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Race and Politics Mingle In Day School Debate

By Matthew M. Hoffman

Six-year-old Kellen Wallace-Benjamin looked worried.

The pictures and the posters that last year decorated the windows of 113 Brattle St., were nowhere to be seen. "I'm sure they're safe," Joan Wallace-Benjamin reassured her son, as she explained why the familiar adornments were gone.

The reason she gave is a simple one: 113 Brattle St., which last year housed the mostly Black Commonwealth Day School, is now home to the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, a Cambridge research group. In August, the school announced that it was bowing to opposition from its wealthy Brattle St. neighbors and moving back to Boston after only one year of limited operation in the city.

That decision was what brought Wallace-Benjamin and about 75 others--many of them also parents of Commonwealth Day students--out to Brattle St. for a candlelight vigil on Tuesday. Since the school announced its plans to sell the property, the neighborhood has been attacked with charges of racism, classism and elitism.

And in one of the most hotly contested election years in recent history, the school has inevitably become one of the most pressing issues facing candidates for City Council in this November's voting.

Much of the commotion centers around a petition signed by 235 neighborhood residents last fall, which opposed a zoning variance that would allow the school to expand its kindergarten.

Represented on the petition were some of Harvard's most prominent faculty members, notably Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law Laurence H. Tribe '62.

Other petition signers included celebrity chef Julia Child, WGBH-TV Vice President David O. Ives and Cambridge architect Graham S. Gund. Also appearing on the list is the signature of City Councillor Francis H. Duehay '55, the longest- serving council member endorsed by the progressive Cambridge Civic Association (CCA).

Brattle St., with its close proximity to Harvard, is often regarded as the liberal stronghold of a liberal city. But the widely publicized story of the Commonwealth Day School has prompted many to charge that the progessive image of both city and neighborhood is little more than a facade.

"From Brattle St. to Bensonhurst, racism is a curse," the marchers chanted at Tuesday's vigil. Those who spoke at the rally made it clear that they considered Commonwealth Day the latest symbol of the city's hypocrisy.

Tuesday's march was noteworthy, however, for its lack of political overtone. Organizer Phillip Martin says he did not even want politicians at the vigil. Although Alan Bell, one of the few conservative Blacks to mount a City Council challenge in recent years, did march at the front of the rally, most other candidates did not attend.

And although marchers stood and chanted outside the homes of several prominent petition signers, Duehay's house was conspicuously absent from their tour.

"This issue is already too politicized," says Martin. "That's why we didn't go to a politician's home. This issue has been obfuscated for too long."

The Commonwealth Day School moved to Cambridge from Newbury St. in Boston last fall and began kindergarten classes in the Brattle St. building. Because of space limitations, the school rented temporary classrooms for older students at the city's YWCA, according to Headmaster Robert E. Myette.

About 80 percent of the school's then-50 students were minorities, Myette said.

In August, 1988, the city granted the school a certificate of occupancy, allowing students to attend classes there. But in September, next-door-neighbor Jean Brooks filed an appeal to the city to block further expansion and submitted the neighbors' petition. The city's Zoning Board of Appeal approved an expansion of the school.

"For many of us that was the end of the matter," said Fisher Professor of Natural History A.W. Crompton, a petition signer. "I was at that point ready to accept the decision."

Brooks, however, was not. She and her husband decided to take the case to the Massachusetts Land Court. Rather than continue to fight the neighborhood, school officials decided to sell.

"It was always our intent to protect the parents and the students and the teachers so that they would not have to get involved in anything political," says Myette.

The announcement of Commonwealth Day's departure created an immediate political backlash and sparked angry allegations of racism. At an impromptu hearing, the City Council voted to set up a special commission to investigate the matter and to recommend action to appropriate city, state and federal agencies.

Also discussed at the hearing were charges of institutional harassment, including the city's failure to pick up the school's garbage for several weeks. In addition, neighbors obtained a cease-and-desist order to prevent the school from moving in equipment early last fall.

Political Infighting

At the next council meeting on September 18, the political implications of the school situation took on a new dimension.

During debate over an order sponsored by William H. Walsh and dealing with the petition signers, Duehay took an almost unheard-of step. He asked Walsh to remove his name from the measure, saying that the councillor was not qualified to address an issue of racial inequality.

He also said that the school's departure became an issue largely because the council's Independents--headed by Walsh and Sheila T. Russell--got together and agreed to use the issue against Duehay and the CCA.

All five Independents immediately denied that any such meeting took place. Although the Independent candidates do meet regularly, Walsh says, the Commonwealth Day School was never officially talked about.

"It was not any part of the agenda," says Walsh. "It was not discussed.

But Duehay says that he was told of the meeting by a participant: longtime Independent Councillor Walter J. Sullivan.

"He wanted to assure me that he had nothing to do with it," Duehay said. "He had been present chairing a meeting of the Independents where it was discussed, and he wanted nothing to do with it."

And Lester P. Lee, Jr, a city activist and former council candidate, says that Sullivan also told him that the matter was discussed and that he had decided not to take part.

Obviously, someone is not telling the entire story.

Sullivan, who is recuperating from a mild heart attack, was not available for comment.

Whatever prompted the debate, it is clear that Commonwealth Day has become intertwined with the other dominant issue in this fall's council race.

Members of the anti-rent control Small Property Owners Association, who have picketed City Council meetings for several weeks with signs urging support for Proposition 1-2-3--a ballot referendum to allow some tenants in rentcontrolled housing to purchase their apartments--and opposition to the CCA, this week had a new sign. "Hypocrisy doesn't end with the Commonwealth Day School," it read.

And in Bell's view, the school's departure is inextricably linked with Proposition 1-2-3, which he says would benefit Blacks if approved.

According to Lee, the debate centers around an attempt to capture the city's Black vote in the upcoming elections. Cambridge's only Black councillor, Saundra Graham, is retiring this year, and several candidates are looking to grab her constituents, he says.

"The Independents are making a big bid for the Black vote, and that's the key," said Lee.

"If any of them were sincere about solving this problem, they wouldn't have allowed it to get caught up in local politics," Lee adds.

Several city residents have argued that the council's sudden concern for the school is misplaced. They say that while the school was still in the city, the council took virtually no action to help it.

In addition, some liberals have questioned whether Walsh was involved in the purchase and sale of the school's buildings. A lawyer in his office, Kathleen McCabe, represented the school for the purchase of the Brattle St. building. Another Walsh employee, A. Frances G. Schwartz, loaned the school $100,000 in November, 1988.

Walsh maintains that he did not profit from the school's property transactions. And as evidence of his ongoing concern for Commonwealth Day, he cites a council order he sponsored last year welcoming the school to the city.

Harvard-bashing and Brattle St.-bashing have long been staples of Cambridge politics, and several have argued that Commonwealth Day fits neatly into the pattern.

Criticism of the neighborhood has often been tinged with anti-Harvard sentiment.

"Are you telling us that Black students cannot be near Harvard University?" one woman asked derisively at Tuesday's vigil, stretching out each syllable for emphasis.

In the midst of the debate, school officials have had little to say. At the September 11 hearing, the school was represented by Jack Gottlieb and real estate broker Mark A. Ostrowsky, who sold the school's Newbury St. property.

And at Tuesday's vigil, Myette presented a stark contrast to the fiery rhetoric of Jean Wallace-Benjamin, who addressed the crowd in front of the former school building. In a relatively subdued voice, Myette read a statement thanking the marchers for their support but made little mention of the city-wide controversy.

"Our needs are simple," Myette told the crowd. "Students, students and scholarship funds for them."

And because politics have tended to take precedence, it is difficult to determine what actually forced Commonwealth Day to leave.

Many petition signers, including Tribe, say that they were legitimately concerned about traffic problems and the safety of the school.

"You have to look at the context, the history of what was going on in the neighborhood," says Lee. "Everybody hates development in this city."

Many petitioners, like Duehay, contend that an institutional use is simply not appropriate in a residential area.

"Realistically speaking," says Myette, "racism exists in America. The extent to which it exists in a single neighborhood, I don't know."

"Is it racism?" he asks. "Is it elitism? Is it `not in my backyard?' I don't know."

But Myette says many Brattle St. residents who signed the petition may not have realized the petition's context.

"I have a feeling--and this is just a feeling on my part--that whoever brought the petition around, they embellished, and maybe some of those people were duped," says Myette.

And some petition signers, including Tribe, have tried to dissociate themselves from the document now that its underlying implications have grown clearer.

"I'd be very dubious that more than a very small number of the people involved are racist," Tribe says.

"I just cannot see from any of the people I know that that was a racist issue," says Crompton. "I think that's a false assumption to draw."

Even among Black activists in the city, opinions differ as to what really happened to the Commonwealth Day School.

"This is 1989, and this is Cambridge, and what you really have here is a segregated neighborhood," says council candidate Kenneth E. Reeves '72, who is endorsed by the CCA. Reeves says it is impossible to sidestep the issue of racism.

"When you have a neighborhood that has no subsidized, no low-income, no elderly housing--nothing in fact but one type of ethnic group--it begs that question," says Reeves.

Reeves says that city action to help integrate the neighborhood might help to solve the problem.

Others prefer to see the debate as primarily an economic and class one, rather than a racial issue.

"I would say that I would start with elitism and classism," says CCA-endorsed candidate Renae Scott. "Then I would start with racism."

The most important step to take at this stage, Scott says, is to make sure similar incidents do not happen in the future.

And for Commonwealth Day, whose enrollment in its new Boston location has dwindled to eight students, the political chain of events touched off by their departure is irrelevant: The school has left the city, and Myette says he is unsure whether it will even consider trying to return.

"Whatever people in Cambridge have decided to do in a political sense, they have their own motives," says Myette.

"I just don't think we did anything to deserve the treatment we got. I think we were treated rudely."

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