Beginning at Roxbury Heritage State Park at John Eliot Square, the ArtWalk’s first stop was the Dillaway-Thomas House, the 1775 headquarters of the Continental Army during the Siege of Boston, the first chapter in the Revolutionary War. Across from the house is the First Church of Roxbury, the starting point of William Dawes’ “midnight ride” to warn minutemen in Lexington and Concord of coming British raids.
As the tour group made its way up Centre Street, past the 18th-century Parting Stone, and toward the Greek Revival wood-frame houses and brownstones of Linwood Square, one homegrown participant expressed regret that he hadn’t known this part of the city’s history.
“I was born here, in the Orchard Park housing project at 119 Hampden Street,” said Michael Kennedy. “I lived here the first 18 years of my life and have never seen so much of Roxbury. … It was the longest period in my life of living anywhere, but there’s so much of this I don’t know.”
Those first 18 years spanned the late 1940s and early ’50s. During the tour, Kennedy recalled the racial and class divisions of that era, which he said separated poor white children from middle-class whites — and detached all of them from the black children across what he called the “demilitarized zone” of Dudley Street.
“In those days, kids tended to stay on their own turf,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy and other tour participants were dazzled by the thriving community, sprinkled with community gardens, an urban farm and the centerpiece of the open studios — the work of Roxbury-based artists.
The group visited with artist Dianne Zimbabwe, who shared stories about “bogolan,” a traditional Malian technique of mud cloth painting. The Do-Right Ministries art gallery showed rich paintings done by prisoners, while the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center, “a workspace and gallery for artists from ages 6 to 86” and location of the former Highland Park “free” school of the 1960s, featured art and published books completed by children in its after-school programs.
When the tour reached Cedar Street, many in the group were astonished to find marble-faced row houses. Tour leader Silva offered another surprise.
“For every gorgeous building here, there’s another just as beautiful that’s been torn down,” she said.
During the ’60s and ’70s, when many minority residents in Highland Park were “redlined,” or denied loans for mortgages or home improvements, “they were giving houses away,” she added.
Because homes were selling for very little, many artists took up residence in the area. Doll- and mask-maker Wendy Ellertson and her husband Jon moved to Highland Park in 1967 and raised their children there.
“When we moved here, if you didn’t buy [houses] they got torn down or torched,” said Jon Ellertson. “A lot of people who live here now have lived here many, many years, into their 90s.”
To which one visitor replied, “Who would want to leave?”
While city services like trash removal were “nonexistent” decades ago, today the neighborhood — home to City Councilor Chuck Turner, prominent architects and other public figures — takes pride in its services, public safety and talented residents.
“I tell people from outlying areas of the city, Boston has a lot of magnificent art and culture,” said Wendy Ellertson. “And there’s always been an artistic community in Roxbury in particular.”
For more information about guided walking tours of Roxbury history, visit www.discoverroxbury.org.
Information on the local cultural nonprofit's upcoming tour offerings can be found on its Web site. More »
Check here for a wrap-up of the festivities from this year's 10th annual Roxbury Open Studios, the impetus for the ArtWalk. More »
"Modern-day history has largely forgotten about men like Matthew W. Bullock," wrote Banner Publisher and Editor Melvin B. Miller and Executive Editor Howard Manly in this special Feb. 15, 2007 article. " He lived in Roxbury, near what is now known as Munroe Park. More than anyone else, he set the tone of conspicuous achievement in a neighborhood filled with high achievers." More »