The tale of the half-dozen Boston teens who took on TD Garden was part Scooby-Doo, part David and Goliath.
It started as a simple assignment from their Youth Community Organizers program at Hyde Square Task Force, a Jamaica Plain nonprofit that offers teens training in everything from art and dance to civic engagement. Their job was to jump-start construction of a new neighborhood rec center and ice rink — the kind of facility other towns and neighborhoods already have. And armed with a hot tip that the ownership group behind the new Garden hadn’t followed through on a promise to raise money for city recreation projects, the scrappy young detectives began an unlikely investigation.
Conversing in an endless stream of text messages and meeting inside a bare-walled, second-floor conference room behind a boarded-up church they soon discovered a long-forgotten law written a decade before they were born. While negotiating for a new Boston Garden, the arena’s owners had agreed to host three annual fund-raisers. The teens found they’d hosted exactly zero.
This would seem to qualify as a slam-dunk. But while those meddlin’ kids had solved a caper, things didn’t quite play out as they do for the teen detectives on Scooby-Doo, with the villain in handcuffs. Instead, public and private bureaucracies were in no hurry to respond to the teens’ discovery. That changed quickly after the kids went public with their findings, in a story in the Globe, and scheduled a press conference.
“We were expecting to get some sort of publicity,” says Jonah Muniz, who at 16 is the youngest of the bunch. “What I didn’t expect was that there would be tons upon tons of people.” As the story spread, teachers and friends congratulated them. Parents’ friends and colleagues reported seeing them on the news. They felt like celebrities. And the bureaucracy began to grind into action.
Eventually, TD Garden agreed to pay $1.65 million to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, with the state kicking in another $1 million, on top of roughly $6 million previously set aside, toward the construction of the Jackson Square Recreation Center in Roxbury the teens want. In October, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced that the city would chip in $2 million. Raising more than $4.5 million is darn good for an after-school project, but a far cry from the nearly $14 million the teens believed TD Garden owed.
Unsatisfied with the deal the state cut with the Garden, the teens organized a rally at the State House in August, but so far no more money for the project is forthcoming. Officials say they’re discussing how TD Garden can live up to its commitments going forward. The students are now working with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, which is helping them navigate follow-up investigations and lending some pro bono legal muscle.
“Usually when [people] think of teenagers, they don’t expect us to be, like, out front,” says Ayub Tahlil, 17. “They’re all shocked that we’re standing up and tell- ing people that this isn’t right.” He and the rest of the group are working to raise the $7 million more that nonprofit developer Urban Edge says it needs to build the center.
While praise from their elders is nice, the teens say they often felt they weren’t being taken seriously in the halls of power. “If you think about the people that actually change things around here? Usually they’re older,” says Edelind Peguero, 17.
The powers-that-be underestimate these kids at their own risk. The teens keep developing their analytical skills and their message, says Ken Tangvik, Hyde Square Task Force’s director of organizing and engagement, who got the initial tip about the forgotten law, and shepherded the teens (he’s had to up his text messaging game). “They confronted the patronizing attitude they received from state and corporate officials with facts and logic,” he says.
Now, they’re filing public records requests to search for similar broken promises buried in the redevelopment of the old Boston Garden.
They dream about a reunion one day at the rec center they hope to help build. It would be a raucous party, filled with the countless kids who grew up playing at the place they can now only envision. “It’s not that the Hyde Square Task Force wants the money. It’s for the community,” Mabel Gondres, 18, told the Globe last summer.
We talk a lot about vision and leadership around here — about what set of subjective criteria makes a so-called world-class city and about how we might lure the next major event or corporate titan to our shores. But teenagers from Roxbury or Dorchester who can see a future that’s a little more just and a little less hard on the kids growing up behind them? That’s vision. Doing something about it? That’s leadership.