With the airport set to expand once again, here is a piece of history that needs to be shared:
The energy and enthusiasm of the lady I met today belies her 90+ years of age. Hearing her story allowed me an inside glimpse of the bad old days of “Urban Renewal” in Boston during the 1950’s and 60’s when the City government teamed up with Logan Airport to bully and harass East Boston families out of their homes and neighborhoods in rapacious pursuit of land for Airport expansion.
Her name is Marian Curtis who was born Marian Regina Joyce in her Grandmother Annie Pope’s home at 21 Shrimpton Way, on March 20th, 1925. Her happy memories of that family home and the neighborhood she grew up in are filled with the beauty of surrounding gardens with fruit trees, fields with cattail marshes and a little beach near a small boat yard. There was not much money, but everyone was clean and fed and took care of their homes and neighborhood. She recalls helping to make a hockey field in the marsh area and then being drafted to play on the team for the lack of available boys.
Shrimpton Street was a private way with 12 family homes for about 90 people and only one “underground hydrant” to protect them in case of fire. Marian remembers helping her Nana unscrew and lift the heavy steel grate to pack the pumps inside the hydrant with dry ice so the hoses wouldn’t freeze in winter.
As a child, Marion attended the Emerson and Barnes Schools and graduated East Boston High School. She played drums, took dancing and figure skating lessons and loved roller skating. The narrow gauge railway tracks ran behind her house by the“Dizzy Bridge” that she and her friends daringly scampered across. She remembers the long staircase at the end of Prescott Street up which she and others would help family and friends carry their baby carriages and supplies to picnic on Wood Island Park. Marian swam and raced at Wood Island when the City had meets there in summer. She recalls it as a beautiful haven for East Boston’s families to relax and enjoy free to all. Designed by the great landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, “it had everything that brought joy to all as we faced life’s toil and strife” (throughout the Depression and war years )“until the 1960’s when Boston moved forward assisting Logan Airport to expand.”
This past spring Marian attended the Grand Opening of the Neptune Road Airport Edge Buffer, and listened as the names of 300 people were recited who had suffered in the 60’s when their homes were taken along with the arbor of stately trees that lined the entrance to Wood Island Park on Neptune Road. She understood their feelings and could sympathize with their plight. Yet she was shocked and saddened to realize that no mention had been made of the families whose homes were utterly destroyed and lives uprooted long before Neptune Road on the Prescott Street side of Wood Island.
Long dormant memories were awakened of the outrageous treatment she and her neighbors had endured when she was a young wife and mother throughout that terrible time in her neighborhood. Her Granmother’s home at 21 Shrimpton Way was located beside the open fields that the airport wanted, so it was the first to be targeted for taking by Eminent Domain. At that time Marian had lived her entire life, 35 years, in this house and was now caring for both her infant daughter and her elderly grandmother who was so intimidated by threats that she was unable to fight back. Marian’s husband, a Pearl Harbor survivor, had been sent back to the Pacific, so she had to face alone many of the nasty tricks devised to discourage and drive away the families of Shrimpton Way and the Prescott Street neighborhood. “The residents there were subjected to the muck and mire of heavy construction trucks carrying wet mud constantly back and forth endangering life and limb” (prefiguring the confrontation faced later by Maverick Street mothers). Marian lived in constant anxiety as all this activity escalated. “Their goal, it seemed, was to drive us out one way or another! As liaison for my grandmother, I watched as they slowly destroyed our property, subtly at the beginning. However, when we were in contention they started to stoke the fire and did some most devious and dangerous things to force the issue. They constructed the huge Northeast Airlines hanger 30 feet from my home (and only 20 feet from our neighbors, the Govoni’s, home.) They dug down under our street 20 feet and destroyed our sewer and water pipes. Running out of daylight, they covered the hole with heavy tar paper.” That night, suspecting foul play, Marian and her husband (home from the service with 8 battle ribbons) climbed down into the hole and found the workers had cut all water and sewer connections to their home.
Marian’s husband parked their car across the street blocking access to the building site.
The next morning they were visited twice: by the construction boss first, then by police who ordered them to move their car so work could proceed. The couple refused to do so until the all their pipes were repaired and reconnected. As Marian said,“Our one small victory was repaid in spades!”
The construction company began to build up the land on Cleveland Street behind their house to accommodate a weighing station for trucks, and emptying the water from the land. They hooked up a heavy pump with a large hose and aimed it down the embankment into the Curtis backyard, engulfing the cellar in water and the entire area around their home with muck and mud. “We were afloat and had to wear boots and carry our shoes to work and school.”
“When it was evident that we were still staying, they took our yard by Eminent Domain and with no warning, razed our 70 foot silver maple tree along with our grapevine, apple and peach trees, and currant bushes. That was just the beginning.”
“It was the Ragazzini Construction Company, that did the dirty work for Logan then.” Marian has photos of the 5-story office building was built in what had been their yard, within a few feet of their home, leaving them with no sunlight and little air. The clothesline pole used by both floors in the house was dug up, leaving the families no way to dry their laundry in those pre-appliance days. Construction workers routinely urinated on the side of their home and leered at Marian, making sexually harrassing comments when she tried to sit in the sun or work in what remained of her yard.
Marian’s complaints to Logan were ignored and the abuse escalated, making it almost impossible to have outside access to their home except at the front door. “All of this occurred as the trees still stood tall on Neptune Road.” Each day they held their breath waiting for the next outrage or attack. That day came when Marian answered her door to find “two very business-like gendarmes” who warned that “ if our family were not gone in two weeks, the powers that be would return to remove all our furniture to the street and place my grandmother in an old folks home!” There was no offer of restitution or compensation.
“We loved East Boston and had worked to make it an even better place to live. We and our neighbors were gentle people, hard workers, who cared about one another and took pride in our homes. I ran campaigns supporting politicians whom we felt had a loyalty to our cause. All the while fighting for the rights of friends, neighbors and ourselves on the Prescott Street side of Wood Island. We endured years of arrogance and disparaging comments about East Boston. One comment stands out among the rest by an Airport employees, to the effect that if the people of East Boston did not like what was going on they should move. Alas, none of us could beat the powers controlling the forcible taking of our homes and land.”
All these years later Marian Curtis still remembers the names of the families who lived on her street in the neighborhood that was relentlessly wiped from the face of the earth with bulldozers and shovels. She prays to live long enough to see both sides of Wood Island remembered and brought together in the dignity that was denied to them in the past with a memorial plaque, a small concession to those people who lived, worked, rejoiced, wept, and loved, in that place on the Prescott Street side by Wood Island Park that was once “dedicated to the people of East Boston for their enjoyment through all perpetuity.” Just like Marian’s childhood home, that park no longer exists.
Family Names in Prescott/Shrimpton Area
By Roberta Marchi