Back in ’72, consensus was clear: No dorms on Columbia Point

Last week, the University of Massachusetts confirmed what has been clear for several years now: They are moving ahead with a plan to build a 1,000 bed dormitory complex on the Dorchester campus of UMass Boston. The Columbia Point campus is growing with a $800 million building program in progress and the acquisition of nearby land at the old Bayside Convention Center.

Back in 1972, Dorchester groups came together to oppose dorms. There was a fear that UMass would not be a commuter school and that students would live off campus and greatly raise rents as BU, BC, Harvard and Northeastern students did in Allston-Brighton and the Fenway.

Long-time Dorchester civic groups like Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association, joined with the fledgling Dorchester Tenants Action Council that I worked for back then to form the UMass-Dorchester Columbia Point Task Force. The university agreed to pay for a study that was done by Ellen Feingold and Cathy Donaher of Justin Gray Associates, a planning firm.

The report recommended several measures to deal with concerns of housing speculation and displacement. Its chief recommendations were that no dorms be built and that the campus housing office not list Dorchester apartments for rent. It called for a shuttle bus system from Columbia (now JFK/UMass) station to facilitate public transportation to and from the peninsula.

I remember the working relationship that developed between Kit Clark and Joan Matthews, the two civic leaders who co-chaired the task force. Kit was a business woman and civic dynamo who was a leader in spaces that typically were dominated by men. She could call a colleague, “Earl, honey”, but then say what really should be done. To her credit, Kit was willing and able to work with Joan when many other civic leaders looked down on her a little. Joan was a welfare mother raising four kids in a run-down Fields Corner three-decker after her husband split.Together, they made a good team of effective, feisty leaders. Today, Kit’s name lives on, with a sports complex in her name on the UMass campus, a senior apartment complex at Edison Green, and an elderly services program on Dorchester Avenue.

Joan was the first person I asked to go to a community meeting when I door knocked her home that was owned by the notorious Dorchester slumlord George Wattendorf. Being all of about 21 and not so confident in my new role as a community organizer, I asked her somewhat timidly about going.

Joan replied, “That would be a night out. I’ll get Lena downstairs to watch the kids.”

A few months later she was our treasurer and there’s a plaque to Joan in the hallway of the Dorchester House that her work colleagues put up after she died.

In 1975, when the Boston City Council weakened the rent control law with a policy called vacancy decontrol, the tenants referred to it as VD. In their minds, it was as bad as a venereal disease. At a hearing in Dorchester about this, Joan got up and pointed at City Councillor John Kerrigan who had voted for this and said, “That man gave me VD.” The crowd hushed and Kerrigan was alternately embarrassed and swearing at her under his breath. That was Joan Matthews, a Dorchester “hot ticket.”

In another memorable Task Force meeting, then-State Senator Joe Timilty came to one of the meetings in his role as Chair of the Housing Committee in the Legislature. He was almost elected Mayor of Boston in 1975.

At one point in the meeting, I said something and Senator Timilty said, “Who are you, who are you?” I mumbled that I worked with Joan at the Dorchester Tenants Action, but I knew he really meant: Do you have the right to say anything if you are from a piddling organization?

A year or so later, I thought that tenants of absentee landlords needed an organization, but 80 percent of Dorchester residents were either homeowners or tenants in owner occupied buildings. So my organization broadened its focus and even changed our name to the Dorchester Community Action Council. We started working on neighborhood issues in Meetinghouse Hill and had over 200 people at a meeting with Mayor White on abandoned buildings in 1974.

In 1975, in the tight mayoral race between White and Timilty, we invited them to a meeting to respond to our issues. Because we were working on so many neighborhood improvement issues, we had a much stronger organization and filled St. Ambrose Hall to the brim that night. I was proud that three years after Senator Timilty’s challenge, we had an organization that had gained some respect.

It’s remarkable looking back all these years later and seeing UMass move forward on a 1,000 bed dorm complex with relatively little push-back from Dorchester’s civic leadership. There are concerns about traffic and connecting students to places to shop that could be worked on. I would worry that oncea thousand dorm beds are built, that other students would want to live nearby in Dorchester and this could even further push up our high rents.

The neighborhood— and the university— have changed so much in the intervening decades. Still, I have to wonder what Kit and Joan would say about the subject.

Lew Finfer is a resident of Dorchester.