A Matter of Life and Hope

Mossik Hacobian is not the kind of person you would immediately associate with saving lives. He’s not a cop or a fireman. If you were to meet him when he’s wearing his business suit, you might think he is a banker. He is 5 foot 6, with dark hair and a mustache. He used to keep his squarely built, athletic body in shape by riding a bicycle to work, until he and his wife bought a car in 2003. Although he has grown softer since his youthful soccer playing days, at age 60 he’s still non-stop energy. After all, he has to work with the politicians, community leaders, bureaucrats, board members, tenants, private investors, government funders and foundation executives. And others. A son of Armenian immigrants from Iran, his infectious smile and pleasant manner mask a fierce compassion for saving the lives of people in his community. For the most part he does this by saving affordable housing in the inner city neighborhoods of Boston. In 1990, he would face his most daunting challenge, requiring him to literally save the lives of young men.

Mossik is the executive director of the Boston-based CDC Urban Edge. In his small third floor office, cluttered with maps of Boston, architectural drawings, posters and photos of Armenia, his window allows him to admire one of Urban Edge’s developments for modest-income households.

An activist in the 1960s, Mossik left Columbia University to pursue a life wrestling with the inner city neighborhoods of Boston where the housing was run down and in ill repair. He wasn’t sure he could win. “I was prepared to settle in for the long haul,” he says. Shortly after arriving in Boston, he and two friends put their resources into an experiment to rehab abandoned buildings in East Boston and rent them at affordable prices. “I didn’t make much of a living, but I did move my family into one of those homes.”

In 1977 he was hired to work as a rehab specialist for Urban Edge; he became the head of the organization in 1984. At that time the CDC had begun to concentrate its work in Egleston Square, which straddles the low-income neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. At the turn of the century Egleston was a community of German and Irish immigrants, but in the 1980s waves of Latin American and Caribbean immigrants came, mixing with African Americans. With the changing demographics came redlining, landlord neglect and arson for profit. A third of the residents now received public assistance.

To stop the neighborhood’s decline, Urban Edge built or rehabbed a dozen or so homes and engaged in school integration and redlining battles. Financing its projects by creatively scrounging together financing from several government and private sources, Urban Edge built and planned to develop and rehabilitate over 1,000 units of affordable housing.

Things looked hopeful when the state government, in an attempt to improve the neighborhood, tore down the raised subway tracks that had hovered over Egleston Square’s Washington Street, the trains’ screeching noise forcing many residents to put their fingers in their ears. The removal of the tracks brought sunlight to the square. But it also meant the loss of a subway station, which led to less pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood and a slump in business. Several businesses closed; storefronts became vacant; windows were boarded up. Mario Melendez, owner of the 3M Market, the biggest in the square at the time, typified the few businesses that remained. “My business started collapsing, but I wanted to stay on because I lived nearby,” he says.

Despite Urban Edge’s initial success, Mossik and his colleagues would soon conclude that building affordable housing was not enough. Urban Edge’s battle to rebuild the community in light of an increasingly uncaring federal government was always uphill. The hill grew steadily steeper as crime rose in Boston and gun-toting youth gangs sprang up in the square. Without jobs or recreational facilities and with many young people coming from broken families, gang activity grew.

Up one neighborhood street were the Timberwolves. Other gangs – Homestead, Humboldt and the X-Men – began surfacing. “We felt we were threatened by the police and by the other gangs,” recalled a former X-Men member. A Latino gang, the X-Men gained so much support among young people that it became synonymous with Egleston. Drugs became a big problem, too. One resident and a leader of Urban Edge says, “I remember the days when there was a traffic jam on School Street, trying to get to the drug dealers.”

By the late 1980s Mossik’s frustration grew. He knew others who had tried what he was doing and failed. “Should I give up?” he thought. “Housing is one thing, youth violence is another.”

“The fact was that the number of youth under 18 was high in the neighborhood and even higher in our developments,” he says now. “There were not enough educational and recreational facilities for young people. Gang activity was making our neighborhoods dangerous.”

Mossik would need to call on his deep and abiding commitment to social justice to carry on. He had succeeded by combining his entrepreneurial skills with a capacity to deal with a wide range of unanticipated and complicated problems. But his commitment to social justice sustained him, a devotion that reached back to 1968 when he participated in a demonstration while a student at Columbia University’s School of Architecture. When Columbia proposed a plan to build a new gymnasium on public land at Morningside Heights, he and other demonstrators marched to the site to stage a protest in support of Columbia’s Harlem neighbors who used the land for recreation. The fight stopped Columbia, a well-heeled, powerful institution, from pushing aside neighborhood residents. It was a one-shot action. By contrast, his work with Urban Edge was, in his words, “digging in for the long haul.”

In the autumn of 1989, a series of incidents triggered events whose conclusion no one in Egleston could have anticipated. Carol Stuart, a pregnant suburban white woman, was shot and killed in Roxbury in an apparent random street robbery. Charles, her husband, claimed a black man shot his wife. When a black ex-convict became a suspect in the killing, his arrest seemed to solve a sensational high-profile murder case, quieting an outraged city whose leaders promised swift justice. Meanwhile, in the hunt for the criminal, African-American and Latino youth were illegally searched and detained by Boston police, heightening hostility. When authorities eventually determined that Charles was the real killer, animosity in neighborhoods like Roxbury and Jamaica Plain got worse. Tensions ran especially high between Latino and African-American gangs and the police.

In January 1990 a white police officer confronted a group of X-Men. When directed to disperse, one youth did not immediately comply. “I work here and I’m about to close up the video store,” he argued. An altercation began. Suddenly, a gang member tossed a Molotov cocktail from a tenement rooftop onto a police cruiser, setting it ablaze. After this incident, politicians and community leaders, including Mossik, began to realize that the police couldn’t bring order and justice by themselves. “We didn’t want just a “get tough” law enforcement approach. We wanted recreation and dialogue. We wanted a preventive strategy,” says Mossik. Working with churches and community groups, he tried to attack the gang problem and several community meetings were organized. But generational, race and class rifts between the youth of Egleston and the “official” adult community remained. The X-Men claimed unfair police treatment, and at one meeting they blamed their plight on the lack of employment.

In November a shooting broke out in the square between a gang member and police. It ended with Hector Morales Jr., a member of the X- Men, dead. “That tragic incident put Egleston Square on the map,” says a neighborhood resident. It also galvanized the neighborhood.

It wasn’t that single event that led to the creation of Egleston Square Youth Center. There was a lot of discussion in the neighborhood, involving various community groups that worked with troubled kids. For over 10 years the organizations and residents talked and planned, asking, “What do we do with all these kids hanging out?”

November 27, 2002 was overcast. Riding through the slick, winding streets of Boston’s inner-city neighborhoods, Mossik was like a proud parent. He noticed the newly painted storefronts, clean sidewalks and ubiquitous city-planted daffodils that demonstrated that the prosperity and vitality so evident in downtown Boston was reaching into neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. He was going to an event to celebrate the new youth center. He had patched together the financing so that Urban Edge was well on its way to successfully completing a huge $2.1 million capital campaign to build the center. More than 10 years after Boston witnessed its highest youth crime rate in history, a nearly abandoned warehouse had been transformed into a place that housed recreational facilities, after-school education programs and the high school. Mossik was soon to be joined on stage by some of the city’s most prestigious leaders, including the mayor, the superintendent of schools and Reverend Ray Hammond, who co-founded the Ten Point Coalition, an ecumenical group of clergy and lay leaders, to fight youth violence in Boston.

Mossik slowly approached the podium to speak to the community’s leaders and hundreds of guests. His thoughts turned to 1990 and the shooting death of a young man that drove the community to advocate for a youth facility in the neighborhood. Mossik was proud of the classic Boston row houses that Urban Edge had rehabbed, with their front stoops, high ceilings and bay windows facing a park. He thought, too, of the growing voter turnouts and the coming together of neighborhoods across barriers of race and class. But he also thought of the large number of people in need of services. Be positive, thought the ever-optimistic Mossik: “This year has been a remarkable one. We have completed a project more than 11 years in the making. The Egleston Square Youth Center demonstrates the true power of community partnership.”

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John Atlas is a found of Shelterforce and board chair emeritus. He is the producer of ACORN and the Firestorm, a film directed by Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard and author of SEEDS OF CHANGE: The Story of ACORN, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group. He is also the former executive director of the Passaic County Legal Aid Society.

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