Luxury condos planned on 'New York Streets'

Yawu Miller | 6/15/2011, 12:05 p.m.
Mel King stands across the street from the former site of his childhood home, now the headquarters of the Boston Herald. A Newton-based developer wants to develop luxury condos on the site. Yawu Miller

When King learned of the BRA’s plans to demolish his neighborhood, he could scarcely believe what he was reading.

“I was alarmed,” he recalls. “I thought I lived in a great neighborhood. I had a lot of friends and great relationships.”

King’s childhood memories of the New York Streets neighborhood include swimming in the Fort Point Channel between the Dover Bridge (now the West 4th Street Bridge) and the Broadway Bridge and fishing there. He and his friends played sports next to the train tracks near the South Bay.

“It was all cinders,” he says. “We played baseball and football.”

As a college student, King says he felt powerless to fight the BRA’s planned demolition of his community. When he graduated in 1951, his family had already relocated. King went to graduate school at Boston Teachers College.

Then he began working as an organizer with the Lincoln House, a settlement house in the Castle Square section of the South End. That area too was facing demolition by the BRA. But King and the Castle Square residents fought back. Instead of clearing land for industrial use as was the case in the New York Streets area or luxury apartments like those in the West End, the Castle Square residents demanded that the BRA designate the land for new housing for low-income people.

“The work we did there started the kind of thinking that led to Tent City,” King said, referring to a South End site where tenements were torn down in the 1960s. There, King led protests, staging sit-ins and building an actual tent city where protesters occupied the vacant lots city planners wanted to use for industrial use and parking.

In the 1980s, 269 units of housing were built, with 25 percent reserved for low-income families, 50 percent for moderate-income and 25 percent for market rate renters.

In the 1960s, King made several runs for the School Committee. Then, in 1973, he was elected to the state House as a representative of the 9th Suffolk District, a seat he held until 1982. In 1983 he ran for mayor.

Throughout his career in politics and activism, he remembered his childhood home and how city planners erased it from the map.

King recalls meeting with an editor at the Herald — the name escapes him — during the 1983 race for mayor.

“I said, ‘You know, we’re neighbors,’ ” King recalls. “He said, ‘You mean you live in Danvers?’ I said, ‘No, you’re sitting where my house used to be.’ ”