Activist Theresa Hynes Reflects on Twenty-Five Years of Involvement in Allston-Brighton
The following is an excerpt from a taped interview conducted by local historian Bill Marchione with long-time Allston-Brighton community activist Theresa Hynes.
Bill Marchione: Would you tell us a little bit about yourself---where you grew up, about your family background, and so forth?
Theresa Hynes: I was born in Galway, Ireland, about ten miles from the city of Galway. We lived on a farm. My father had always lived in Ireland, but my mother had lived here for seven years, so she was an American citizen, and she went back to Ireland when she got married.
BM: How did you happen to come here to Allston-Brighton?
TH: When I met my husband he was living here, on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton.
BM: Your husband owned an auto repair business, didn't he?
TH: Yes, he did. He had worked in England in garages and on Rolls Royces, so he started a business here. His original place was a little garage that fit two cars on Harvard Avenue, opposite where Kinvara's is now.
BM: So how many years have you lived in Allston-Brighton altogether?
TH: Forty-two years.
BM: How did you first become involved in the Allston-Brighton community and what issues drew you into activism?
TH: I became involved when my kids were at the Hamilton School with the Home & School Association there. I then became involved with desegregation and I worked for the Citywide Educational Coalition and was the coordinator for Allston-Brighton and Mission Hill. Then I was on the court appointed councils for desegregation. I believed strongly in integration because I could see comparison between the situation here and the situation in Northern Ireland, and I believed that if people at the grass roots level became involved it could make a difference.
BM: Do you think that the conditions in the Boston Public Schools have improved since then?
TH: I think access has improved and I think the interaction has improved, but I don't think education has improved, judging by the test scores. I do think that there's a value in going to school with people of different racial groups, different ethnic groups, different social backgrounds. In the long run, I think that's an advantage, especially in a country as vast as this is. It would be an advantage if the standards of education were up to what's available in certain suburban schools. Obviously, the classes need to be a lot smaller and there needs to be more of a concentration on academics.
BM: What were some of the other problems the community faced when you first became involved in the 1970s, and have we made progress in those areas?
TH: Many of us who were involved with the schools moved on to become involved with the community as a whole. So we became involved in various zoning issues. But there weren't as many zoning issues then. Now it takes a three hour meeting, and all we can deal with are requests for zoning variances.
BM: Back then the decisions were being made centrally?
TH: Exactly, the community didn't have input into the decisions.
BM: What community organizations have you been associated with?
TH: The Brighton/ Allston Improvement Association, the St. Elizabeth's Task Force, which I co-chair. I've also been on the B. C. Task Force, the Institutional Expansion Board of the City of Boston, the CDC Board for a little while, and various other committees.
BM: Can you tell us a little about the Brighton/ Allston Improvement Association---when that group came into existence?
TH: There was an existing civic association which wasn't very active and a number of us were nominated to its board and we went to the annual meeting where the election was to take place. But there was also a struggle going on between a local officeholder and someone who aspired to his job. There was also interference from a higher level of government in this simple little election. There was an organized effort by the officeholder and his high level patron to get people out to vote against us---to choose people would be favorable to the person who was already in office. And there was a huge, huge turnout, and all of us who had been nominated were defeated. The people who came in had been given lists of approved nominees. You remember that?
BM: Yes, I certainly do.
TH: Well, after the meeting, the people who had been defeated, were so outraged that we went down to one of the local restaurants and decided to start a new organization which became the Brighton-Allston Improvement Association.
BM: And the other organization faded away, didn't it?
TH: Yes, I don't know that they ever met after that, maybe once or twice at most.
BM: If a newcomer asked you to give a short description of Allston-Brighton of today how would you respond?
TH: I would describe it as a very exciting community with really great people. And while it has a large transient population, there is a real neighborhood here also. It's a vibrant community and it does appear to be improving a great deal. Also, it's a welcoming community, where peole are received with open arms if they want to participate. It's also, however, a neighborhood with a great many problems, with a need to have people involved who have different skills.
BM: Which do you consider the most serious problems?
TH: In my opinion, the low percentage of home ownership appears to be one of the bigger problems. By the same token, the large number of absentee landlords, who not only don't live in their properties, but don't even live in Allston-Brighton. I'm not questioning the right of a person to own property in a neighborhood where he doesn't live, but it isn't right when an owner runs that property into the ground. They would never keep property in the neighborhoods in which they live as they do here in Allston-Brighton. And when you see cars parked in front yards---grass having been removed---it's not the resident home owners who are doing that, it's the absentee landlords.
BM: What other problems would you describe as primary?
TH: Another major problem remains the state of the schools. Brighton-Allston as we know is very convenient to the city. But young families don't want to come and live here because of the standard of education. Until that improves we'll have a problem increasing home ownership. These are the problems, but I would add that very often, when it comes to dealing with these problems, our expectation as a community are too low.
BM: How so?
TH: Well, for example, zoning is a big issue in our neighborhood. The neighborhoods that preserve their values, esthetically and price-wise, are the neighborhoods with tight zoning. People come in and want to convert a two-family to a three family. Not wishing to be negative, very often these proposals are agreed to. Too often we settle for the lesser of two evils. What was the point of revising the zoning code a few years ago to make it better, and then granting all these variances? Also, we can't always blame the Board of Appeals when community groups support these applications. When you don't support variances, the applicants complains of how negative you are, but that's just an intimidating tactic.
Another example is the use of neon signs in the business district. In other towns business is without these garish signs. When Main Streets came in to being, there was a design code (there was a booklet) and that design code was really, really good. That's all that has to be followed. When businesses come in with proposed changes they should be required to follow closely the design requirements in that booklet.
BM: Is institutional expansion a serious problem for the neighborhood?
TH: I believe that institutions are very important, but we have to be vigilant. I was a nurse so I worked a good deal of my life in the medical field. Hospitals and universities are crucial to the neighborhood, the city, and the country in general. We are fortunate to have access to these institutions. However, I don't think the people who live here benefit sufficiently from them. I believe the people of the neighborhood should be getting more benefits from their presence. These institutions carry a certain amount of baggage for the neighborhood. The three universities impinge---B.C., B.U. and Harvard---all impinge on Allston-Brighton creating problems for the community.
Take the B.C. Stadium, for example. That is not an advantage to this community. It's a great advantage to B.C. certainly. It's wonderful for their alumni who live all over the state and come to this new, expanded stadium. Even though it is as well managed as anyone could manage the large amount of people who come in to attend events there, and the police do the very best job they can, it is still an inconvenience to those of us who live in the immediate neighborhood. For example, if people don't have an Allston-Brighton sticker, they are going to get a ticket. And when one has a tenant, one has to remember to tell them to move their cars. It's a real nuisance. I've come to the conclusion that the neighborhood needs written notification. Also, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that these institutions, because of their influence, are going to get whatever they want.
Boston College does give $75,000 to $80,000 a year to various community projects. I'm on the committee that decides how that money will be distributed, but the grants are limited to $2500. And unlike the Brown Fund, which gives much larger grants and has done marvelous work in the community, the B.C. grants have had no major impact.
BM: Do you think that our elected representatives are more responsive to the neighborhood today than they were twenty-five years ago?
TH: I think they are. But as community representatives, we're always looking for more. And the motto of the BAIA has been (one of our mottoes at least)---as Henry Ragin, our first President used to say---"We're watchdogs, not cheer leaders!" That doesn't mean that we never give praise, but our basic function is that of watchdogs. Our expectations ought to be high. We know they can deliver.
We also need to work at having more clout as a community. It does appear at times that other neighborhoods of the city are better served than ours.
BM: How are we being short changed?
TH: For example, in comparison to other neighborhoods, we have little open space in Allston-Brighton. Let's contrast our situation, for example, with that of West Roxbury, a community that has much more open space to begin with, and many more single family homes set on generous lots. The state paid six and a half million dollars so that West Roxbury could get Hancock Woods as open space. It was a tremendous coup for West Roxbury. I don't know when anything has ever been bought for Allston-Brighton to increase its open space. But, then again, it comes back to expectations. Recently there was a piece of land for sale next to Rogers Park---a small parcel of land at the corner of Lake Street. It was going for $300,000, and I remember some of us suggesting that the land be bought and be added to the park. And many of the activists---who are supposed to love open space---said, "Oh no! That's not a good use. That's too much money." This illustrates the difference between the expectations here in Allston-Brighton and those in other neighborhoods.
BM: One would hope that in redesigning Commonwealth Avenue the city would restore some of the open spaces that were intended to be there. The original plan for Commonwealth Avenue included quite a bit of green space. There were paths for walking, there were benches. The avenue has been transformed from its original conception.
TH: That's another example of our lack of clout. There was $30 million originally allocated some years ago for the redesign of Commonwealth Avenue and that money was shunted over, I understand, to the Avenue of the Arts. We have to learn to guard the moneys allocated to us more effectively. As you may know the section of Commonwealth Avenue between Warren Street and Chestnut Hill Avenue is slated to be worked on this spring.
BM: There have been some fairly remarkable physical improvements in this neighborhood in the last few years--- redesign of streets, parks, public buildings, etc. Are you pleased with these developments?
TH: Yes, certainly. The track removal made one of the biggest differences since I've been involved. It's one of the most successful projects that has occurred here. Not only are the roads more serviceable, but it was done so beautifully esthetically. Public Works Commissioner Cassazza was a pleasure to work with---so cooperative and interested in the community, very sensitive to the neighborhood.


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