For more than a half century East Boston’s Mary Ellen Welch has been the steward of social, political and environmental activism in the neighborhood.
Welch, a longtime community activist and educator, has sought to house the poor, improve the air quality in Eastie and helped bring a neighborhood with the least amount of open space to a community with award winning sprawling parks and greenways.
For this, Welch is the 2015 East Boston Times – Free Press Woman of the Year.
In August, as one of the final sections of the Greenway Connector was completed, her longtime adversary, Massport, paid homage to the woman with the skills, commitment and vision to see Eastie connected from one end to the other via a park system that would rival any other in Boston.
As one of the founding members of the East Boston Greenway Council, Welch worked for decades to take a neglected stretch of the old Narrow Gauge Railroad and transform it into a system of lush landscaped park so residents could enjoy a stroll from Jeffries Point to Orient Heights.
Welch received a well deserved standing ovation from the community, Massport officials and Eastie’s elected officials during the ceremonial ribbon cutting on the Greenway Connector that now streches from Piers Park to Constitution Beach.
Welch, who long fought Logan Airport expansion, spent the last three decades pressuring Massport for more mitigation for the community having to play host to Logan and all the negative impacts that come with it.
Welch said the new Greenway Connector and the scenic vista at the Wood Island Bay Marsh revives memories of Wood Island Park, which was taken in the 1960s by Massport to expand Logan’s runways. A battle she was a part of and sparked a life of ensuring expansion would no creep any further into the neighborhood.
“Those memories were the inspiration for East Boston residents to work so long and so hard to create this linear park system,” said Welch at the ceremony in August. “More than 20 years ago a group of activists proposed a buffer between the airport and community at a time when Massport was less friendly to its neighbors in East Boston. They plotted and planned to create a greenway park system.”
After years of planning, Welch called the Greenway Connector a ‘magnificent’ compromise between Logan operations and the community’s need for greenspace.
However, her activism did not stop at greenspace in Eastie and even though her fingerprints are on parks like Piers Park, the Golden Stairs Terrace, the Bremen Street Park and the Greenway she also dedicated her life to social and environmental justice.
Welch, a longtime grade school teacher at the Hugh O’Donnell School for 47 years prior to her retirement, was present at Martin Luther King’s famous match on Washington in 1963.
And when she saw the wave of immigration coming from Vietnam after the war into Eastie in the 1970s she helped form the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) to protect the housing rights of countless families being taken advantage of by absentee landlords. She served as NOAH’s president and was a tireless advocate for affordable housing for residents both old and new.
A constant presence at neighborhood meetings and chair of the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association for many years, Welch was not afraid to speak her mind whether it was to a governor, a mayor, a local elected official, developers or the Massport brass. She was always armed with facts and studies to drive her point home and give those seeking approval pause– knowing full well they needed to first mitigate their impacts on Eastie before proceeding with any proposal.
A prolific writer of letters, Welch, armed with a pen and piece of paper at her table inside her third floor apartment on Webster Street would string together prolific paragraphs urging senators, congressman, mayors and other local power brokers on what should be done to protect the health and well being of the neighborhood. And most listened.
In fact, her home became destination for many seeking advice and guidance on issues and how to proceed with balancing their needs with the needs of the community. She was also a mentor to countless elected officials who sought her wisdom and become educated on the most pressing issues in the neighborhood.
In one of her greatest achievements, Welch pushed the FAA and Massport for the window soundproofing program at homes, schools and public buildings under flight paths in Eastie to help protect the hearing of thousands of children and adults in the neighborhood.
But one of things that set Welch apart, especially in this day and age of partisan divide, Welch has the uncanny ability to disagree with people on an issue but her passion does not come from bitterness or hatred but from her own personal conviction. Known as one of the warmest people in Eastie, Welch could argue her point home in front of a crowd and go up one side and down the other of someone she disagreed with but at the end of the day many of those people were counted as her friends.
This is a lesson we could all learn from Welch because she never made any fight personal and could break bread with her toughest adversary at the end of the day.
Her fight was for Eastie, for what was right and just and what would best benefit the neighborhood she loves unselfishly.