Tent City Protest, 1968

Update: As of October 21, 2013 there is video related to this post on our website.

Affordable housing has always been an issue on Boston. Our collections have any number of stories related to the topic, including protests, press conferences, political campaign promises, and personal stories. It was exactly 45 years ago today that one of the most unique and memorable protest occurred, led by Mel King, in the South End.

In 1968 housing on the corner of Dartmouth and Columbus in the South End was leveled. On April 25th of that year, Mel King and other community activists held a sit-in at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) office to protest disregard of the displacement of the residents during urban renewal. There they learned that the Dartmouth and Columbus lot was being turned into a parking lot. So on April 26th, another group, still led by Mel King, arrived at the South End lot to protest the plan, arguing that the community would be better served by the building of affordable housing than by a parking lot. The police came, and, even though the officer in charge was sympathetic to the cause, King and 28 other people were arrested for refusing to clear the area. They were all released pretty much right away.

On April 27th, an even larger group of people showed up at the lot. They erected a grouping of shanties and tents, with a sign welcoming all to “Tent City.” Some even set up hibachi grills, while other used string lights to decorate. From the 27th through the 29th anywhere from 100-400 protesters were occupying Tent City at any one time. To avoid impropriety charges that might shut down the protest, only men slept in Tent City.

The unusual nature of the protest gained a lot of local media attention, and subsequent community sympathy. Bill Russell, the Celtic player and coach, provided food for the protesters from his South End restaurant, Slade. Bishop Stokes, Head of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts, donated money to the cause. On April 30th police threatened to arrest anyone who wouldn’t clear the area. The protesters decided that the three-day protest had made their point, and so packed up and left.

Although the protest ended in less than a week, the fight for affordable housing in the South End continued. In 1969 the Tent City Task Force was organized, and in 1979 that turned into the Tent City Corp. In 1984, Ray Flynn became the mayor of Boston, and his administrations supports a plan to turn the still vacant Dartmouth and Columbus lot into affordable housing. Finally on April 30, 1988, a new housing complex built on that lot, is dedicated and names “Tent City Housing Complex.”

Related Resources:

Tent City Corp. Records

Mel King talking to Occupy Boston movement in 2011

Photo of Tent City scene from Dirty Old Boston’s Facebook Page



“Activists Erect ‘Tent City’ in Boston.” Mass Moments. http://massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=126

Barnet, Alison. “Tent City.” My South End, January 25, 2011. http://www.mysouthend.com/index.php?ch=columnists&sc=alison%92s_adventures&id=115474

Vrabel, Jim. “A citizen and a Celtic.” The Bay State Banner, April 4, 2011. http://www.baystatebanner.com/local16-2011-04-14

Wikipedia contributors, "Mel King," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mel_King&oldid=523909642