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Boston Bound

18 Mar Posted by in Jewelle Gomez | Comments Off on Boston Bound
Boston Bound

I visited Boston this weekend to see some old friends.  There was a brief moment when I hoped for snow, just for old times sake, but realized I really needed to be back at work on Monday and even if we got snowed in the past was totally gone.

We drove though my old neighborhood, the South End, (not to be confused with South Boston).  The Prudential tower which was the grandest thing in the area when it was built is now surrounded by other tall, glassy eyed structures.  The tenement where I first lived with my great grandmother is still there, its heavy wood doors refinished for the upscale tenants who live there now.

We got snowed in there once when I was about 10 years old.  The snow drifts came up to our first floor windows and by the time the city remembered to dig out our decidedly not upscale street a couple of days had passed.  Fortunately my great grandmother was always prepared.  It was a cold-water flat—we kept all the taps running so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, closed off the back rooms and used only the front room and her bedroom, cooking on the oil space heater.  Maybe that’s why I got into camping later, being snowed in was like an adventure when I was a kid.  I didn’t know that other people had heat and hot water and snow plows that didn’t forget them.

My stepmother’s home and surrounding blocks further down town looks totally different now with its renovated row houses.  She was one of the first black people to buy a house on the block in the 1960s.  It wasn’t that comfortable for a while then many of the middle class white people fled and the city did the snow plow thing again…services became fewer and further between.  Police were only interested if a white person was the victim of crime.

Then with the coming of the Prudential Center, the expansion of the Christian Science Church holdings and more hotels, came urban removal.  Houses were snatched up like pick up sticks.  Landlords tired of fighting to keep up their properties sold them at high prices to professors and professionals who knew a good thing when they saw it. The idea that this was an integrated community with an elegant history worth saving never seemed to enter the discussion.  Certainly the city didn’t make an effort to engage the community and the few black and working class homeowners.  When I left Boston in 1971 the neighborhood had all the debris of the turbulent sixties, white flight and municipal neglect.  Yet the underlying energy was still magnificent.

Some folks remembered the Hi Hat, where Billie Holiday used to go for a drink whenever she did a concert in town, where my grandmother waited tables!  There’s no sign of the dance school where the Kennedys (that’s the Black Kennedys not the JFK Kennedys) held sway and created a generation of talented young dancers.

I felt some joy that the beautiful historic architecture of the buildings had been restored.  Even as a kid I knew they were special buildings that deserved better care than most people living in them could give them.  Such grandly crafted stone and wrought iron is breathtaking, especially when it’s just there, in the entry to a home rather than reserved for some municipal monument.  The neighborhood becomes the monument.

What I did miss this weekend was the energy.  There were no jazz clubs, few young people of color hanging out, little to testify to the mix of ethnicities and classes that used to make the South End exciting.  The loss of a sense of community for that mix of people is not something we can afford, especially as our society becomes more and more fragmented.

Many of us who grew up in urban areas in the 1950s and 60s feel the same loss when we go ‘home.’  In fact it’s a home that only exists in our minds.  Another reason I’m grateful that I write.  I try to capture the images and ideas before they fade completely and reignite a longing for community.  If that one community we remember is gone how do we learn to intentionally create another?  Now.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website:

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