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Boston World War II veteran fights to save Tent City and affordable housing in the city

Boston Herald - 7/13/2022

A 97-year-old World War II veteran who fought in Iwo Jima is waging one last battle for the America he wants to see — saving affordable housing in the Back Bay.

Richard Cook was wheeled out to the front of Tent City, where he lives with his daughter Heather Cook in a townhouse at the back, in a freshly-printed white T-Shirt that shouts “SAVE TENT CITY.”

Other concerned residents — some shouting out affectionate hellos to the elderly veteran — would soon join the pair at around 6 p.m. Wednesday in their own shirts. They also brought boards protesting “Peabody Properties stop Air BNBs” or simply asking “What about us?”

The residents have a litany of complaints about their building’s management and a burgeoning fear that the complex that houses their homes — some, like Cook, have lived there for decades — will change hands.

“With this place, when there’s hundreds of rooms and this and that, and security, and so they come to the end of the line — they see there’s nothing here anymore, it’s not an easy grab anymore,” Richard Cook said. “Now they want to get what they can, and that’s the whole story.”

The real problem, Heather Cook said, is “We don’t really know the truth” about the future of Tent City, which is a huge mixed development of units including lower- and middle-income units.

“There’s talks. The hearsay is that it’s going to be sold because of the backdoor conversations,” she said. “It was understood that the only way the property could be sold is if BPDA (Boston Planning & Development Agency) joined conversations.”

The Herald was unable to reach a representative of Peabody Properties, the company that manages Tent City, by press time.

It’s a situation that the two city councilors who stood beside the residents, Council President Ed Flynn and Councilor At-Large Ruthzee Louijeune, said they’ve been aware of since at least last year.

Heather Cook “had mentioned that there were issues with the management company here at Tent City and an effort to push out our residents, which is completely unjust, especially when you know the history of Tent City and how hard folks like Mel King and folks fought for affordable housing to be here,” Louijeune said.

Tent City sounds like an unusual name for an apartment complex and that’s because it is: The name commemorates a 1968 demonstration by South End residents about a lack of affordable housing. Activist Mel King, long an opponent of the then Boston Redevelopment Authority’s evictions of low-income residents, organized a sit-in at the site to protest a parking garage being constructed there instead of affordable housing.

It was an issue that galvanized Boston and was at the center of the 1983 mayoral race between then-state Rep. King and ultimate winner Ray Flynn. The 1988 apartment complex was built during Flynn’s tenure.

“This place has significance to me and my family,” Ed Flynn, Ray’s son, said. “But more importantly it’s about the residents and making sure that Boston is a city for everybody and not just the wealthy.”

Richard Cook, who stuck with the protests into the evening, added he was a sniper with the Navy during the war and was overjoyed to return to Boston as a plumber. “It was really something in those days,” he said of the neighborhood’s working-class charm he’s now fighting to retain.

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