Controlling Your Life
Luxury high-rises, office buildings and motels threaten the city of Cambridge. Developers, enticed by the enormous profits these projects offer, are pushing out low-and middle-income residents of Cambridge and destroying their neighborhoods.
Until recently the developers went largely unchecked. This was in marked contrast to the situation in a number of other cities, notably San Francisco and San Diego, that have passed laws to limit development. Cambridge could do as much.
Over the summer, the Grass Roots Movement (GRO), following the example of these cities, worked out a novel strategy for stopping the developers. GRO held public meetings resulting in a proposed amendment to the Cambridge City Zoning Ordinance. Signatures are now being collected to put this amendment on the ballot in November as an initiative petition. This petition, for the first time, will give the public the decisive voice over all future real estate development.
Early on, GRO recognized the need to deal with the many other problems confronting Cambridge. The issue of big development does not exist in a vacuum. A platform was hammered out for political action on a wide range of problems. This platform centers on five issues basic to the quality of life here in Cambridge:
"controlling" luxury and other high-rise development through a citizen review process and recall provision that will effectively stop all unwanted development;
rehabilitation of existing housing to make decent low-and middle-income units available to more Cambridge citizens;
elected community boards to oversee the police;
an industrial park in Kendall Square to supply blue-collar jobs; and,
most important of all, the replacement of the present city manager with someone who is attuned to the needs of the people of Cambridge and is not tied to traditional political interests.
After setting forth its platform, GRO came up with five candidates in addition to myself: Saundra Graham of Riverside, incumbent city councillor; Mary Amato of Riverside, women's movement activist and community organizer; Paul Chase of the model cities area, black activist and leader in the Roberts School community; Frank Fraumeni of East Cambridge, community activist and head of the Model Cities Board; and, John Marcy of Cambridgeport, anti-war activist and recent B.U. student leader.
Cambridge has plenty of political organizations. But the winds of change in national politics have largely by passed local government. Decisions affecting our lives--rent and housing, development, jobs, the police--are still made almost exclusively by representatives of the traditional political and business interests. This is particularly ironic since so many people in Cambridge are liberal or radical, but few have become involved with local affairs.
As a result, Cambridge has seen liberal majorities on the City Council and the School Committee disappear before the many difficult problems facing the city--stopping developers, dealing with the police, making rent control work for the people of Cambridge and not for the absentee landlords, and getting decent housing and jobs.
Tied in with the failure of the liberal majority is the absence of any political group representing mid-Cambridge of the minorities. Nor is there any group actively trying to change the economic system by using the political structure on the local level.
Political organizing is a means of strengthening community organizing. The political process ought not to be left by default to the first comer. Communities can control political power well before they can hope to control economic power. But by getting political power we can begin to bring economic power back to everyone in the neighborhoods.
A striking example of where political power has been used against the neighborhoods of Cambridge lies in the ease with which developers have been able to put up high-rises throughout the city. Luxury high-rises earn enormous profits that are augmented by paying less in taxes than the cost of the municipal services they receive. The citizens of Cambridge make up the difference. These profits encourage other developers to displace more and more long-time, low-and middle-income residents to make way for more development.
Cambridge is fast becoming a network of canyons flanked by high-rises that only the rich can afford. The economic base of the city must be changed so that all the people can share in determining their future. Political power in the hands of the neighborhoods is a necessary first step in getting this change.
GRO has already begun along with other groups to collect 7500 signatures to put the initiative petition controlling high-rise development on the ballot this November. Cambridge has suffered too much already from Rindge Towers, NASA developments in Kendall Square, university expansion, and cheap, fast-turnover stores. If this were not enough, the prospect of even more developments like the Hyatt Hotel, the Kanavos' Holiday Inn, and the Kennedy Library is increasing the value of property all over Cambridge.
This rise in property value has encouraged speculators to buy properties and wait for windfall profits while they neglect the needs of their new tenants. One wonders what will be left of our neighborhoods as the speculators and developers move in and the people are forced out.
Faced with the prospect of the end of Cambridge neighborhoods before the onslaught of the developers, a number of people began to hold open meetings beginning in December of 1972 that resulted in GRO and in an outline of its platform. Public meetings at the King, Roberts, Morse, Longfellow and Agassiz schools in May-June 1973 followed and completed the platform. The GRO candidates emerged from these meetings.
The people who make up GRO have long seen the need for a change in how politics is pursued. A political candidate, especially on the local level, ordinarily is chosen before any platform is worked out. The platform is an afterthought worked out to appeal to the largest number of voters. After the elections, the platform is immediately relegated to the dust-bin.
GRO, on the other hand, started with a set of issues facing the city and the problems that arise in trying to deal with them. Only after concrete proposals had been hammered out in public meetings were candidates chosen to carry the platform to the voters.
GRO expects to elect two or three members of the next City Council--Saundra Graham, an incumbent, plus one or two others. Since the Council has nine members, GRO councillors will have to work with two or three other councillors to form a majority. GRO hopes to work with the CCA councillors to choose a mayor and a new city manager. GRO will not form a majority with any conservative council members who may be elected in November.
If GRO does not continue beyond the coming elections, it will not have lived up to its potential. The elected GRO councillors will not be effective unless they are kept in contact with the people who elected them. Public and open meetings will have to continue and other councillors will have to be lobbied to support GRO proposals. GRO must continually organize the political process, along with other community groups, to extend and preserve the possibilities for basic change that exist in Cambridge. Cambridge could be a model for what economic justice can do for the people. John Brode '56, a longtime Cambridge activist, is running for City Council on the GRO slate.