What I’ve Learned From 40 Years of Community Organizing

The Franklin Park Kite Festival May 1987. The interior pf the entire park was free of motor vehicles in the summer 1985.

The Franklin Park Kite Festival May 1987. The interior of the entire park was free of motor vehicles in the summer 1985.

Forty years ago, on May 9, 1975, I decided to become involved in Franklin Park. Nobody asked me. I just wanted to.

I walked down to Freddie’s Market at the corner of Williams and Washington Street and bought a box of plastic trash bags.  I spent nine hours cleaning the Williams Street foot entrance to Franklin Park opposite 269 Forest Hills St. where my wife, Martha, and I then lived.

Then I called the Parks Department to pick up the piles of rubble, trash, tires and car fenders that must have been at least six feet high. When the Parks Department did not respond after about a week, I dragged it out to the curb and called Public Works to pick it up. Public Works was not happy with me but they picked it up.

That’s usually how it happens; a person decides to get involved. Alexis de Toqueville recognized this phenomenon in Book Two of “Democracy in America,” published in 1840: “Americans of all ages constantly form associations.”

People become involved usually to just say no. (I’ve never known a community group in support of anything). So it’s:

Stop The War.

Stop I-95.

Stop Whole Foods.

My activism began in the anti-war movement with Vietnam Veterans Against the War in January 1970 as soon as I was discharged from the Navy. I spent years being outraged against the war, which was not hard to do.

But the tactics used to confront Nixon and the invasion of Cambodia or the bombing of the Haiphong dikes was a lot different from keeping cars out of Franklin Park. It took me a while to figure out that difference.

Community activism is a way of life.  My experiences might help the new generation of activists; I’ve also made every dumb mistake as an advocate/activist.

I became involved to say no; to say no to the deterioration of Franklin Park. This was not hard to do since short of clear-cutting, Franklin Park could not have been any worse in 1975. This was symbolized by the arsonist who burned down the golf clubhouse that summer. The City of Boston was no friend either when it razed the handsome Refectory over Easter in 1976

So my first advice is, what do you want to achieve?

I started out by complaining about the Parks Department for not taking care of Franklin Park. (Forty years later, Franklin Park advocacy groups today are still complaining and beating up the Parks Department. It doesn’t WORK, friends!).

The first clean up of Franklin Park. The Boston Herald, Oct 21, 1975. People need to stop complaining and start DOING.

The first clean up of Franklin Park. The Boston Herald, Oct 21, 1975. People need to stop complaining and start DOING.

Criticizing the Parks Department was not my goal. Franklin Park was. Treating the Parks Department like the Pentagon didn’t work.  But it took me a while to understand that just saying no to the wreck of Franklin Park was not going to restore that great space.

My second piece of advice should be the 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not be self righteous.”

I learned that suddenly one morning when I barged into the maintenance department at the Franklin Park yard and demanded they fix this certain problem in the park. The superintendent of maintenance, the late George Boutillier, told me in no uncertain terms that I was obnoxious, rude and out of line. (George and I went on to become friends and he went on to do all he could to help, which shows he was more of a gentleman than I was).

This leads me to advice number three. Understand how government works. One of my first mentors was Park Commissioner Bob McCoy. I met him in 1979 when he was assistant park commissioner. He told me soon after when I was on one of my usual park rampages: “Richard! No one made you park commissioner.”

No community activist or neighborhood council member is elected or appointed or anointed by anyone. They are not accountable.  They only become legitimate when they form a relationship with government.  Bob and others in City Hall helped me understand how the parks department worked within city government. It was an invaluable education. Government respects those who take the time to understand its culture and restraints.  I learned how the budget cycle works. How service contracts are let out. How unions operate.

Government does not share power easily. And Boston since the Flynn administration resents power-sharing with community groups unless they sense political profit. So advice number four is to recognize that government has dozens of constituencies from Day Square to Cleary Square competing for its time and resources and it does not like outsiders – no mater how bright-  interfering with its work.

Keep your goals and your methods consistent and to-the-point. Never give up but know when to back off. Don’t blindside government and never embarrass them in print or in public.

Activists love to criticize government and show what’s wrong; I have a PhD in that field.

No one in the Boston Parks Department of 1975 denied that Franklin Park was in shambles. They just had no idea what to do about it with one of the lowest line budgets of any agency in city government.  I learned early on that I needed to find some answers. I needed to generate positive action. This is a very important fact often overlooked. So I organized clean ups. I gave walking tours and slides shows to promote the park and how how important it was. I built the park’s first constituency with a small group I formed, the Franklin Park Coalition. Then I raised money and hired work crews for seven years ($25,000 a year ). Fairly quickly, the little group I formed was seen as different from others because we looked for answers instead of just harping on the problems.

The biggest single scourge of Franklin Park was automobile abuse; every square inch of that park was open to cars and vans and trucks. Assaults, dumping, burned cars, fires, vandalism and erosion were all the result of those who took automobiles into every interior space in the park. Nothing could be done to start Franklin Park’s restoration until that problem was solved. The Parks Department had no idea and the police department had higher priorities.

One day in 1978 I was approached by a staff person on the Southwest Corridor Project in which I had been active for about three years. They had tons of granite blocks to dispose of when the railroad viaduct was taken down; could Franklin Park use some?

I thought these blocks could be used to close off the interior spaces of the park. The Parks Deptartment resisted the idea; but the landscape architect, the late Michael Weinmayr,  hired by the department to draft a master plan of Franklin Park (a Coalition request) liked the idea; he had used something similar at a park in East Boston. The result was two miles of granite block wall with service gates from Walnut Avenue to American Legion Highway.  In November 1981, Glen Road was closed to through traffic with the Coalition, the Parks Department and the Fire Department (which approved road closings) all working together. The scourge of the motor vehicle in Franklin Park stopped.

Lt Governor John Kerry came to Franklin Park on June 16, 1983 to announce that the Land and water Conservation Fund had granted $250,000 to Franklin Park. At right is Park Commissioner Bob McCoy. These funds were matched by$150,000 raised by the Franklin park Coalition from the Browne Fund for the restoration of the Valley Gates. (John Kerry went  on to other things.)

Lt Governor John Kerry came to Franklin Park on June 16, 1983 to announce that the Land and water Conservation Fund had granted $250,000 to Franklin Park for phase two work.  At right is Park Commissioner Bob McCoy. These funds were matched by$150,000 raised by the Franklin Park Coalition from the Browne Fund for the restoration of the Valley Gates. (John Kerry went on to other things). Richard Heath photo.

The greatest community based achievement in the history of Boston is the Southwest Corridor. Almost 50 years ago a group of people said No to I-95. They were successful. But then they had the genius to say Yes. They built a new coalition –  which I joined in 1977 – to turn that destruction into a submerged transit line with a fine linear park and sparkling new stations above.

If my experience has shown me anything, it’s that activists and advocates today have to stop saying NO and work with government and other members of the community to say YES.

  • Lisa Beatman

    Good show! Now, how do you suggest we address this worsening problem: The American Legion Hwy. (ALH) side of Franklin Park is the most inhospitable and inaccessible, particularly the utility area which is turning into a dump. It seems that Boston’s laudable open space plan of parkland within walking distance for residents does not include those of us who live in West Mattapan and East Roslindale. We are here!

    Also, the American Legion and Morton St. sides of FP could and should be part of a safe, dedicated commuter bike path along ALH for residents of our outlying neighborhoods, all the way from Hyde Park to Forest Hills T. We need equitable allocation of city resources.

    • KneeAnalogue

      The Parks Department is about to do a bunch of work including new tables, climbing structures, swings and exercise equipment in FP on the ALH. There has been some news about it and I expect more to come. Feeling hopeful about it.

  • As always Richard, thanks for the history lesson and the insights.

  • hydesquare

    Amazing what people can accomplish; thank you.

  • Frederick Vetterlein

    Richard Heath’s efforts and results in Franklin Park were an inspiration for me. Eventually I became active in the community and these reflections by Richard about the need for patience and understanding all sides are so true. I’d like to add Richard hasn’t mentioned the newsletter he wrote, published, and distributed that chronicled these years. I’d love to find a copy. They showed the frustration and hope as well as wealth of ideas that were brought to Franklin Park’s problem and return to health. This was snail mail at it’s height and I welcomed the small broadside when it would appear in my mailbox. It’s hard to imagine the amount of effort that went into it and compare it to the ability we now have to reach out through the web. Yet it was the same, and showed that the individual could have an effect on his community around him.

  • You remain an inspiration, Richard. Thanks for all you do and all you’ve done.

  • Juan Gonzalez

    Thanks for sharing Richard. So many lessons…