A Bit of History : The Odd Couple of Citizen Activism Fights the Massive Highway Plan

A Bit of History : The Odd Couple of Citizen Activism Fights the Massive Highway Plan

During the primary years of the "Peoples Republic of Cambridge," Cambridgeport residents fought the Inner Belt Expressway and won.

On March 11 and April 18, I posted the beginnings of a series on "Whatever Happened to the Peoples Republic of Cambridge?" The goal was to probe into the history of the rise and fall of citizen activism – especially actions identified with liberal or progressive advocacy in the City. The peak year was probably 1970 : protests over the Vietnam War ....against the Inner Belt expressway .... for more low income housing .... with two major riots in Harvard Square that left the City's Establishment quite divided and shaken.

The beginning of this rise and fall goes back to 1940. Cambridge suffered through a corruption scandal and subsequently adopted a Plan E form of Government with a strong city manager (for details of history, see "Which People's Republic?" by Bill Cunningham, Seven Cats Press, 1999). A good-government group, the Cambridge Civic Association pushed for reforms in city government. The group probably reached its peak of influence around 1970, with the adoption of rent control. Slowly thereafter, Civic Association interests declined, especially with the repeal of rent control in the mid-1990s.

During this period, a separate grassroots citizen opposition to the Inner Belt highway plan began soon after 1946 when the road was first proposed. Initially the Civic Association support the highway and urban renewal plans, but changed positions in the early 1960s. The grassroots protest was organized separate from City Hall and other civic groups. It peaked in 1968 with special bus trips to Washington D.C. and a 1969 march on the State House. In 1972, Governor Sargent killed the road proposal : it was an extraordinary success for citizen organizing and activism.

My April 18 article began exploring the success of the anti-highway groups. At first they had to fight both City Hall and the good-government types. Up into the early 1960s liberals usually held a New Deal view that government could do no wrong. Suddenly with urban renewal and highway planning, Cambridge was looking at the prospect of having government forces bulldoze between 1500 and 2000 housing units in the city. Many progressives switched from being pro-highway to being anti-highway. Academics and young activists in government led the charge in the halls of government against the road plans. By the late 1960s, a "handoff" had occurred -- citizen activists handed over much of the end game of killing the road plan to young college-trained professionals.

Last year, several events commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Inner Belt victory – with most of the emphasis on the young professionals and politicians. Minimal attention was given to the grassroots organizing and opposition that was key to opposing the road plans in the 1950s and 1960s.

The spirit of this opposition was concentrated in Cambridgeport, especially along the Brookline Street corridor. Today, it is difficult to imagine the scene as many citizens saw it : much of City Hall, state agencies, the Governor, and Federal agencies were moving against neighborhoods with a plan to wipe out a 200-foot-plus swath through the city, demolishing everything in its path. Today we see the million-dollar houses in Cambridgeport and wonder whatever could our public officials have been thinking.

The Inner Belt was part of a regional plan. Five neighborhoods were to be hit in Cambridge : North Cambridge, Porter Square, East Cambridge, Area Four, and Cambridgeport. Other residential neighborhoods were to be bulldozed too – Back Bay and Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Roxbury, the South End, Chinatown, and parts of the West End and North End. Massive new eight-lane roads would be built through East Boston, Chelsea, Medford, Belmont, and Somerville.

Residents went to meetings to protest, but it seemed like an unstoppable tidal wave. Cambridgeport stood out from all the rest and got itself organized. This is the story of how the citizens worked together to stop the highway and protect their homes. Along with Brookline, Cambridge was the only city to fight back against the highways and not lose a single home.

From a national perspective, Cambridgeport was not unique. In New York City, new ways of effective neighborhood organizing were being invented by Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She led citizens during five challenges to New York's Godzilla of Public Works, Robert Moses .... and she defeated him five times.

It is fair to say that the Cambridgeport activists had no textbook to work from. They had to invent most of what they did as they went along, with some experiences based on tried and true union organizing. The result was virtually an entire expressway system was halted in its tracks. The Boston Globe, the Chambers of Commerce, the urban planners and the suburban elitists were all stunned. Who did this? Who were these people?

Imagine this picture. A blue collar guy well into his 60s .... of average height, ... and of rather portly stature with a fair-sized paunch. He exuded no image of sartorial splendor. He wore thick bottle glasses, with lenses a quarter of an inch thick, with rimless frames, and one of his eyes looked off at a crazy angle. Not Hollywood material at all.

His health was not good. His frequent cough came from too much smoking and resulting emphysema. Here was the man who was to be the grass roots leader of opposition to the Inner Belt in Cambridge.

His name was Bill Ackerly. He was a labor union organizer back in the 1930s and engaged in tough labor negotiations with the “bosses.” He was seasoned from long experience in life. He understood trust and loyalty, but was not an ideologue.

If Bill Ackerly was not the first choice of Hollywood casting, neither was Cambridgeport. This weakest of all neighborhoods had no ethnic identity. It had not clout. It was last in priority for city services – and its garbage still gets picked up on Fridays. Who would ever dream that Bill would lead a movement that would stop the Inner Belt and frustrate the highway builders?

Road opposition in Boston was much less coordinated. Terrible damage had already been done to the Southwest Corridor and in Roxbury. In Somerville, the loss was complete, with the extension of I-93 to Boston's Central Artery. Only in Cambridge were land takings avoided. Whoever would have picked Cambridgeport as the most effective community opposition?

Bill Ackerly was the image of consistency and resolution, of “We shall not be moved.” ..... But he was not alone. He was one-half of the citizen leadership team comprising "Save Our City" and in the Inner Belt resistance from Cambridgeport.

The other half of the leadership team was Anstis Benfield, a young mother who at the time looked a bit like a 1960s hippie. She wore granny dresses down to her ankles and rode a bicycle. She bought a pedal-car for grownups, although it was quite impractical for Cambridge streets. If Bill Ackerly embodied experience and steadiness, she was the image of imagination and invention in matters of strategy and protest.

The two of them seemed like such opposites. What about the generation gap? Class and education differences? She was a young woman and he was an older man. Surely this must have been the oddest pairing of two people to form a leadership team. But it worked.

None of that class business bothered Bill, who actually got along well with most people. In 1968, I was a young MIT graduate student who started going to the Inner Belt meetings, and I did not know many people. My being an outsider meant nothing to Bill. He too lived outside the headlines. Our link was that we were both amateur cartoonists. He invited me over to his little house on 13 Lopez Street. It was a small bungalow, sitting sideways to the street, most unpretentious. He pulled out some of his own cartoons and gave me a couple of them. They are not of Michelangelo quality, being created on buff-colored paper with pencils and crayons. But they did show his humorous and creative side, as he spoofed various public officials. Bill needed that sense of humor to deal with those guys.

Bill had no misconceptions over who his friends and enemies were. When his Inner Belt committee held a large meeting, Bill was up front running the meeting, and City Planner Alan McClennen (and fervent Inner Belt supporter) would enter at the back. Bill made him stand in back, and not come up front – where most public officials like to be. Bill would not throw him out, but no way he would let this guy come up front and take over the meeting.

He told me once that he gave a local reporter for the Record-American newspaper ten dollars to write pro-union articles in the paper. His reaction was -- what a puppet. The reporter could be bought for ten bucks. Bill knew how the game was played. But he would not sell out. He couldn't be bought.

Bill Ackerly was not a gated community. Openness was his style. He did not shut people out for silly reasons, such as being a student or a woman.

His strategies worked well among the older generation, among the townies. But Cambridge is a very diverse city – specializing in colleges, faculty, students, business leaders, professionals, and government officials. Who would work with these people? That is where Anstis Benfield comes in. (BTW : the s at the end is silent)

Her father was president of a major Cambridge utility company, with good connections to government and the business establishment. She was in the process of getting a college education .... and writing a thesis on the Inner Belt. She might not have been the best person to appeal to the working stiffs of Cambridge, but Bill Ackerly could do that. Her skills were of a completely different order. Her father helped open up many doors.

Anstis had an outreach to the higher levels. When MIT showed a preference for the Brookline-Elm highway alignment, she tried to get a meeting with James Killian, then President of MIT. Killian stonewalled and would not meet. So she got her kids together, made peanut butter sandwiches, and went down to have lunch in the long second-floor corridor of the main building at MIT. This is an area where the primary traffic in the hallways came from officials and visiting brass and rich alumni. She brought along some balloons too. Kids eating sandwiches on the floor outside the President's office had a noticeable effect. She was able to get her meeting. She had invented a new form of activism. In 1967, MIT and City Hall both changed strategy -- they decided to oppose the highway plans along any route in Cambridge. Anstis probably had a major effect on getting through to the top decisionmakers.

Bill Ackerly and Anstis Benfield were able to span the generational and class divide and work well together. The magic was this : do your own thing in your own way. Their efforts complemented each other with minimal territorial conflicts.

The official histories list the death of the Inner Belt as occurring in 1972. Others see the Belt and many other highways across the country as being effectively dead in 1968 and 1969. The pendulum was swinging their way, and Bill and Anstis had won. They graciously and without ego conflict allowed new leadership to play the role of undertaker -- to bury the worst transportation plan the Boston area ever had.

The 1960s and 1970s were a transformative time and established a primary role for citizen participation and opposition that lasted well into the 1990s. The shattered Establishment of the 1960s had to be reconstituted into a new force that would assert itself again. Their goal was to bring back the power of development plans and business-City Hall harmony, but this time without the highways.

We may never again see the likes of the 1960s highway opponents in Cambridgeport. But we certainly can learn lessons from them as we walk along Brookline, Pearl and Elm Streets and imagine all the houses those civic heroes saved for us.