avenue.
S: Doing development in an old city sometimes brings surprises. What did you find at 75 Amory Ave.?
T: We knew of course about the historic grassroots uprising in the 1960s and 70s that actually shut down a federal highway project. That’s why we have all this vacant land in Jackson Square. But it didn’t really hit me until we started to dig that we were unearthing the history before the highway project, the industrial history. That was really cool.
First of all, we found oil tanks. There were eight 3,000 gallon tanks and one that was about 10,000 gallons—that was like the mama! But then there were these old structural foundations and rails, 15 or 20 feet below the surface. Who gets to see this?
L: We discovered a sub-sub-basement of a huge structure, with walls that were 4 or 5 feet thick. I got curious and started asking around. What the heck is this? And we discovered that the site was a foundry where they manufactured railroad ties. And so the oil tanks were there because the oil actually provided the power for all this activity. The rail lines were there to transfer the manufactured railroad ties to the adjacent main railway line. They would manufacture right there and load the railroad ties for distribution. It was like an archaeological find.
Seeing the industrial history and the history of Jamaica Plain as a home to workers, I felt a direct connection to the history and understood what people fought for. You could imagine the foundry workers here. It was a community that was dynamic and provided jobs for people who were most likely new to this country. And that comes back to our work with immigrants now. It was really kind of deep.
T: It was. It was touching to get below the surface, unearth the history, and actually feel it. And now, in the new building, we’re going to be bringing back working families to a community that was all but washed away. It’s powerful.
L: It’s a lot like healing a wound. Those vacant parcels were a scar.
T: One of the workers, an old-school guy, was out there digging the trench to power up Comcast for the building. He talked about coming here as a little boy with his grandfather. Apparently in the 60s there was a nightclub here. He was too young to go in, but he remembered peeking in the window. It was cool to hear how excited he was to see the new building, because he remembered when this area was bursting with life and activity. He said, ‘you guys are building market-rate housing, right?’ And we said ‘no, it’s for working families, individuals with disabilities, formerly homeless families.’ He was really psyched.
S: Each of you has a personal connection to Jamaica Plain, right?
L: My mom is a single mom and she was on her own with me in New York City where she grew up, and she decided to relocate. She actually put me in foster care, came to Boston and found a job. And what people said to her, this was in the 70s, was ‘don’t live in Boston and don’t put your kid in Boston Public Schools.’ It was the height of the busing mess. So she found a job, got me out of foster care and brought me to Boston, and we landed in Brookline Village. In the early 70s, Brookline Village was a working-class neighborhood. But then in the early 80s there was this initial wave of condo conversion that displaced all the working families from Brookline Village. And guess where we ended up? Jamaica Plain.
T: My connection with JP is in part a story about what happened in the South End. My family ended up in the South End after migrating from Selma, Alabama. In the 80s the South End exploded, of course, so I quickly understood housing. My first job was in Fair Housing in the early 90s when the City had launched a pretty comprehensive first-time homebuyer program. I was priced out of the South End, where every shell was being developed by developers, and trying to figure out where I was going to go. So, long story short, my mom said ‘you can’t live in a car so don’t buy a car, buy a house.’ That’s how we ended up in JP, through a first-time homebuyer program.
L: This community has acted as a refuge for families that were displaced from their home countries or from other neighborhoods.
When we came to Jamaica Plain I was in high school, so my whole adult life is embedded in this community. We lived on Day Street and my mother told me, ‘you are NOT allowed to walk towards Jackson Square.’ The supermarket and health center weren’t built, JP Plaza wasn’t built. The Orange Line was still elevated over on Washington Street and it wasn’t safe. The gangs ruled. So I only ever experienced the South Huntington side.
When the new Orange Line got constructed and the supermarket got built, I experienced the change and the improvement in the quality of life, and discovered a different side of the community that had been almost inaccessible. Then to be able to join the board of JPNDC as a young professional, and become part of that revitalization, was especially meaningful to me.
And now it feels amazing to see the building at 75 Amory Ave. going up and to know that this land will serve low-income families forever. It kind of feels like the circle of life. This community was a refuge for my mom and me in a different time. Hopefully it can be a refuge for families facing housing pressures today.
T: It’s funny how our lives have so many parallels. In my family, we weren’t allowed to cross over Mass. Ave. from the South End. We could go toward downtown but not the other way.
Then my mom took part in a YMCA-sponsored construction apprenticeship program. It was really transformative in the sense that she was empowered to move outside of our four corners, physically and figuratively. She joined the carpenters union and became one of their earliest female construction workers—and it was the Southwest Corridor project, the actual excavation and construction of the new Orange Line, that she worked on! Literally across Mass. Ave. Then, with the housing bubble making the South End out of bounds for us in terms of buying a home, this community was a natural next step for our family.
L: My mom was a social worker and worked mostly with teens who couldn’t live at home. She and Gerry Wright, who’s a Jamaica Plain activist, helped found a residential program called Community Care at the intersection of Perkins and South Huntington. They created a home and her thing was to care for these basically marginalized young people, who would otherwise have been in the foster care or DYS systems. I grew up with those kids. I would go there and eat dinner and hang out with them. That was the center of my world.
So partly with my mom as an example, I’m paying it forward and making an investment in the community. It feels meaningful to contribute to a place where people who’ve been marginalized can be more secure going into the future. Because it’s kind of where we came from.