It was sort of like the New York Yankees having a party for Red Sox slugger David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz.
Or perhaps like the Democratic Party hosting a fundraiser for Republican members of the House of Representatives.
Through the lens of history, those two scenarios are very similar to what it was like on Friday morning to see MassPort host a time and re-dedication ceremony for the late Eastie legend Anna DeFronzo.
But things are different now, and MassPort and the DeFronzo family have made peace, and that wasn’t lost on the crowd (which included former Gov. Michael Dukakis) or the family members. Instead of fighting and protesting, the two were re-dedicating the long-fought-for senior center to the late DeFronzo – who died in 1998. The re-dedication came as a result of some $300,000 in renovations to the center.
“When they first dedicated this center, it was very dark times for my mother and relations with Gov. Ed King,” said her son, Frank DeFronzo. “Those were dark, dark days. It has to be said. The world now, though, has changed in the way MassPort and East Boston relate…MassPort is wonderful today. They don’t have any hidden agendas. I can’t believe it really. She wouldn’t have believed it. The days of Ed King having my mother arrested a half-dozen times are over. I just wish she were here today to see how wonderful MassPort is run now. I can’t believe I’m saying that.”
DeFronzo became a legendary figure in Eastie community activism in 1968 when she and others, such as Mary Ellen Welch, founded the Maverick Street Mothers – who blocked the street to keep MassPort from expanding.
DeFronzo was known to bust through fences, sit in the buckets of front-loaders and leave the streets in handcuffs – often alongside other legends in the fight like the late George DiLorenzo.
In the course of that kind of activism, DeFronzo became acquainted and worked with former Gov. Michael Dukakis. Dukakis shared DeFronzo’s frustrations with the post-war expansion of highways and airports – the increase of cars and airplanes at the expense of public transit and existing neighborhoods.
Dukakis said on Friday that without people like DeFronzo, community victories might not have happened.
“We were destroying communities to service airplanes and automobiles,” he said. “We had a public transit system in the City that was falling apart. I stood up and said, ‘Enough of it.’ They wanted to put eight lanes of elevated highway right through the Emerald Necklace. They wanted to pave over the Fens for Red Sox parking. What was going on in East Boston was airplanes. It was anything to accommodate airplanes and to hell with the community…It was people like Anna that stood up with us. If we didn’t have her, I don’t know what we’d have done. Plus, she was great fun.”
City Councillor Sal LaMattina said he didn’t participate in the protests of 1968 alongside DeFronzo, but he certainly grew up with the fear that MassPort could roll over his neighborhood.
“In 1968, I was eight years old,” he said. “I grew up in East Boston, and I remember being scared that one day the airport was going to take my home and we would have to move out of our neighborhood. As a little kid, that’s a scary thought that they could come and take your home – just like they did in the West End…We weren’t fighting City Hall back then. City Hall was on our side. We were fighting the state and the feds. This little neighborhood in East Boston fought and we won.”
State Sen. Anthony Petruccelli said the activism that DeFronzo brought to the table bred new activists in the 1990s that fought for and won funding for the Greenway project.
“That Greenway extension happened; it’s a reality,” he said. “MassPort is going to secure and maintain it – just like Bremen Street and Piers Park.”
Tom Glynn, CEO of MassPort, said DeFronzo helped to usher in better relations between the authority and the community.
“They took a stand and did things that were provocative and got people’s attention,” he said. “They drew attention to the fact that it is a balancing act between the needs of the airport and the needs of the community. It’s not a one way street.”
Frank DeFronzo, in closing, shared a story about his late mother from when she was on her death bed. He asked her if she had any regrets, thinking perhaps the child she lost to a tragic car accident might be on that list or her father dying when she was just 19.
“She told me the only great regret in life that she had was losing Wood Island Park to that blankety-blank Ed King,” he said. “’That belonged to East Boston, not to MassPort,’ she told me. That was where she fell in love with my father and her parents fell in love together. It’s where she took us when we were little. That was her biggest regret.”
Family members, Dukakis and Glynn – among others – helped to cut the new ribbon.