An East Boston legend
“Neighbors from around the city should know about the diversity of East Boston. This diversity makes East Boston a wonderful place. People should know that in East Boston, we are proud of our history, our location, and how the neighborhood has come together in trying times.”– Mary Ellen Welch
Almost a decade ago, East Boston’s Mary Ellen Welch was chairing the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association meeting when Massport officials were presenting plans to build a huge rental car facility that she felt would negatively impact the community she loved.
Everyone in the room knew it was only a matter of time before she’d let them have it.
Welch patiently waited for the right moment, shifted in her chair and her soft voice raised a few octaves.
“Oh, come on!,” she exclaimed stopping the Massport officials dead in their tracks.
She then became very animated, waving her finger and rattling off study after study showing the members the negative health impacts the project would have on the community. She’d then accused the Port Authority of once again doing the bare minimum and said that the size and scope of the project and its relation to the residential neighborhood should warrant further health studies.
“We have repeatedly asked for a study on the ultra-fine particulate matter and each time Massport has refused,” Welch yelled.
For over a half century, Welch was the steward of social, political and environmental activism in the neighborhood.
Welch, a longtime community activist and educator, 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.
Sadly, on Thursday, March 7, Eastie lost a legend and an icon.
Welch died following surgery surrounded by her loving friends and family. She was 77 years old.
In August 2014, 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 parks 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 stretches from Piers Park to Constitution Beach.
Welch, who has 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 came with it.
Welch said at the time 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 not creep any further into the neighborhood. The idea of creating a buffer was born in response to then Gov. Ed King’s vision to turn Jeffries Point into an industrial adjunct to the airport and create a “Berlin Wall” that would cut Eastie in half.
“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. “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.”
Welch was also proud of the Eastie residents who fought hard to build a community against forces trying to destroy it. It was in the last house at the end of Lamson Court in the late Anna DeFranco’s kitchen where residents like Welch gathered and planned for the historic and successful demonstration against the Port Authority on Maverick Street. The women became known as the ‘Maverick Street Mothers’ and successfully stopped the constant flow of construction trucks accessing Logan via Maverick Street for one of the airport’s expansion projects. The group blocked Maverick Street with their young children in tow until a compromise was reached and the trucks would use another route to the airport.
“That event started a movement in which East Boston residents took a strong position against institutional expansion and for growth and sustainability of our East Boston community,” said Welch of the momentous event.
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 was a second grade school teacher at the Hugh O’Donnell School for 47 years prior to her retirement and was present at Martin Luther King’s famous march on Washington in 1963.
It was her experience during that turbulent time that instilled a duty to social justice.
When she saw the wave of immigration coming into Eastie from Vietnam after the war 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 for nearly two decades and was a tireless advocate for affordable housing for residents both old and new.
Welch also brought these important social causes to the attention of her second graders and sparked future generations of activists.
Each fall she’d write two important things on the blackboard for her new students–her name and Massport’s Noise Complaint Hotline phone number.
In 1984 she received press for a project she did with her second graders for Oxfam. During the height of the famine in Ethiopia she taught her students about the importance of helping others with so little. By teaching about the famine her students were inspired to give up buying their favorite candy each day and instead send the money to Oxfam to help feed the children in Ethiopia.
Welch was instrumental in the 1980s to push the Dukakis-era Massport Board to place the Hyatt Hotel at the end of the proposed Runway 14/32. There was an injunction on the runway at the time and activists like Welch worried if the injunction was ever lifted a multidirectional runway would have aircraft landing and taking off over Jefferies Point to the detriment of residents.
The solution Welch and others proposed was to build a tall hotel at the end of the proposed runway. When the injunction was lifted on 14/32 in the early 2000s it was a wind restricted, unidirectional runway. The hotel ensured all future landings and takeoffs from 14/32 would occur over the water and not over the neighborhood.
A constant presence at neighborhood meetings and former 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 beautiful prose 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 a 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 in 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 had the uncanny ability to disagree with people on an issue but her passion never came 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 same people she counted as dear friends.
This is a lesson we could all learn from because Welch 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 loved unselfishly.