Change on the Mystic
For decades, African-Americans forged their own middle-class neighborhood called The Ville, creating an enclave of self-sufficiency and high ambition. Now its survival is being put to the test.
THE CELLAR DOOR OPENS to a winding staircase, descending into darkness. Cortland Dugger leads me past the water heater, past the boiler, past a bicycle, and into a separate room with two tables holding scales, plastic spoons bound by a rubber band, stacks of small containers, and a bottle marked “H2O.” He switches on an old light fixture and a bare bulb glows.
This, in the chilly basement of a yellow shingled house on a quiet street in West Medford, is Dugger’s workshop, the place where he’s been busy trying to develop the Next Big Thing, which in his case is a transparent material with the strength to stop bullets. “This,” he says with quiet enthusiasm, “is going to go around the world.”
Dugger, who stands about 5 foot 11 and has a head of white hair, will be 87 in April. A chemist who worked for the federal government in Greater Boston and Washington, D.C., for more than three decades, he earned degrees from Tufts, Northeastern, and Central Michigan universities. He holds several patents, including one for a “solid-state laser produced by a chemical reaction between a germinate and an oxide dopant.” But here on the banks of the Mystic River, where an older sister taught him to swim in the early 1930s, he is known for much more: as the bearer of the Dugger legacy, a link to one of West Medford’s most esteemed and long-established black families.
His father, Edward, was a lieutenant colonel in the Army who fought in World War I and later led an all-black Massachusetts National Guard unit. West Medford’s Dugger Park bears the father’s name, reportedly the first park in the area named for an African-American. Cortland Dugger’s mother, born Madeline Kountze, graduated from law school in 1931, no small thing for a black woman then. With six children who all went on to college, they were pillars of a tightly woven African-American community that thrived along the Mystic, a neighborhood forged by segregation that grew, over the 20th century, into a unique enclave of relative tranquillity, high ambition, and middle-class values.
A century and a half after its founding, this distinctive quarter of Medford — traditionally bound by the river to the south, Boston Avenue or the train tracks to the northeast, and High Street to the northwest — finds itself at an uncertain moment, wrestling with an evolving identity, fighting to preserve its heritage, wondering what its future holds. The past is still present on these streets. Every day it just gets a little harder to see.
Many of the fixtures of yesteryear have died. Others have sold their homes to newcomers — often white newcomers — and moved on. Civil rights advances pushed away restrictions on where African-Americans could live and work. The resulting diaspora has taken many away from the haven of their youth.
And yet, despite the pricey new town houses, despite the coldness they sometimes feel from new neighbors, despite the forces of change that have thinned the fabric, a committed cluster of West Medford boosters is determined to keep the spirit alive. In their own ways, they celebrate the history of this historically black neighborhood while trying to cultivate a more modern, more heterogeneous sense of community.
That spirit of West Medford — with its conviction that black kids could be anything they wanted, and its proud tradition of challenging boundaries — flickers, too, in Dugger’s basement, in his determination to keep on pushing at an age when most of his peers are taking it easy. To borrow a phrase from another longtime West Medfordite, Cortland Dugger is helping keep the lights on in this special corner of the world known as The Ville.
BLACK FAMILIES settled in West Medford between the Civil War and the early 1900s, establishing an early, vibrant African-American neighborhood. At first, they were limited to three streets: Lincoln, Jerome, and part of Arlington. They found work as carpenters, gardeners, laborers, and housekeepers for affluent white families nearby.
Some came from the South, presaging the larger African-American exodus of later decades. “It’s a migration story that is before what we usually think of as the great migration,” says Mark Auslander, a former Brandeis University professor who has studied the neighborhood and who is now an associate professor of anthropology at Central Washington University.
The growing community, in an era of rigid prejudice and segregation, learned the value — indeed, the necessity — of self-sufficiency. They held prayer meetings in living rooms, baptisms in the Mystic — a tidal river at the time — and sunrise Easter services on its banks. They fished for bass, perch, and bluegills and canned their own tomatoes. They built houses, founded Shiloh Baptist Church, and formed the Mystic Finance Club, an association to help black families buy homes when white lenders would not. They converted a surplus Army barracks into the West Medford Community Center, which became the nucleus of social and family life.
Word spread about The Ville as the 20th century wore on, drawing more and more black families, some from the rougher streets of Boston, who were determined to bring up their children in a safe, stable community. “It was a different world to me,” says Justina Clayton, a 55-year-old admissions coordinator at Tufts University, who was raised in Roxbury’s Whittier Street projects and sought out Medford, where she had family, as an adult. “Where I grew up, there were people getting high in the hallway and things like that.” Roughly 800 African-Americans lived in The Ville in 1950, and a couple thousand did in subsequent decades, Census data suggest. (Thriving pockets of black life existed elsewhere outside Boston, including around Myrtle Baptist Church in the Auburndale section of Newton.)
Many West Medford natives describe almost idyllic childhoods, with baseball teams and tennis matches, horseback riding at nearby stables, and swimming at local beaches. They traded empty Coke bottles for Wax Lips, Mary Janes, and other candy at a tiny store on Jerome Street known alternately as the Little Store, Mr. Henry’s, and Hawkeye’s. The kids, many of whom went to the local Hervey School, developed their own vernacular. “Don’t step on my jeebs,” roughly translated, meant “Don’t mess with something important to me.” “You’re offed” was how you broke up with someone. They played games like borderhole (a hybrid of hide-and-seek and tag involving certain telephone poles) and buckbuck (in which you competed to see how many friends you could hold on your back).
The mothers and fathers of the neighborhood looked out for — and were free to discipline — everyone’s kids. “All of our parents were all of our parents,” says Brian Collins, a 48-year-old engineer who grew up in West Medford and is now raising his daughter there. “We could get smacked by any one of them.” It was time to return home when you heard the 6:45 p.m. bell ring at a nearby Arlington fire station, Collins and his contemporaries say.
Everybody left their doors open; you knew to yell when you walked in another house so you wouldn’t catch someone’s mother coming out of the shower. Johnny Reid, a 65-year-old West Medford native who still lives there, says his father used to leave the keys in the ignition of his early ’50s green Ford, with the windows down, in the driveway. For decades, the neighborhood had no sidewalks. The joke went that you could always tell a West Medfordite, because he walked in the middle of the street. Outsiders likened it to Mayberry.
If life within The Ville felt relatively insulated, Medford was hardly immune to racial strife, which flared as black students ventured outside their defined community. Schools were, at times, a flashpoint; as in other communities, there were battles over segregation and a scarcity of minority teachers. Medford High School saw at least two serious racial brawls, in 1977 and then in 1992. Earlier in 1977, Brian Nelson, a black 18-year-old from the neighborhood, was stabbed to death two blocks from his home after a fight between black and white youths.
The early emphasis on self-sufficiency, though, infused generations of black West Medford families with an indomitable spirit. Parents laid down strict rules about behavior and churchgoing, but they imparted a sense of boundless potential, a belief that a strong work ethic and solid education could transcend limits imposed by racism and ignorance. Reid says, “Education was drummed into us: Make something of yourself.”
The doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, musicians, and artists in the neighborhood set the example. Community leaders made a point to become active in Medford schools. “Most of us bought the American dream because most of our families bought the American dream,” says Muriel Smalheiser, 69, a retired social worker and Girl Scouts executive who was raised in West Medford and later settled in California. “When people say to me, ‘When did you decide you were going to college?’ my response was ‘I didn’t decide. I always knew I was going to college.’ ”
The successful dreamers and pioneers of West Medford are many, from Grammy Award-winning drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington to Alonzo Fields, who worked as a butler and maitre d’hotel in the White House for four presidents over 21 years. Lesser known, but no less an exemplar of the neighborhood, is a man named Amsell Alexander “Bud” Colebrooke Jr.
Born in Medford in 1925, Colebrooke was one of six children. His father bailed when Colebrooke was a boy, leaving the family to fend for itself. He and his siblings went to orphanages. Then the city of Medford stepped in, reuniting the mother and her children and providing assistance from a city welfare program. To help out, Colebrooke worked before and after school. He lied about his age to join the Army Air Corps, so he wouldn’t be a burden. Settling in Tennessee after World War II, he sold vacuums before becoming a developer of subdivisions and office parks in the Nashville area, which made him wealthy enough to live on an estate alongside country music’s biggest stars.
About 10 years ago, Medford officials got a letter from Colebrooke. Inside was a check for $100,000. The letter read in part, “My sincere gratitude to the City of Medford for helping a woman with six little kids when help was desperately needed.” He hadn’t lived in the city since 1942. City officials were dumbfounded. They used the money for a new playground in Dugger Park, to honor the local kid from Harvard Avenue who never forgot how he’d risen from nothing. “He was very excited about that,” says Medford’s longtime mayor, Michael McGlynn, who visited Colebrooke in Tennessee to say thank you. “He just wanted to make sure he paid all his debts.”
THE 1980S, locals say, is when things began to change. For one thing, social gatherings lost some of their innocence. Young black men from the tougher parts of Boston and Cambridge started bringing guns and drugs to dances and parties. So the dances and parties stopped, part of a larger erosion of social activities that had long bound people together.
The West Medford Community Center and Shiloh Baptist Church, the two anchors of The Ville for so many years, flirted with extinction. Programs at the community center diminished, and then the building itself gave in. Discord at Shiloh after the retirement of its beloved longtime pastor, the Rev. Oscar “O.G.” Phillips, sent families fleeing to other churches. An institution that had had 300 members in its heyday, helped launch an NAACP chapter, and even fielded its own baseball club was down to about 15 people, says the Rev. John Page, who took over as pastor in 2009. “I’m talking about people doing whatever they could to keep the doors open,” he says.
Whites from Cambridge, Somerville, and Arlington, meanwhile, had discovered West Medford’s charms, easy access to Boston, and riverside setting. Real estate prices rose, making it harder for blacks who had grown up there to come back. With racial barriers easing, African-Americans could more comfortably settle outside traditional black communities in the North, or even return to the South. The expanded opportunities for which The Ville had long fought contributed, in a way, to its dilution.
Natives of the community note that it had always been proudly multiracial, but the complexion began to shift noticeably over the past 10 to 20 years. “When I was a kid, that was the black neighborhood,” says Brian Flynn, a white 49-year-old born and raised in Medford who now owns the local RE/Max realty branch. “It’s hard to really call it that anymore.” (As of the 2010 Census, the neighborhood had roughly 900 African-Americans out of 2,890 residents.)
Tom Narcavage was, early on, part of the changing dynamic. Narcavage, who is white, and his wife raised some eyebrows when they bought, in 1986, the longtime home of Jim and Ada Sherwood, who had been trailblazing black teachers in the Medford schools. “The joke is, I still live in the Sherwood house,” says Narcavage, 57. “But that’s OK.” The Sherwoods simply did what many longtime black homeowners in West Medford have done, and indeed what sellers everywhere do: They sold for what the market would bear.
African-Americans in West Medford today have varied perspectives about how much The Ville has changed, and what to do about it. The wistful speak of the community almost in the past tense. The optimistic believe it can thrive into the future. The conflicted feel a little bit of both. And opinions diverge on the newcomers. Kim Blackburn, a black 47-year-old Social Security disability examiner, grew up in West Medford and later bought her own place there. “We just kind of ignore the new people,” she tells me. “They just live here.”
Other black residents say they have felt like unwelcome guests in their own community; complaints by recent home buyers about noise on the streets or in the park have caused friction. “For some outsider to come in and say or look at you like you don’t belong, and I’m like, ‘Excuse me, do you know anything about this neighborhood?’ ” says Cheryl Middleton, a 46-year-old activist on affordable housing and homelessness. Valerie David, 49, who was a State Police inspector, adds, “We can’t even sit down on the block and talk among ourselves at 8 o’clock at night anymore.” Both raised children in West Medford but aren’t sure their children would want to settle there.
Wally Kountze, who, at 81, is still working as a special assistant to the mayor, belongs to one of West Medford’s original black families. He acknowledges the tensions but attributes the altered dynamic in The Ville partly to broader, more profound cultural forces. We are more siloed now, more individualistic, often apt to rely on social networks online instead of connecting with neighbors the old-fashioned way. “Outside interests have captivated the mind, body, and soul of so many people,” Kountze tells me. As a result, he says, “The closeness isn’t there.” He continues, “We don’t even know our neighbors today. They’re out every day. They have their own social gatherings. Now, years ago, the social gatherings would have invited my family. Not today. No hard feelings, don’t misunderstand. It’s just that people go their separate ways today.”
The particulars of this evolution may be unique to West Medford. But the shifting contours of a neighborhood — the tug between holding on to what was and adapting to what will be — would be familiar in many other places. “That’s just a part of life,” says Neil Osborne, a 48-year-old black lawyer who grew up in The Ville and is raising his family there. “We’re not stuck in the ’70s. We’re not stuck in the ’80s. We are moving along. And it’s not just here. Even South Boston fights that issue, right?”
ON A RECENT SATURDAY morning, Brian Collins brings me into the new West Medford Community Center, built on the site of the old one in 2007. It’s a gorgeous facility, with a commercial kitchen, first-floor function room, and patio that overlooks the Mystic. Collins, who is president of the center’s board, is grateful for the place’s existence, grateful the community and city came together to resurrect it. “We had started to lose everything,” he says.
The challenge now is to restore the programming and activities (not to mention the funding) to make it a neighborhood cornerstone once again. Seniors enjoy programs three days a week. A French immersion preschool rents out much of the second floor. A specialist in TV production plans to launch a teen media production group. But the center doesn’t yet have the resources to stay open all week or to sponsor a full slate of activities.
The effort by Collins and his peers to revitalize the community center is one of many attempts by people in West Medford to preserve The Ville’s character. These neighborhood leaders and enthusiasts feel a responsibility to give back to a place that gave them so much.
So Johnny Reid maintains a website (thewestmedfordville.com) and helps organize regular reunions every few years, drawing West Medford natives from all over for a multi-day gathering. When he started, in 1997, Reid had about 26 people on his e-mail list; now he has nearly 360. John Page has built Shiloh Baptist Church back up to between 100 and 120 members and is pushing a capital campaign to fix up the building. The balance he’s trying to strike: honoring his church’s rich black history while broadening its outreach to all people of faith. “I’m really hesitant to continue calling Shiloh a black church, because there’s a stigma around that,” he says. “We do see so much is changing.”
Valerie David helps run the group West Medford Community Spirit, which puts on a family Labor Day party every year. Another local committee hosts an annual Lobster Fest in the summer. (West Medford has always loved its social clubs, which have included the Lend-a-Hand Club, Daffodil Club, 420 Club, New Beginnings, and the West Medford Improvement Association, which gave awards for the best-kept yards and homes.)
Wally Kountze is considering setting up regular events to introduce new arrivals in West Medford to its traditions. Neil Osborne is running for Medford City Council this year, hoping to give his community a bigger voice. It’s one way he can honor the community elders who cut a path for him. “I want to be part of building the future,” he says. “They wanted to see me succeed. I want to see the next generation succeed. I want to be that bridge.”
Collectively, all these initiatives are testing the notion that people today still actually crave community, and that it’s possible, with new faces, to knit The Ville together once again. Collins and others say relations have improved with white newcomers in recent years, and they report seeing more diverse crowds at their events. Can the antagonism be reversed? “I think we could fix that, yes,” Valerie David says. “We’re trying to do this.”
Narcavage and the other white residents I talk to tell me they’ve always felt at home in West Medford, they do enjoy the community get-togethers, and they embrace the diversity. “I can’t emphasize enough how great people are in that neighborhood,” says Anthony Orlandino, a 43-year-old realtor with RE/Max who is white and moved in seven years ago.
Everyone knows West Medford will never be quite like it was. But maybe, if the old-timers and the transplants can gather, play, talk, and eat with one another — heck, maybe even share canned tomatoes — the community could add a new chapter to its storied history.
“He was quite a man.” We’re in Cortland Dugger’s living room. He’s talking about his father, there in a black-and-white photograph from the summer of 1935: Edward Dugger, standing ramrod straight, in a pressed uniform and glasses, holding a saber at his side, commanding the black National Guard unit at Fort Devens.
Not four years later, at age 44, Edward Dugger would be dead from a chronic kidney condition. He’d never had the chance to go to college but pushed his children to. They didn’t let him down — not the engineer and champion hurdler, not the chemist and inventor, not the university administrator, nor the educators and activists. Edward Dugger’s widow, Madeline, was honored as Massachusetts Mother of the Year in 1952, in part because she pushed six kids to higher education.
Most of his siblings are dead now, their achievements logged in the books and history projects on West Medford. But Cortland Dugger, at 86, isn’t ready to be memorialized just yet.
Wearing jeans, a blue-green shirt, and black suspenders, he brings me out onto his front porch. His white Cadillac still runs great. He tells of his battles with software for his new PC and how he really doesn’t feel like raking those leaves. “I’m too old for this,” Dugger says. He motions to a patch near the river and recounts playing ball there as a boy. The grass used to be kept much higher, he says. It always cut your legs.
I ask Dugger, as he peers out over the neighborhood, whether it looks different than it used to. “A lot different,” he says. A few moments later, he adds, “It’s much the same.” Then he walks back inside the house his family built on Jerome Street.