The BHA turns 75

Sandra Larson | 10/20/2010, 4:01 a.m.
Anniversary focuses on pride, progressThe Boston Housing Authority celebrated its 75th birthday this month and Mayor Thomas...

Anniversary focuses on pride, progress

The Boston Housing Authority celebrated its 75th birthday this month and Mayor Thomas M. Menino (top left) was in attendance.

  The agency is honoring the milestone with an exhibit of photos called “Opening Doors: The Boston Housing Authority 1935-2010,” that are on display at the Mayor’s Gallery in Boston City Hall through Oct. 31, 2010. At top is Bromley-Heath Day Care Center in Jamaica Plain, followed by the Columbia Point Health Center in Dorchester in the 1970s. Hundreds gathered at a dedication ceremony for Charlestown public housing development June 20, 1941. Young girls who currently live at Faneuil Gardens in Brighton are pictured at the bottom. (Photos courtesy of BHA)

The Boston Housing Authority (BHA) turned 75 this month, and the agency honored the milestone with a month-long exhibit of photographs at Boston City Hall and a celebration, complete with a ceremonial birthday cake-cutting, held at the city’s oldest public housing development.

The BHA came into being on Oct. 1, 1935, as construction commenced on the Old Harbor Village development in South Boston. The 1016-unit complex that opened in 1938 near Andrew Square has since been renamed Mary Ellen McCormack for the mother of John W. McCormack, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Under fall sunshine in the courtyard of Mary Ellen McCormack on Oct. 8, an enthusiastic audience of public housing residents, tenant leaders and BHA maintenance staff listened to speeches, watched Mayor Thomas M. Menino cut the cake and continued the party over hot lunch served in a nearby church.

“I honestly tell you, I see a revival in public housing. I see a lot of investment,” Menino told the crowd.

“Just look at these grounds,” he said, gesturing to the complex’s expansive courtyard, lush with well-tended grass and shade trees. “And not just here — there’s great work being done on all these developments. People care about what goes on in housing today.”

The BHA seems to be on an upward path, though its long history is checkered with controversy. In his 2000 book, “From the Puritans to the Projects,” MIT Urban Design and Planning Professor Lawrence Vale chronicles public housing in Boston from ambitious mid-century goals of creating public works projects, clearing slums and housing war veterans, to the BHA’s eventual slide into deep trouble, and finally the slow but steady recovery continuing today.

From the start, there were bitter protests by landowners whose properties were seized by eminent domain to clear land for new housing projects. Beginning in the 1960s, the agency was rocked by racial discrimination lawsuits, struggles with drugs and crime, deteriorating buildings and financial troubles.