At the South End Branch Library one day, John Jones told me a friend was wondering why he hadn't been written up as a "South End Character." Since he certainly is one, I want to remedy that.
Many readers will recognize John from the library, either sitting at a table inside reading the newspapers or sunk down in a lawn chair at the flea market outside. He wears a tight knit cap down over his ears (removed for the photo) and has an open, friendly face. He's observant, knows everybody, whether or not they know him, and often has a wry take on things.
Born on Martha's Vineyard, he may or may not be a Chappaquiddick Indian, as his family claims, but John insists, "I go by black." As a child, he got bounced around a lot, until in 1954, at age 7, he and his two sisters were taken in by an aunt by marriage who lived at 230 West Canton Street. Aunt Mary Holman, a single woman who had had foster children in the past, was a social worker with the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and later she became executive director of the Cooper Community Center. She was also president of the Cosmopolitan Neighborhood Association, and in time John would be treasurer. "She was very strict; you couldn't smoke or drink in the house," says John, which he admits may have caused him to go in the opposite direction.
Back then, that block of West Canton Street-Columbus Avenue to Carlton Street and the railroad tracks-was largely black, and there were many homeowners. Mary Holman owned the whole house, having bought it in the Forties. Dr. Cornelius Garland, founder of Plymouth Hospital on East Springfield Street, was, from the 1920s, another prominent resident. After moving to Brookline, he maintained a private practice at 225 West Canton Street; the grandchildren of a neighbor are named Cornelius and Thelma after him and his daughter. Isaiah and Vernice Owens, owners of a barbershop on Columbus Avenue, bought Dr. Garland's house in the Fifties. Mrs. Owens only recently died, says John. She was in her nineties.
At one time in the late 19th century, West Canton Street was predominately Jewish. Another of John's aunts, working as a maid in Newton, learned the family had once owned the house directly across the street from Holman.
West Canton Street was neighborly, and John knew everyone. Sitting out on the stoop helped. He didn't know as many people on the next block or the block after that, although he did know the Hayes family. Sit with him on a bench in Sparrow Park during a summer concert and he will introduce you to several Old South Enders.
He went to local schools: the Bancroft, Rice, and the Rice-Franklin (later named after School Committeeman Charles Mackey), and then on to the Timilty and Brighton High, from which he graduated.
Like other Old South Enders, John fondly remembers drugstores and local movie theatres. The Strand theatre was fifteen cents, the Uptown fifty cents, and at the National on Tremont Street you might come home with a dinner plate after winning the raffle. There were independently-owned drugstores on practically every corner, some with stools and counters.
John used to love dives. Of the 411 on Columbus Avenue, where MethUnion is now, he says, "I always wanted to go in but I was too young. By the time I was of age, it was gone." There were, however, plenty of "buckets of blood" left.
His first job was at Knight Drug, Washington and Camden streets; Mel King helped him get it. Afterwards, he worked at New England Merchants Bank, the Bank of New England, and was a shipper at Gilchrest. When he took part in the Tent City demonstrations in 1968, staying overnight in a tent-"I loved it"- he was careful not to get arrested because of his job in a bank. For twenty-six years, he worked at Harvard as crew chief of facilities and maintenance, retiring ten years ago. A member of Union United Methodist Church, he now volunteers at the church's food pantry.
When did you notice the neighborhood was changing? I asked. "When they put up the Prudential, I knew changes were coming," he said. "Slowly but surely, neighbors began selling their houses." His aunt sold her house in the 1970s.
John's last address was on Greenwich Park (pronounced, as it used to be, Green-wich); he was evicted when the house was sold. He's now on West Newton Street.
One day recently, he was looking up and down Columbus Avenue and had to admit it looks better. No longer a red light district, it's also not the neighborhood in which dives flourished and everyone knew everyone.
Alison Barnet is the author of South End Character, Speaking Out on Neighborhood Change, and the brand new Sitting Ducks, a novel. More on that later. You can still buy South End Character at the South End Food Emporium, 465 Columbus Avenue, and the South End Branch Library. They do it for the neighborhood and make no profit from the sale.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.