If you’ve ever read the Jamaica Plain News or The Bulletin Newspapers, chances are you’ve read an article by long-time JP resident Richard Heath. Today we’re chatting with Richard about his service in Vietnam, the founding of the Franklin Park Coalition, and his work in affordable housing.

G: Where are you from originally and where do you live now?

 R: I was born and raised in Framingham, Massachusetts and I’ve lived in Jamaica Plain since 1973. I’ve lived in two places while I’ve been in Jamaica Plain, first on Forest Hills Street and then we bought a house on Bourne Street by Forest Hills in 1991.

G: We have seen many of your photos on the internet and some newspapers. When did you start taking photos and what was your motivation to do it?

R: I went to Mass. College of Art starting in 1964. Then I was drafted and came back four years later and minored in photography. I really like it. I got involved with it when I started working with my community in Franklin Park in the 1970s.

G: Do you consider yourself a journalist, a photographer, a historian, a community organizer, or something else?

R: Well, I am basically a busybody! I am very curious and I like to know about where I am and what’s going on. I’ve never made a career out of any of it

Second tour in Vietnam 1968-1969. Volunteered to serve at a Vietnamese Civilian Hospital, Quang Tri. This little girl was recovering from malaria. Richard was singing Beatles songs to her but she was unimpressed.

except for my work in Franklin Park and my work with housing. It all comes together in communication and explaining the value of what I am doing.

G: You started your work as community activist after you came back from Vietnam. Tell us a little bit about why you became an activist after the war.

R: I was really politicized in Vietnam. I had never been a political person at all. Coming up in high school and college I was all about cartoons, rock n roll and girls. Those were the three horsemen of my apocalypse! In Vietnam, I was really shocked by the horrors of it and the racism of it and the brutality of it. It was really brutal. It shocked me into analyzing my beliefs about the United States.

One thing led to another, and I moved to Boston in 1973 and it was the first time that I had my own house. I started realizing things were bothering me and disturbing me much like they were bothering me in Vietnam so I started to get active and involved. Busing came along and I got involved with that for a little bit. I lived across the street from Franklin Park and that was making me unhappy.

G: You are the founder of the Franklin Park Coalition. Tell us a little bit about your work there?

R: I went to an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1970 and it was called “The City is a Work of Art.” It described, for me, the development of the Back Bay and the development of the parks. It really triggered me. It was an epiphany for me, to understand for the first time in my life, the built landscape. When I came to Boston and lived right across the street from Franklin Park, it was in shambles. Nobody cared about it. I was very concerned about that. I started my own cleanups. I bumped into an organizer from ESAC sometime in 1975 and I was out of work. He encouraged me to get involved and so I did. Then I heard about the Franklin Park Neighborhood Coalition and they were in a transition period. They had run into huge money problems. A group of people got together at Lena Park to discuss what we should do and I volunteered to take it on. We became the Franklin Park Coalition and I spent 12 years at it.

G: How do you think that the advocacy in the 60s and 70s helped to transform JP into what we have today?

 R: It made it what it is today. There is no question about that. It improved so much. Franklin Park, Egleston Square and the Southwest Corridor took a tremendous amount of effort. I think what really made a difference was the approach to working with government. In the 70s, city government was just coming to grips with how to share power with the emerging neighborhood groups that were self-appointed, like the Franklin Park Coalition We got a lot done because we able to work with government but they were also able to work with us. It was a partnership.

Hospital Corpsman R Heath ready to save the Free World. DMZ Vietnam. August 1967

The difference now is that on the one side a lot of people think that they are entitled to whatever they want to get, and on the other side a lot of people in government resent that attitude. There’s a huge difference. There’s no way we could accomplish in 2018 what we did in 1977 or 1987 because of the change in politics, personalities, and the way people view themselves and vis-à-vis their own community. It’s a complicated question but there is a lot to learn from it.

G: After you left the Coalition, you transitioned into working in affordable housing in the neighborhood. What were some projects that you worked on?

R:. I needed a change. It was Leroy Stoddard from Urban Edge who, out of the blue, asked me to become an organizer with their new development called Wardman Apartments. That was an epiphany too. That changed my life in the same way that “The City is a Work of Art” changed my life.

So in 2001, I changed my career. I completely changed my work. I worked as a community organizer in affordable housing, with residents at properties in Codman Square for about eight years, and in Egleston Square.

Becoming a journalist three years ago made another huge difference for me. As a community organizer for housing,  I was very self-righteous. I was very emotional. I was almost a missionary about it. I would get up at community meetings and jump up and down and yell and scream and that really wasn’t working. I took night classes in journalism at Northeastern and I realized that I would just have to listen. They told me I had to do two things: one was spell the guy’s name right and the other was to just listen. So, I just listen. I sit and I listen. Soon, the answers come out by not saying anything and not pouncing on someone after they stop talking.

By sitting and listening I was able to understand so much more about how housing is done, what the limitations are for affordability and how that is accomplished, the constraints from the private sector and the constraints from the government. I learned more in three years because I approached things in a better way and I listened and did my own research without being emotional about it. That made a big difference. I wish I had learned to listen and wait for the answers 30 years ago. The answers will always come out. You just need to stop yourself from getting involved in the conversation.

G: You wrote a book about the history of Forest Hills.

 R: When I retired in 2011, I first wanted to write the history of Dudley Square but there were too many moving parts and too many personalities for me to do that. It just came about that I sat d

Leading a Fall 1986 walking tour of Franklin Park as Director of the Franklin Park Coalition.

own in March 2012 and put together an outline about Forest Hills instead. I already had a lot of work done and a lot of experience in the neighborhood. I am very proud of that work. You can read it online at the Jamaica Plain Historical Society’s website.

 G: What would you like to see happen in Jamaica Plain in the future?

 R: I think people need to think big and not just about their own little corner. There are too many warring tribes in Jamaica Plain. There are all these groups, events, programs, and different things going on and people are thinking too small. And when there are so many little fringe groups, government thrives on that. They can just divide the fringe groups against each other. It really has to change. The fact of the matter is most low-income working people can’t afford to live in this town. Think bigger. Go to the City and have them do something about it. But STAY on it!! Be persistent and consistent. Don’t surprise government Let them know your mind and stay on topic.

I’m almost 72. My day is over. People need to figure this out. But they can’t if they’re not putting down roots. My sense is for a lot of White people who I see around JP, they’re here to get their urban kicks, to go to a bodega down the street. They want to feel hip and democratic and modern but most will move on and move away.

G: What is your favorite place in Jamaica Plain? Why is it special to you?

 R: The parks are wonderful. The Arboretum is fabulous. But If I have to pick one it is Egleston. It has everything you need and I like that. There are funky people, there are yuppies and record stores and I keep going back there because that is what a city neighborhood is supposed to be.