Mildred Hailey presided so long, and so regally, over the Bromley-Heath public housing development that it sometimes felt as if she had built it herself.
From the late 1960s until her death from cancer on Wednesday, she was its guiding presence. Hailey, who was 82, spearheaded the drive to wrest control of the development from the Boston Housing Authority in 1968. It became the first housing project in the country to be run by its tenants, rather than a municipal bureaucracy.
That was just the beginning of the transformation Hailey oversaw at Bromley-Heath, which sits on the border of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. From repairing blighted conditions that would never be tolerated today to helping to negotiate truces between rival gangs, she had a role in everything that affected the hundreds of tenant families she considered her extended family.
“Mildred was absolutely a force of nature who tackled an extraordinarily difficult job with courage and compassion and performed a miracle out there,” said BHA Administrator Bill McGonagle, a friend for decades. “I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it.”
Bromley-Heath was a symbol of official apathy and neglect when tenants organized their takeover. According to McGonagle, heat, electricity and even running water were all spotty. It had an estimated 4000 broken windows, a malady which came to represent a host of other ills. Years of complaints had fallen on deaf ears.
But the BHA had a new, pro-tenant, progressive board of commissioners (since abolished) that was willing to step aside and allow the tenants to try to solve their own problems. “The BHA was incapable of (running) it at the time,” McGonagle said. “The board of commissioners recognized that and gave the tenants a chance to save themselves.”
Conditions improved, and tenants had a new sense of community. Bromley-Heath even had its own police force. It became a case study for how to reclaim broken public housing.
That is not to say that every problem magically evaporated. Crime has continued to fluctuate, just as it has in the surrounding neighborhood. But the feeling that tenants had to settle for lousy living conditions had been vanquished for good.
Rev. Jeffrey Brown, one of the founders of the Ten Point Coalition, got to know Hailey in 2006, during an uptick in crime. Along with Boston Police, Brown was working to quell a war between two rival gangs, one of which was based in Bromley. Along with police commanders James Claiborne and Gary French, he began holding weekly meetings between the combatants at Bromley. He was amazed when Hailey, then in her 70s, hosted the gatherings.
“We met every week, and Mildred would cook,” Brown said Thursday. “Fried chicken, greens, macaroni and cheese. We would do it every single week, and we had about 40 guys who would come.” He added: “She was one of the matriarchs of black activism in Boston.”
The truce between two gangs, H-Block and Heath Street, did more than end the violence. It eventually spawned a GED program. “A lot of these guys wanted to work, but they hadn’t completed their high school educations,” Brown said. “So we arranged to have GED classes at Bromley. 32 guys came to the first class, and 29 graduated.”
Hailey officially retired as executive director of Bromley-Heath in 2012, but she didn’t go far. “She was retired from holding an office; She wasn’t retired from being a resident who cared,” said former BHA administrator Doris Bunte, a close friend. “Mildred showed up at every meeting and she was still very much involved until the last couple of months since she hasn’t been well.”
The neighborhood around Bromley-Heath is on its way to becoming a place Hailey wouldn’t recognize — home, like so many other Boston neighborhoods, to fancy new condos Hailey’s beloved tenants could only dream of affording. That probably wouldn’t be possible if Bromley-Heath had remained the blight she helped rescue. Most of its new neighbors have no idea what they owe Mildred Hailey.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.