Today we might call illegally blocking access to a heavily used commuter parking lot to make a point “tactical urbanism.” But the tactic is nothing new. Just such an event was organized by residents of Boston’s South End in 1968, weeks after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to dramatize the city’s acute shortage of affordable housing.

For four years, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) had been displacing South End residents in the name of “urban renewal” and had yet to construct a single new house. On Columbus Avenue at Dartmouth Street, people were being displaced and houses razed to make way for a planned parking garage and residential tower. This action precipitated a weeklong encampment, with hundreds of protesters erecting a “tent city” of temporary housing. Typical of the time, the city responded with arrests.

Neighborhood residents were the initial demonstrators. As the Tent City Task Force, they battled recalcitrant bureaucracy. Eventually, as the Tent City Corporation, they succeeded in creating the permanent and joyful mixed-income housing development that now fills that site.

Early on, the task force drew up a list of “Fundamental Principles,” a vision that served as a continual touchstone against which all proposals were measured. It included a physical prescription that envisioned buildings having an affinity with 100-year-old row houses on one side and a robust presence to Back Bay Station and the anticipated Copley Place shopping mall on the other. Equally essential was the requirement that new housing reflect the racial and economic mix of the South End. That meant “no” to the BRA’s typical requirement of just 10 percent affordable units; “no” to a forced joint venture with the Fitzgerald parking lot family, who owned half of the property; and “no” to the proposal from Copley Place for an enormous above-ground parking garage wrapped with housing.

We got to “yes” by showing another way. In the late 1970s, the task force led the bra through the development of a moderate-income sweat-equity cooperative for the Frankie O’Day Block across Columbus Avenue. That success gave the task force the credibility it needed to become the Tent City Corporation. With a team of professionals and the new “mayor of the neighborhoods,” Ray Flynn, it became possible to say “yes” to the successful creation of mixed-income housing on the site. The permanent Tent City Apartments, named in honor of the demonstration and designed by Goody Clancy architects, opened its doors in 1988. Today, three-quarters of the residents have low or moderate incomes and just one-quarter of the 269 units rent at market rate.

In 1968, the Tent City demonstrators had a vision for housing and a neighborhood that would prosper by being racially and economically inclusive. Then as now, public policy was timid. Developers and financial institutions were unwilling to lead. But neighbors took action with conviction. Tent City and the subsequent South End Neighborhood Housing Initiative developments are models for successful mixed-income housing that are widely respected but not often replicated. Who in Boston will take the initiative today to resist the relentless pressures of economic and racial polarization and respond aggressively to the dwindling supply of low- and middle-income housing? As a piece of theater, tactical urbanism can startle. It also has great potential to capture imaginations. To turn a dream into reality, however, requires persistent audacity and tenacity.

Date Mounted: 4.25.68 | Duration: 5 days