Apologies have their place, but collective action is better

Apology is defined as “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.” In mid-September, in an appearance at the West End Museum, Brian Golden, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) apologized to those who were driven out of the city’s ethnically diverse West End in the “urban renewal” era of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“We offer an official but heartfelt apology to the West End families affected,” said Golden. “The old West End was destroyed in the name of ‘slum clearance.’ Although the damage was done decades ago, it still remains.”

Then, in late October, the Massachusetts Port Authority honored the group of mothers who 50 years previously had protested against Logan Airport expanding into their East Boston neighborhood by sending hundreds of huge trucks through their kid-filled streets.

“They were kind of the Paul Revere of citizen activism in Boston,” said Thomas Glynn, chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority in noting that their organizing had kept the airport from encroaching on the neighborhood even more than it already had.

Last month also saw several hundred people from across the city gather at a rally in Fields Corner and then march through Dorchester as part of the Right to Remain Coalition’s protest against the huge rent increases that continue to force tenants out of their apartments in the neighborhood, and, in turn, out of Boston.

The Coalition is working for passage of a law for what’s called “Just Cause Eviction” so that absentee landlords have to have a legitimate reason to evict a tenant as opposed to now when they don’t need to give any reason.

In the 1950’s, the vibrantly ethnic West End neighborhood, located between North Station and Massachusetts General Hospital, was declared a slum so that the city would be eligible to get federal urban renewal money for slum clearance and building replacement housing. As the city moved to act on its plans, more than 10,000 West Enders were displaced, having been promised the right to return when the new housing was built. But the housing that was built was Charles River Park, a collection of luxury apartments. So no one returned. Bottom line: The area had been cleared by business and political power brokers who, arrogantly looking down on this working class neighborhood, saw luxury housing in the West End as an element of their vision of a New Boston.

The developer picked by the city to build the housing was Jerome Rappoport, who had been an aide to then-Mayor John B. Hynes. Talk about a sweet deal. He went on to become a wealthy major power broker in Boston politics who used his influence to weaken or repeal laws meant to regulate excessive rents charged by absentee landlords like himself.

Apologies always bring tension. There’s the small satisfaction or justification for those who are apologized to, but that is feeling is usually accompanied by the lingering wound of the wrong that was done. It still hurts when the apology is given.

Today, we don’t have neighborhoods cleared for urban renewal, but have huge on-going displacement and gentrification that is acting like a tidal wave as it forces people to move out of their homes and neighborhoods by the many thousands every year. For these people, no apologies are being given, and if they ever are, they won’t restore the affordable apartments and homes that they were forced to leave.
I was moved when I heard Mayor Walsh recently say he doesn’t want to be remembered as the mahor who left a city that looks good but has lost many of its residents to high rents and home prices. We need such vows, and we need the action to fulfill those vows.

There are a lot of matters out there that deserve apologies. Better yet: Action we can all take together to confront and end injustices.
Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and Director of the Dorchester based Massachusetts Communities Action Network