Adline Stallings does not care for surprises. So strong is her dislike for being taken off guard that even when a park was being named in her honor a few days ago in the heart of her beloved Mission Main public housing development, those entrusted with keeping the secret — some of them high-ranking city officials — were nervous about her reaction.
"I was worried that Miss Adline might cuss us out," said Bill McGonagle, the administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. "Fortunately, that didn't happen."
Stallings, who turns 70 this week, has been a guiding force — some would say the guiding force — in Mission Main for decades. Largely under the leadership of Stallings and her longtime collaborator, Willie Pearl Clark, one of the most troubled housing developments in New England has been transformed. A project that was once drug-infested and dangerous has been essentially rebuilt from scratch.
None of that seemed likely when she moved into the place in 1970, a new arrival from Mississippi. Stallings' family down South had scattered, and a niece encouraged her to join her in Boston.
"I thought I would come for a couple of weeks," Stallings said. "And, do you know, I haven't been back home since."
To call her plain-spoken would be an understatement. Mayors, developers, and countless city officials can tell you about being on the wrong side of her blunt advocacy. But she is deeply admired as a shrewd negotiator and an activist who has often stood tall against powerful forces who assumed they could take her community for granted.
The moment many consider defining came in the early 1990s. Mission Main had been awarded one of the first big federal grants for reconstruction, known as a Hope VI grant. But the process of picking a developer proved interminable. In the end, Mayor Thomas M. Menino backed developer Edward Fish, while the tenants strongly supported Arthur Winn.
The resulting standoff became legend, at least in some circles. As television cameras waited outside for a news conference at which Fish was to be named to rebuild the development, Stallings told Menino in blunt terms that the tenants would never accept a deal that did not include Winn. The announcement planned for that day was abruptly scrapped, and Winn and Fish ended up rebuilding the development together in a shotgun marriage.
"Mayor Menino and me, we started out being friends and then he saw he couldn't rule me like he could other people in other developments," Stallings said.
Winn's company still manages the property. "Adline has been tough and demanding, and always focused on what's best for the residents of Mission Main," Winn said. "She and Willie Pearl are unsung heroes who had the nerve to help change the trajectory of an entire community's future."
Mission Hill has probably been best known in recent years as the backdrop of the Stuart case — in which Charles Stuart killed his pregnant wife as they sat parked nearby and then told police a black man was to blame. Stallings played a huge role in the community's rebound from the murder that once threatened to define it.
She isn't a member of the tenant task force anymore, because of health issues. She gets around on a scooter. But she remains deeply involved, however informally. At the park dedication, Winn, the bigshot developer, mingled with generations of tenants who had come out to celebrate her.
A plaque in Stallings' honor at the edge of the park was covered up until the last possible minute. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, on hand to make a speech about her, hid around the corner to avoid spoiling the surprise. And shocked she was. She has always insisted that her activism was never about her.
"She's an old activist who fought for working class and poor people," Walsh said admiringly. "In a way, that's been lost today."