Reading the first writing by Rodney Singleton published in this paper, as is my duty, I was struck by the persistence, in our settlement on the tidal flats and hills south of Boston Neck, of housing for our people. I well remember that we were talking housing 45 years ago when I first came to the town we named Roxbury in honor of the England home of our ministers, Theodore Weld and John Eliot. In my time, a man was hardly expected to live 45 years, much less to recall participating in debates that took floor that long ago and to be here, now, at his desk, writing to the same topic. But so it be.
45 years ago, there was, in the Massachusetts-bay, an “issues convention” — i use modern terms for the convenience of the reader — sponsored by the Massachusetts Republican Party, then still true to Governor Winthrop’s vision; indeed, I myself was appointed by the Governor’s descendant, John Winthrop Sears, to the Issues Convention’s “urban affairs” committee, upon which, I, as a young Dudley recently immigrated from Yardley in Northamptonshire, served alongside the lady Melnea Cass, who was then Roxbury town’s Republican State Committeewoman — she was the eyes and ears of United States Senator Edward Brooke, a Roxbury citizen. On our committee sat housing advocates, the keeper of a homeless shelter, reverend clergy, Republican Party chairman Josiah Spaulding, and a Member of the General Court. Our committee took testimony of many; chiefest of the petitions presented was a proposal that our Massachusetts government regulate housing as a utility — as in our 1634 New England School Law the General Court had already enacted with respect to common schools. We the committee put many questions to the petitoners — an assembly of clergy and citizens inspired by our ministers of the Gospel — as to how the condition of regulated utility would be managed; whence the funds would arise to enable it; where and when such regulated housing would be built.
Young though I was, I too had questions : why could not private citizens do what, after all, we had all come to these shores to do ? And was told that for many Roxbury citizens the toil of everyday survival and the keeping of family ceded no time nor funds; that most of our citizens lived in homes, built by themselves or taken to, homes open to the weather, or unhealthy of air, into which all manner of insects, rodents, and such like unstoppably swarmed, given the small means and large toil burdening our common people. I knew whereof to be true. And as our General Court had already determined that schooling should be a public charge for the literate improvement of all, I could find no reason not to extend the same purpose to the housing of all.
Yet our proposal did not proceed. It was made and forgotten; the Election of 1970 was debated on other matters — conservation of lands and whether or not to build a road we called “I 95.” (Our citizens, myself included, said “no,” and the road was not built.) No wonder, I suppose, that housing for all the citizens of Roxbury continues to be a living issue. Such is the testimony of Mr. Singleton. Thus grievously has our mission in this New land attrited !
Mr. Singleton complains, not that there is no new housing on offer, but of the plans presented by the current proposers. To me this represents improvement. The Roxbury whose roads I travel today has much, much new housing. Look along washington Street, in the flats we called Lower Roxbury, on Alpine Hill, and in the lands we once called Orchard park. Rows of dwellings, of a style much consistent with Roxbury precedent (homes reminiscent of the London I once lived in) line both avenue and street, court and alley. Truly Roxbury has not failed to provide.
Yet as Mr. Singleton attends, almost all of the homes built in Roxbury these past 20 years are for rent to tenants; whereas our settlement intended for every citizen to own his land and home. This, our new undertakings appear not to honor. What a mistake. Though we surely accord an honest profit to those who would build homes for others, it cannot be a boon to Roxbury to bulk the number of our tenancies and defer the freeholding. It is well established that the owners of freeholds maintain them more diligently than do most tenants, who come and go; and that freeholders commit to a community more actively than those who merely pay a monthly sum to occupy. (Which is not to disparage those who tenant, for most of whom finance will not accomodate purchase.)
Mr. Singleton speaks to this point, and as he does so, he speaks for me.
Let the builders of Bartlett Street and the Atkins Building offer them for sale, first and second. For sale as freeholds as we are a free people.
But housing should no longer be the first mind of our Roxbury settlement. Commerce calls us. As Boston beyond the Neck is as much a commercial venture as residential, so should Roxbury now be. Merchants and craftsmen, developers of a device my young successors call “the internet,” inventors of devices for better use thereof — Roxbury citizens should be talking of these, and not merely talking. It is time to be doing. Doing not by travel to Boston but in our Roxbury itself. Are we merely an appendage ? i think not.
True, we may require that Massachusetts as a polity, by our common Legislature, help and succor us, for our means be often unequal to the task; and we may with good cause seek such succor, for it is to the interest of all that our Roxbury experiment succeed, situated, as we are, in the very center of the urbanity that we call “Greater Boston.”
Roxbury cannot be only a collection of residences, tenanted or freeheld. To succeed, we must plant commerce and harvest it. In the Square named after myself there is much construction at present of space commercial or thereof intended. More is needed. I make list of many : Venturers, merchants, devisers, printers, banking & clearing houses, theaters, meeting halls, inns and places of food and drink. When I look around me at Roxbury people, I see a diversity of looks, languages conditions, costumes, and sports as varied as what I see every time that I am in London, Paris, or Venice. Far smaller we may be than these great cities, but no less in situation.
We have done well, it is clear, to have attracted to us such a variety of men, women, and children. It is clear, too, that many more, from Boston will soon be moving outward, across the Neck, into our yet incomplete settlement. Our duty is to assure them a community in which commerce is not merely a fundless proposal, freeholding not set aside for some future century.
—- Your obedient servant, Thomas Dudley / the Dudley Files