Luigina “Gina” Scalcione, who dedicated her life to the betterment of her beloved community through community activism, has died.
Mrs. Scalcione, a legendary fighter for citizens’ rights that gave voice to numerous causes and countless disenfranchised residents, passed away on Wednesday, February 28, at Mass General Hospital in Boston following a brief illness. She was 77 years old.
An immigrant from Mirabella-Eclano, Italy, Mrs. Scalcione, or “Gina” as she was affectionally known in East Boston, moved with her family to the United States when she was a young woman. She lived for more than six decades in the family home on Frankfort Street her parents had purchased after immigrating to East Boston. The home would later be ground zero for late night strategy meetings, political discussions and community organizing during the height of the community’s fight against airport expansion and a third harbor tunnel.
She worked as a talented master seamstress but by the late 1960s, when Logan Airport expansion was at its height, Mrs. Scalcione found her true calling.
A natural leader, Mrs. Scalcione had a knack for gathering people to rally around any development, encroachment or threat that would negatively impact the quality of life for her family, friends and neighbors.
“She was a true activist,” remembers former State Representative Emmanuel “Gus” Serra. “She was always outspoken, always said what she thought was the right path forward. She had the uncanny ability to gather people around a cause and to support her position. But equally as important she got us, the elected officials, to pay attention to her point of view and the point of view of residents. We always knew that when Gina called it was an issue that deserved our immediate attention. Over the years there are certain people that stood out during my tenure at the State House and she is defiantly at the top of the list.”
One cause Mrs. Scalcione became synonymous with was Eastie’s fight against a third harbor tunnel. The original third harbor tunnel plan by former Governor Ed King was designed to straddle Bremen Street near Maverick Square and would have essentially cut off all of Jeffries Point from the rest of the neighborhood. Like the Sumner Tunnel in the 1930s and the Callahan Tunnel in the 1950s the plan would have required taking private homes and community land.
Mrs. Scalcione immediately sprung into action and formed and chaired the Coalition Against the Third Harbor Tunnel (CATT). While Mrs. Scalcione and the coalition opposed any plan to create a third harbor tunnel the group was credited with forcing the state to move the tunnel plan out of the neighborhood and onto Massport property, the current site of the Ted William Tunnel.
At the time Mrs. Scalcione had the foresight to know that any third harbor tunnel would only encourage more drivers to use the new tunnel to access Logan thus affecting the air quality of the neighborhood.
“The coalition believes that unless they (the state) look for an alternative and make a zero growth policy- and I mean zero growth – the third harbor tunnel will be obsolete when it’s complete,” she told the East Boston Community News at the time. “It’s very important we keep pushing the government to stop the growth.”
In the same article, Scalcione predicted the shape of things to come if a third harbor tunnel was green-lit by the state and lamented that the tunnel would only help traffic get to the airport while creating more parking problems at Logan. She feared the more traffic into Logan coupled with a parking shortage would lead Massport to seek lifting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) mandated parking freeze–something the Port Authority proposed last year.
“We have to close the holes,” she said at the time. ”The community should build a Berlin Wall (around the airport) -People say it’s crazy, but why not? If your neighbor has a dog and you don’t want him in your yard, what do you do then?”
Fellow longtime Eastie activist Mary Ellen Welch, who stood by Mrs. Scalcione’s side during many of the community’s fights said she was an ‘amazing woman.’
“She founded and led several groups which helped to preserve the East Boston neighborhood when outside forces were attempting to disrupt the community by building a tunnel that would have cut off Jeffries Point from the rest of the neighborhood,” said Welch. “Under Gina’s leadership the coalition got the Boston delegation in Congress to oppose the tunnel. Eventually Fred Salvucci (former state transportation secretary) turned the delegation around support of the tunnel. However the path of the tunnel changed to surface on the airport instead of in the neighborhood. This coalition then worked with other groups to work against airport expansion and environmental impacts from airport operations. Gina was a fierce and fiery advocate for community self determination.She was the personification of the idea of speaking truth to power. She confronted all–political leadership at every level of government with reasoned and well researched facts and arguments. In each campaign from Fair Share to the airport issues to the third harbor tunnel to the Mount Carmel vigil Gina was an articulate and passionate spokesperson for everything that is good about East Boston.”
Former Little City Hall Manager, Massport Board Member and City of Boston’s Transportation Secretary John Vitagliano said Eastie’s current status as one of the best places to live in Boston is due in part to Mrs. Scalcione’s work throughout the years.
“We worked together on many important issues, starting about 1970, including opposing Logan Airport expansion and other major proposals which would have negatively impacted the community,” said Vitagliano. “Gina was a natural community leader who devoted herself to the protection and improvement of East Boston, often at great personal sacrifice. East Boston’s future as a thriving and vibrant community is due largely to the leadership and devotion of Gina Scalcione and her neighbors to their community.”
Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn remembered Scalcione as fearless and someone who didn’t pull any punches.
“She was one of a kind,” said Flynn, who remembered Scalcione’s leadership and activism first as a State Representative in South Boston and later as a City Councilor and Mayor. “We were dealing with a lot of the same issues over in South Boston when it came to the airport and the third harbor tunnel so we were naturally allies. Gina wasn’t afraid of anyone and you always knew where you stood with her. From airport expansion to the third harbor tunnel to increases to traffic she was always at the forefront of the community’s battle. She was a real advocate for the community and provided a lot of leadership for many many years.”
Later in life, she became the face of the movement to stop the Boston Archdiocese from arbitrarily closing parishes here in Eastie. In 2004 the Archdiocese announced it would close Scalcione’s beloved Mount Carmel Church, a place she had lived across from since arriving in America and was the center of Eastie’s Italian American community. Mrs. Scalcione led the community’s vigil at the church for several years after Mount Carmel’s final Mass. She slept in the church, made sure the property was taken care of and prayed that someday the Archdiocese would have a change of heart.
Unfortunately the Archdiocese sold the church and Mrs. Scalcione reactivated the dormant Gove Street Citizens Association she and her husband Jack founded many years earlier.
At the age of 75 until her untimely death, Mrs. Scalcione and her husband would chair the monthly Gove Street meetings that dealt with development and quality of life issues in the neighborhood. However, she was always keeping a watchful eye on the development of the former Mount Carmel Church property.
In fact, some of her last Gove Street meetings before her illness involved Mrs. Scalcione calling the Mount Carmel Church developers onto the carpet and, in typical ‘Gina-style,’ chastising them for planning something that was ‘too big’ and ‘too tall’ and something that did not at all fit in with the fabric of her neighborhood that she loved.
“The community of East Boston has lost one of its most ardent activists with the passing of Gina Scalcione,” said Rep. Adrian Madaro. “Her advocacy for both the neighborhood and its residents was unwavering and her love for East Boston was never-ending. She will be deeply missed.”
Of her success as a community activist, Mrs. Scalcione once told the East Boston Community News the secret was simple, “We form a group so the people can work together and be strong. And because of this we’ve won great things for this neighborhood,” she said.