I’m in the process of sifting through the scattered notes and recordings from my US housing trip, in the hope of stitching them together in a book. I’ve just transcribed extracts from a speech by Mel King at Boston’s Tent City on 21st May that I’d like to share.
‘There’s a way that you define what City Life is. Access to housing that’s affordable and enables people to enjoy life in the city. A house is a physical structure. A home is a spiritual, social, loving structure. I was at college in South Carolina in the late 60s when my folks sent me a newspaper with a headline saying that the South End was a slum. I grew up in this neighbourhood. It was one of the best. Thirty-two different ethnic, racial cultures. You name a food from anywhere in the world, we had it here. We had Armenian grocery stores, Italian bakeries, Jewish delis. We had great music. So I understood what community was. The fact that we didn’t have much money didn’t mean we couldn’t have rich lives and relationships. I came back from college to do my Masters degree in teaching. My tuition fees cost $108 (laughter from audience), but at those levels working class people were able to afford higher education without mountains of debt. There’s no reason why it couldn’t happen now. Education goes hand in hand with why we’re in this room – to oppose policies and practices based on greed, not need. We decided to take on the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in 1968 because we’d seen what went on in the West End of the City. We said ‘we can’t let that happen here’. We put a picket line around this site. We insisted that decisions about the future of the area had to be taken by the people who lived here. We built a broad coalition. Almost all of the housing that got built here came out of that process. But we were willing to go to jail. One of the most important books I’ve read is ‘The Right of Revolution’. This country was founded on that idea. I have a right because I’m somebody. I am deserving. I’m not going to allow someone to just do something that devalues who I am. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be devalued and if they can just move us out, they’re devaluing us. We have to stand up to make sure that it’s not going to happen. So you need to get a cross-section of people together, understand what the law says and sometimes get your elected officials to change the law. But you can never rest on your laurels. You have to stay on top of the case otherwise they’ll find a way to circumvent promises. We had an agreement at another central Boston site (Copley Place) for 25% affordable housing, but the mayor tried to water it down to 15% and move it off site. The politicians did a deal with the developers. But I also remember – and it brought tears to my eyes – when they were trying to introduce HOPE VI to the Cathedral public housing site and a man at one of the consultation meetings stood up and said ‘it’s not going to happen’. There was a fight and a few years later they came back with $8 million to fix up the place. There are thousands of other homes in Boston that have been protected and preserved for working class people. It’s great that we’re here at Tent City, but we have to continue the fight.’