A large crowd of neighborhood old-timers filled the community room of the South End branch last week to watch a movie. Not just any movie. It was the remastered version of the 1975 Neighbors: Conservation in a Changing Community.The 28-minute documentary describes urban renewal in the South End in the 1970s as seen through the eyes of twelve local families, some of whom were in the audience. It was made over a three-month period by filmmaker Richard Rogers and producer Janet Mendelsohn, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The re-mastered film included a 12-minute new segment from a return visit to the South End in 2012 by Mendelsohn and cameraman Kevin Burke, who had spent most of the afternoon setting up for the show. He even brought his own guacamole.
Neighbors records heart-wrenching difficulties faced by the South End's working-class population (23,000 people at the time) as better-heeled newcomers bought and fixed up the 1840s' Victorians that were lodging houses at the time and eventually sold them for a large profit. The movie shows the strangely charming elevated Orange Line still rumbling along trash-strewn lots, coming around the bend on Washington Street, peeking through the gap-toothed row houses where landscapers are putting mulch and loam in spruced-up gardens. Many in the library's standing-room-only audience had not merely lived through what the film described, but lived here long enough to witness the mind-boggling transformation of a neighborhood that some called a slum, and others “home,” but now is considered one of the most desirable and expensive in the city of Boston.
And which is still considered among the most diverse, thanks to decades' long battles to build mixed-income housing on bulldozed lots by the likes of former State Rep. Mel King and current State Rep. Byron Rushing, both of whom were among the many activists in the audience. Nationally recognized successful mixed-income housing developments like Villa Victoria and Tent City form part of this South End legacy. During a subsequent panel discussion, Rushing had “tons of takes” on what he'd seen. “There's the sadness of the people I knew who are no longer there,” he said, "and I was struck by the optimism in the film. Those who complained thought it would get better. But we also did not know how difficult it would be to keep the South End as it was, faced with those who really wanted to restore Victorian houses and live close to downtown.”
Mel King was not pleased with the film. He said he "felt some anger" because the movie did not portray black families living in the South End South End the way it did white families, as they were having dinner, for example, the way white families were seen to be doing. “It takes away a lot from this otherwise important story, “ he said. Cameraman Burke interrupted King to say he disputed this observation. King responded "I have to be allowed to have my feelings legitimized, and not negated.” Burke again took exception, at which point King had enough, and left the room.