This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996). These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.
Barry's Corner: The Life and Death of a Neighborhood
The former residents of Barry's Corner, a tiny neighborhood that once stood at the northeast corner of Western Avenue and North Harvard Street in North Allston, will gather for their fifth biennial reunion on September 10, 1988.
Though Barry's Corner was demolished more than twenty years ago, it continues to inspire intense loyalty. What accounts for the powerful attachment this neighborhood continues to exert over its now widely dispersed population?
Part of the explanation lies in the kind of place Barry's Corner was---a tightly-knit neighborhood of strong personal relationships. Neighborhoods of that sort are fast disappearing from our society, so it is understandable that Barry's Corner is remembered by its former residents with affection. But this unusually strong attachment has another, more powerful source. Reinforcing affection, lending it special intensity, is a shared memory of the heroic struggle Barry's Corner waged against the powerful Boston Redevelopment Authority and the indifference of the rest of Allston-Brighton.
A compact working-class neighborhood of 9.3 acres, Barry's corner contained only 52 structures housing a total of just seventy-one families Its ethnic composition was mostly Irish and Italian, with a sprinkling of Polish and French families.
Former resident Francis Bakke, who now lives in Framingham, describes Barry's Corner as "a good place to live. There was a lot of pride in our neighborhood. Children who grew up there often stayed on as adults. It was common to find three generations of a family living there." According to another former resident, Bernard Redgate, also of Framingham, what made life in Barry's Corner special was "a connection with people that you don't have in the suburbs."
Because the neighborhood was well-served by public transporation (bus lines connected it to Union, Central and Harvard Squares), a family could get along without a car. Other amenities included a public park across North Harvard Street (Smith Playground), and proximity to St. Anthony's Church, as well as public and parochial schools.
The first indication the neighborhood received of the city's demolition plan came in the spring of 1961. "It came like a bolt. We learned about it one night on the Channel 4 News," noted Bakke. "The city made no effort to notify us before that announcement."
The BRA's plan called for the demolition of the existing 52 structures, and the construction on the cleared acreage (by well-connected developers), of a $4.5 million ten-story, 372 unit luxury apartment building, to be paid for largely with federal money. The BRA contended that the Barry's Corner structures were blighted, a charge the residents hotly disputed. The authority also noted that the existing neighborhood was yielding the city relatively little tax revenue. The proposed luxury complex would pay $150,000 as compared to the $15,000 the Barry's Corner properties were contributing. The BRA assured the public that "every effort is being made to assure that the residents now living in the area are provided with suitable new homes."
Barry's Corner residents were understandably outraged. The BRA was proposing to obliterate an entire neighborhood, to seize and demolish private homes, so that luxury housing could be constructed, and to pay for this questionable project with public revenues.
When the BRA finally came to the neighborhood for a public hearing on the proposal in June of1962 (note, a full year after the initial announcement), it was met by a firestorm of protest. "Members of the BRA," the press commented, "were visibly shaken by the hostile treatment they received."
Neighborhood spokesmen took the position that if public money was to be used in the area at all, it should be used to repair existing streets and residential structures, rather than to increase Boston's supply of luxury housing. "We saw it as a clear case of robbing from the poor and giving to the rich," noted Baake.
Father Timothy Gleason, Pastor of St. Anthony's Church, observed at the June, 1962 hearing that "the City of Boston has neglected the area. We've never even been given a finished street. Barry's Corner is not a slum area. These people are good, God-loving people. The word blighted means rot and decay. There is nothing rotten, nothing decayed in Barry's Corner."
A large sign appeared soon after on the front lawn of the Foricelli house on North Harvard Street containing a simple message: "To Hell With Urban Renewal!"
In December,1962, at a City Council hearing, Barry's Corner residents "stoutly reaffimed their pledge to hold onto their homes until they are driven out by force."
Residents left no stone unturned in their long and vigorous campaign to save the neighborhood. They appealed to every level of government for relief: Boston Mayor John F. Collins, the Boston City Council, the State Planning Board, the General Court, the Federal Department of Housing, mostly to no avail. They also organized the Citizens for Private Property, which issued a stream of impassioned press releases.
Barry's Corner suffered a major defeat in January, 1963, when the Boston City Council approved the BRA plan by a 5-4 vote. The neighborhood responded by picketing Mayor John Collins' home.
The first physical confrontation came in August, 1964 when a BRA appraisal team was driven from the neighborhood. The local paper reported this event under the headline: "Allston Minutemen Rout BRA."
A horn blasted throughout the North Harvard Street area Tuesday noon, and some 30 citizens turned out in true minute-man fashion to rout an appraisal team from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Homeowners mustered at Redgate's Store at 162 North Harvard Street armed with brooms, shovels, sticks and spades minutes after George Tetrault and Bernard Redgate drove through the neighborhood sounding the alert.
The appraisal team returned, however, this time with police support, and in early August,1965 most of residents were evicted, and the city began demolishing Barry's Corner.
The neighborhood's four year crusade was not without practical effect, however. By early 1965 the Barry's Corner controversy was causing the Collins administration deep embarassment. On July 22, 1965, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed a resolution opposing the Barry's Corner project. Clearly, the neighborhood was winning the battle for public opinion. The neighborhood met the BRA's August, 1965 evictions with "riotous protests," which generated more negative publicity.
Two significant events quickly followed: demolition was suspended (forty of the fifty-two buildings had already come down at that point), and the Mayor announced that the city was withdrawing the luxury apartment proposal. Instead, a Blue Ribbon Panel would be established to reevaluate the situation. (This panel, incidentally, recommended that the Mayor turn back the deeds of the homeowners if they would agree to rehabilitate their properties in accordance with BRA standards, but the administration chose to ignore that advice.)
Ultimately, the contract to develop Barry's Corner was awarded to a local development team---The Committee for North Harvard (CNH), which was cosponsored by a number of local churches. The building that presently occupies the Barry's Corner site was built by CNH in1969-70.
The remaining home owners were deeply bitter over CNH's failure to make the return of their titles part of its development plan. The leading spokesman of the neighborhood at this stage was Marjorie Redgate (mother of Bernard). The Redgate owned the only store in Barry's Corner, which had long served as a focal point of community activity. Mrs. Redgate expressed deep disappointment at the failure of the Allston-Brighton community to lend support to Barry's Corner:
People who say they are interested in us let these homes get pushed down by bulldozers. They didn't care about our titles. They forgot the rights of the individuals who lived there.
She was particularly disappointed in the failure of the Allston Civic Association and its President, Joseph M. Smith, to provide consistent support to Barry's Corner:
Why didn't he appear at even one of the many public hearings that were held and let his his views be known. Joe was never a supporter of the residents of North Harvard Street. As the residents were fighting against the luxury apartments, the best Joe could do was to remain silent, and while we fought to keep our homes in the final hours, Joe was fighting against us, serving in the ranks of the CNH.
The Redgates and two other residents (Mary Casey and Eunice Hollum) held out to the bitter end, which came finally in October, 1969.
The holdouts were joined by almost a hundred protestors who"paraded up and down North Harvard Street in front of the homes chanting anti-urban renewal slogans and stating their determination to stay and support the three holdout families.
It took a squadron of more than 50 Boston policemen to clear the area. In a flurry of shoving and fist-fighting the police dispersed the protesters and some members of the press, established police lines, and carted off a number of protesters to District 14 Police headquarters for booking on charges of illegal assembly.
The last holdout was a weeping Mrs. Redgate. "I don't want you or the police to be hurt," she told the crowd. "We're all finished here."