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Neighborhood gathers for ‘A Night at the Point’

Jacquinn Williams
Neighborhood gathers for ‘A Night at the Point’
Friends and family gather to celebrate Bernie Sneed’s birthday on Sunday, July 10. Sneed has been a community activist for more than 40 years in the Columbia Point/UMass section of Boston. He now suffers from multiple sclerosis, but his spirit is as strong as it was as a young man running youth programs. (Photo: Tony Irving)

 Residents of Harbor Point (formerly Columbia Point), both present and former, are gearing up for a reunion style event July 16 at the local Teacher’s Union. A night filled with music, food and fun — “A Night at the Point” —   is focused on bringing together a community that has weathered its share of storms.

A small host committee came up with the idea as a way to pay respect to the community they grew up in. Tony Irving, Yvette Riley and Kenny Barber are just a few of the committee members working to make the night one to remember.

The three grew up together living in Columbia Point for various lengths of time and can remember what it was like before the Point’s shiny new buildings and residents. “Columbia Point had a bad reputation,” Irving said. “We knew that the elders there loved us and prayed for us, but there weren’t really enough resources to put us in the right direction.”

Irving had his own run-ins with the law when he was younger and realizes just how important it is to be supported by a strong community.

 According to a 2008 study by the Institute for International Development, Columbia Point was designed as a housing project, not a community. Basic necessities such as schools, stores and recreational facilities were absent. The lack of easy transportation to surrounding neighborhoods and commercial areas only amplified the neighborhood’s isolation. But the isolation of Columbia Point caused residents to rally together and create a strong sense of community.

 By the late 1960s conditions at the Point started to deteriorate and by the 1970s news stories about the Point were almost always about crime and gang violence.

Irving lived in Columbia Point for 17 years and wanted to do something for his neighborhood. He wanted to give back to the people who nurtured him and encouraged him to be better.

“This is a way to say thank you to the people who cared about us,” Irving said. “We were and are still a family. Maybe we were a dysfunctional one, but I think we’re going through a healing process. There’s a lot of pain there.”

Barber, a multi-instrumentalist who has rocked the stage with Rick James and George Clinton,  is part of the night’s entertainment.

Barber remembers being teased by the kids in the neighborhood because they thought he was weird. The half Cape Verdean, half Native American listened to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and used to carry live animals around with him.

 “Kids used to call me the black hippie or a freak because I was different,” Barber recalled. “They didn’t realize I was broadening my horizons.”

Barber’s excitement about the upcoming “Night at the Point” is hard to contain, but his memories are underscored by the crime that was rampant at the time. Still, he doesn’t seem fazed.

“One time someone asked me, ‘You know why your apartment was never broken into? It’s because we didn’t know what kind of animals you had in the house,’ ” Barber said.

Prior to the 1970s Barber remembers Columbia Point being a beautiful place to live.  

“Columbia Point was great,” he said. “We had playgrounds and trees. The change came about in the early 1970’s when drugs started to pour in.”

His family owned horses and when he was young he used to ride with his father through Dorchester and Roxbury collecting people’s old clothes.

“My father was the Ragman,” he said. “We would bring our horse and wagon throughout the neighborhoods and my dad would call out ‘Ragman! Ragman!’ And he would give people 5-10 cents per pound for their rags. He would then bring it to the junkyard and get paid. That’s how we got our first house.”

The eccentric musician always had a heart for his neighborhood no matter how much he was taunted. He started a Kung Fu club, taught photography classes and was integral in instituting the Harvard Big Brother program at the Point.

Now, he wants folks from the neighborhood to have fun with each other and remember the good times.

Riley agrees.

“I think it’s important to bring people together,” Riley said. “The older residents in the community were our role models. They were the ones who knocked us upside the head and told us right from wrong.”

All three are looking forward to seeing old faces and making new memories next Saturday at the Point. The committee will award certain members of the community that helped them along the way and will offer two $300 scholarships for students headed to college.

“Each person on the committee got to nominate someone for an award. But there are so many more people that deserve awards. We just couldn’t do everyone this time,” Riley said.

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