JP Observer: How JP activists created the Southwest Corridor

August 30, 2013
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No wonder Jamaica Plain residents speak and act as though they can have some control of what happens in the neighborhood. Starting 49 years ago, local people along the Southwest Corridor banded together to stop a highway from splitting the neighborhood. Then they persuaded government to move the elevated Orange Line from over Washington Street and put it in the corridor with other positive additions.

In 1986, JP resident Edwina Cloherty, who grew up on Washington Street in JP, told me about her and the community’s experience.

Summer 1964: “It was very hot that night. I was a first year teacher, and I had a friend who worked for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA)…” At the crowded meeting at what was the Neighborhood House on Amory Street, the BRA said that I-95 was coming through and “it would clean up a decaying area of Jamaica Plain.”

Winter 1967: Several organizations held a meeting and presented a report saying the elevated highway would “really muck up the neighborhood.” But officials said there was “nothing anyone could do.”

Early 1968: Cloherty and others formed the Jamaica Plain Expressway Committee. A City Council hearing at the Curley School drew 400 people, most opposed. Officials said something might be done.

Summer 1968: Community people advocated depressing the highway. Mayor Kevin White commissioned a BRA evaluation that said an elevated highway “would have a significant negative impact on the neighborhood visually and economically.”

Gov. Francis Sargent’s office reported receiving 2,000 postcards favoring depressing the highway.

February 1969: At a national conference for people impacted by mass highway plans where air pollution issues were presented, Cloherty said that her community could not stop the highway from coming through. “Well, I was so embarrassed,” she said later. “The others responded that they had stopped highway projects in their neighborhoods, and we certainly could, too.”

When she got back to JP, the Jamaica Plain Transportation Committee took a vote, and “No highway” won.

1967: Sargent put a moratorium on highway construction in the state. JP and Roxbury activists requested a study showing a different transit corridor instead of a highway.

In 1972: Sargent declared that 128 could replace I-95. But houses and businesses along the Southwest Corridor had already been torn down.

1974: A proposal for depressed rail and a four-lane street was made for the corridor. Activists started wearing buttons, “Stop i-95” with a lower case I.

July, 1976: Cloherty cancelled her vacation to attend a packed meeting at the State Labs in Forest Hills. She and others then met with officials from the Kevin White administration to describe how much people did not want any highway in the corridor. The highway was never mentioned again, she said.

The community and government worked together for the next decade to plan for and build the new Orange Line, parks, businesses and housing.

“As a community we have more power than we usually think,” Cloherty reflected later. “What we have to remember is that responsibility comes with the power. We are the people we have to hold accountable.”