Al Vellucci: The Politics of Disguise

(The author, a third year student at the Law School, is studying the problems of redistricting Boston neighborhoods under a grant from the Ford Foundation.)

City Councillor Al Vellucci, pain in the ass of the Harvard Corporation and joy in the hearts of his East Cambridge constituents, just added one more insult to the fourteen years of verbal injury he has inflicted on the University's self-promoted image.

Monday night he asked the City Council to change the name of Harvard Square to Christopher Columbus Square. "What the hell," he says, grinning broadly, "that guy Harvard never did anything for Cambridge except give the city six lousy books on Protestant theology--and THAT place. We can certainly do better by the discoverer of our great nation." Columbus, Vellucci, and East Cambridge are all Italian.

To those familiar with the Councillor's rhetoric and style this new proposal will come as no surprise. In the past he has suggested turning the Lampoon building into a public urinal ("Well, that's what it looks like isn't it"), the Yard into a dog pound ("We'll put ropes around all of those trees, see, and let 'em sit"), and the area under the Yard into a public parking lot. ("Only thing the land is good for, see. Personally I hope that when they build it the whole place sinks.") In the future he promises more of what he calls "my patented agitations."

And it is these that have shaped his reputation in the University community as two parts buffoon and one part bastard. Self-possessed Charles P. Whitlock, Assistant to the President for Civic Relations, smiles and shakes his head at the mention of Vellucci's name, while CRIMSON editors jump at the chance to make him appear a beast that never was on land or sea before. It was page one news last spring when Vellucci sat stony-faced through a young girl's tear-laden hour-long plea that her dog would be strangled if a proposed leash law was passed.


But on his own turf Vellucci projects himself in a completely different way. In East Cambridge he is universally known, always liked, often loved, sometimes revered--and even more.

Of Vellucci one non-resident businessman says, "He's so popular down here that I think he's going to be canonized when he finally dies--by all seven churches he now regularly attends." There is constant praise for his good works, for his favors to both young and old in the neighborhood, for the vast improvements that he has brought to the area during his regime, for the fact that he is a "real gen'leman" (with the dropped "t" of the local patois). At Don's Lunch the manager-waitress whose books Vellucci carried to the local Thorndike School when both were students there can only say, "He is our boy, a real prince, oh I lose my head when I start talking about him--he's so wonderful--and can't say anything."

Will that bastard-saint, the real Al Vellucci, please stand up, wave the life wand and let the dumb speak?


We are at the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee's Housing Convention and for all of the promise of its conception it has been a bush-league affair from its beginning two hours ago.

Over 500 Cambridge residents, seated in eight caucuses under signs identifying the various neighborhoods, have come together to present their solutions to the increasingly aggravated housing shortage that plagues the whole city. It is an exercise in grass-roots democracy. The resolutions they have been offering represent three months of local organizing in the eight areas of the city and a genuine effort to put some muscle into community power.

But the whole scene at St. Mary's Hall has deprived the proceedings of any emotional content and thus far they have been flat, frivolous, and boring for everyone here.

With red, white, and blue streamers hanging from the ceiling and crayoned quotations from every President since Lincoln on the wall, the transformed gymnasium looks like an uneasy hybrid NSA convention and junior high school prom. The keynote speeches by Mayor Walter Sullivan and Congressman Tip O'Neill have been irrelevant, the first by way of saying nothing at all, the second by way of two very long, very old Irish jokes and a passing reference to the Congressman's concern for the Cambridge situation. Both have long since departed. The Convention has descended into the introduction--hamstrung by a parliamentary procedure no one understands--of an endless series of remarkably similar caucus resolutions written in obscure legal language. Kids running through the hall have voted both Yea and Nay on all motions and followed their dogs out the huge front doors.

Vellucci -- with an easy, dignified, and slightly plump grace that complements his sharp features and shock of graying hair, a distinctly Italian Cary Grant--has been here with the East Cambridge caucus from the beginning. And with the eight elderly ladies with pill-box hats, skirts that fall well below the knee, and Norman Rockwell faces who make up the majority of it, he has sat calmly through the agenda thus far, oblivious to the formal proceedings, talking quietly to the many people who come up to him, and smiling continuously at women all over the room.


But now William Joyce, the chief clerk, is starting back over the resolutions that each caucus has offered to see if there are changes to be made. East Cambridge passes. The Central Four-Model Cities Area, with its complement of student radicals, moves that the East Cambridge resolutions condemning the "growth" of the Universities be changed to read "expansion." The clerk is confused as to what the change is, whether it is acceptable to East Cambridge or indeed whether it has not been adopted already.

And in the chaos Vellucci is on his feet for the first time, moving toward the microphones twenty feet to his right. Before he is anywhere near it he raises his right arm yelling, "Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, there is something that I would like to say here," and begins to speak.

At the outset it is extremely hard to hear him without the aid of the amplifying system over the bored chatter of the rest of the delegates. But the crowd recognizes him and begins to quiet down just as the mike begins to pick up his voice. And by the time that he is up to it, the entire place is quiet for the first time while the powerful PA system, modulated to carry over the expected room noise at any convention, is blasting him over a silent audience. The effect is overpowering. The process: a desert rose blooming in a slow-motion Walt Disney movie. The product: the force of a natural phenomenon, electronically produced.

And there is Al Vellucci, in his own element, filling the room with sound, rocking on the balls of his feet as he speaks, gesturing sharply with his right hand. "I'm no lawyer," he begins, "and I don't understand all this fancy language. Sure I'll go for 'expansion' rather than 'growth.' But I do want to say here that I will support any program, any program at all, no matter what you call it, see, that gives rent-control to the poor and brings in low-cost housing for the people who need it most--just so long as it also sends Harvard and MIT packing across the river. Now if we don't do that, our future generations will be the subjects of that Harvard and they will all owe their allegiance to that royal messiah, Nathan M. Pusey."

The two-minute tirade--complete with insulting aside to the University--proves to be the most moving moment at the convention Everybody here had come for the same thing and in the same spirit. And everybody knows who the enemies are: MIT, Harvard, NASA, and the big outside realty companies who have all contributed to the spiralling rents so destructive to the poor and to those who live on fixed incomes. But amidst the factionalism imposed by the caucus arrangement and by the emphasis on the shades of shadows of differences in the wording of various resolutions, it is only Vellucci who can define this common spirit and emphasize the fundamental unity of concern.

He finishes by apologizing for the outburst, explaining, "I've just been itching to get my hands on this microphone for a long time now," as if someone had been preventing him. As it turns out, however, it is only his instinct for the public emotional jugular that has held him back. He spends the rest of the afternoon wandering from caucus to caucus, speaking whenever he wants to at whatever mike is nearest, obviously enjoying his frequent conversations with women in the audience.

But before the Convention is adjourned he does manage to get in the final word to the chair. "What I would like to know," he asks, "is what is going to happen to all of these resolutions when this is over. What are you guys going to do when we get out of here?"


What Al Vellucci has been doing for the last fourteen years--four as a school committeeman and ten as City Councillor--is providing his own answers as best he can for his East Cambridge constituents.

As a community they feel particularly threatened these days by the forces of a changing world that they certainly never made, do not fully understand, and want no part of. Composed almost entirely of lower middle-class factory workers of Italian, Portuguese and Polish extraction, they view intellectuals with suspicion, students with scorn, and money with fear.

Roll these three up in a growing MIT to the immediate south of the area and an expanding Harvard to the west, consider that the Somerville line is twenty feet north of Vellucci's front door and that East Cambridge is appropriately named, add the fact that even there rents have gone up from $20 a month for a four-room apartment five years ago to $60 now and that huge real estate cartels are beginning to show an interest in acquiring property there, and one resident's remark--"They are squeezing us to death here. In ten years there will be completely nothing for us"--makes some sense. Vellucci reports that one National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) official who is helping to build the huge complex which will bring 5,600 well-paid Federal technocrats into the East Cambridge area next year told him, "My God, you are sitting on a gold-mine down there."

The real problem is that the residents of the area in silent general and Vellucci in noisy particular know in their hearts that the Federal bureaucrat is right--but for themselves and for non-monetary reasons. Everyone there would cash in and move out if they weren't so attached to the neighborhood and to the distinctive way of life that characterizes it.

Pass through Inman Square in your way down Cambridge Street and you do find yourself in a different world where life is in the streets when it's warm enough and in the bars when it's not, where to the outsider the most infuriating institution of local social life is the 1963 Buick stopped dead in the middle of the street with people hanging from all the doors and windows talking, where there is a strong sense of racial solidarity and an even stronger sense of family solidarity so that on every block, as on Eighth Street, there are two sisters, a mother, dozens of children, and countless inlaws within three doors of each other, and where there is no such thing as a current issue, so strong is the feeling of a neighborhood past that impinges on it. Nobody simply exists in East Cambridge; everybody lives next to his neighbors and close to his family history.

The current housing crisis, which occupies most of Vellucci's talking hours, boils up at the intersection of this fundamental human commitment to the way things are on his own turf and the way things are moving in the rest of Cambridge. The whole social structure of East Cambridge depends for its existence on the kind of owner occupied, family rented three story buildings guaranteeing relatively cheap housing and restricting it to the kind of supportive community now found there.

It is to the perpetuation of this that Vellucci has dedicated himself. Some years ago he had the entire neighborhood zoned residential and now supports either an immediate rent freeze or rent control for the whole city even though East Cambridge--so long as remains as it is--will have a reliable and entirely informal system of control based on community solidarity. Residents simply will not rent to students and are reluctant to sell to outsiders no matter what the price. And when they do--as recently happened on Plymouth Street where an outside realtor bought some property from the estate of a deceased resident and doubled the rents, thus forcing out the family there -- Vellucci sics the City Health Inspectors on the buildings and makes life as uncomfortable as possible for all concerned.

Twenty-Story High-Rises

The same attitude informs Vellucci's stand on the more formal recent programs designed to create new housing in the area. He is willing to admit the need for new housing so long as it doesn't upset present social arrangements; he has no interest in a new East Cambridge but a great deal of interest in an improved one.

And so he single-handedly defeated one of the earliest urban renewal plans for the area because of its promise of massive destruction of existingu buildings and massive dislocation of existing populations. Presently he finds his bitterest enemy in the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority for whom the best building that can be constructed in the city is one that generates the greatest increase in the tax base: twenty-story, high-income high-rises. At the same time he has been instrumental in championing the equally controversial Wellington - Harrington Plan, which would make federal monies available in the form of long-term, low-interest loans that present citizens could afford for private home building of the kind on which East Cambridge depends.

In fact, however, Vellucci feels distinctly uncomfortable with all of these long-range problems and prefers to see himself as the last of the old time ward-heelers dealing in an informal way with local issues as they arise. To keep the teenagers out of trouble but--ultimately--in East Cambridge, he and his wife established a marching band, the Don Juan Drum and Bugle Corps, made up of a series of complicated major and minor leagues designed to involve every child under eighteen in the most noisy and enthusiastic if not the best musical enterprise in the city. To keep the mothers happy he has carved a series of tot lots out of vacant back-yards and old oil dumps, and to keep himself happy (and elected) he has established the Al Vellucci Associates who meet periodically to honor him at dinner.

To get all of this done--and to do it in a way that doesn't involve others in what he regards as an essentially local operation--he works under what he refers to as "a series of disguises." Frequently this only means that he wheels and deals quietly and privately in order to get something for the neighborhood. When he wanted to construct a playground where the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority said that it couldn't be built, he went to the President of the Standard Towel and Tissue Company and offered to name the back yard of his own company after the President if he would allow the children to use it as a play area. He created a little more building space in the area by convincing two companies to re-locate.

But more often than not what that disguise involves is a rhetorical and usually very funny attack on institutions outside of East Cambridge which serves to draw attention away from what is actually happening in Vellucci's neighborhood and strengthens his own position as baiter of a common enemy. The very rich and the very powerful represent the most visible threats to the community, and, while Vellucci's attacks on the University always strike a responsive chord, they also increase the paranoia that is beginning to spread through the neighborhood. While Vellucci may refused in just to eat or drink at the annual Town and Gown Dinner given by the Presidents of MIT and Harvard for the City Councillors for

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