A Boston Neighborhood Saved by a Dog and a Golfing Judge

If Moritz Otto Bergmeyer—an architect and building renovator living in a refurbished former warehouse at 107 Fulton Street on the boundary between Boston’s Waterfront and North End neighborhoods—did not have to take his English sheep dog Sacha out to relieve herself early one Saturday morning in the spring of 1972, one of the premier historic neighborhoods of the City of Boston would no longer exist.

Under the plan put together (or thrown together, as the case may be) by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (“BRA”) under then-Mayor Kevin H. White, the several square blocks that marked the link between the Waterfront and the North End were destined for demolition. The buildings at risk were for the most part old (largely 19th Century) brick warehouses, a few magnificent, massive, granite structures, that received the cargo from ships that came into port at the wharves lining Commercial Street and its extension Atlantic Avenue. The BRA long earlier had purchased the buildings by eminent domain and ordered them vacated, in order to make way for the Waterfront/North End urban renewal project that would entail wholesale demolition. Only a couple of buildings along Fulton Street, one of the streets designated for “renewal,” were still privately owned and occupied.

One of the still privately owned and occupied brick warehouses along Fulton Street was Bergmeyer’s, which he’d renovated into four magnificent brick-walled and wood-beam- ceilinged  apartments. I lived on the second floor, Bergmeyer and his then-girlfriend Diana G. Blum and dog Sacha lived on the first floor, with urban design guru Larry Rosenblum above me and, finishing out the top 2-floors, the renowned writer and lyricist Timothy Mayer, who would go on to win a Tony for the Broadway Show My One and Only in 1982. The only other occupied buildings on the block housed Menorah Products Kosher Poultry Company, and the McLaughlin Elevator Company. Menorah products provided a real service: The crowing rooster sounded off at sunrise every morning, waking me up in time to get to my office at 65A Atlantic Avenue, where my law partner Norman Zalkind and I conducted our litigation practice (and where, in fact, after years of separation, we practice law today). The McLaughlin Elevator building was, and is, one of the finest examples of iron-exterior construction I’ve ever seen.

It was very early on a bright Saturday morning in March 1972 when Bergmeyer came banging on my door. He had just gone out to walk Sacha, and he was shocked to find that the BRA had parlayed a small army of cranes swinging massive steel wrecking balls hanging on long chains, beginning to take down the buildings. It was evident that unless we could stop the wreckers, they would have virtually all of the buildings in the “urban renewal” district turned into rubble by Monday morning.

While the city owned the buildings, the neighborhood residents had been in talks with the government to find some sort of compromise; the residents wanted renovation, rather than wholesale destruction, of the structures, and the city seemed determined to reduce the buildings to rubble before (or, more precisely, as a means of) “renewing” the neighborhood.  The strategy of a week-end wrecking orgy was an obvious (to Bergmeyer and me, anyway) BRA response to the fact that negotiations between the neighborhoods and the City had broken down. And with almost no more old buildings left standing, there would be nothing further to discuss. The neighborhood residents (and their lawyer, me) had suspected that Mayor White was intent on simply demolishing the old buildings and replacing them with new construction. (Cynics that we were, we figured that the mayor must have had friends in the construction business, but not in the renovation arena.) But what none of us were expecting was a lightning strike – a demolition blitzkrieg of sorts – over a week-end that would moot the discussion and our ability to seek court relief.

I threw on some clothes and ran outside. I tried to talk the work crews into suspending their demolition derby until the following week, so that Bergmeyer and I might have an opportunity to try to do something to save our neighborhood. The crew foreman adamantly refused to cease his crew’s work. It was obvious that by Monday morning only Bergmeyer’s building, the chicken abattoir, and just a few other still-privately-owned buildings would be left standing. The federal court, where we had planned to seek relief as a last resort if all negotiations failed, was not, of course, in session over the week-end.

The extraordinary circumstances demanded an untraditional approach. I decided to try to contact a federal judge directly, on the weekend, and request an immediate emergency cease and desist order.  But in the days before cell phones, such contact was far from guaranteed. And even if a judge were found, obtaining a temporary restraining order in such an informal setting – over the phone, without the lawyer for the city even participating – was a very long shot. Still, I figured we had nothing to lose.

I made a phone call to the home of Robert J. Smith, courtroom clerk to U. S. District Judge Frank J. Murray. I chose Judge Murray to contact, because of all of the then-sitting judges on the federal district bench in Boston, he was the most impatient with the government’s cutting corners to evade law and process, and he, as much as or more than any of the other then-sitting judges on that bench, had the guts to do something about it. I explained the emergency to Smith, who sympathized but who also noted that Judge Murray had left very early in the morning for the golf course and was already on the links. I asked Smith if there was any way he could reach the judge, and he said he would try but that it was a long shot.

Minutes later my phone rang and it was Judge Murray, conducting an emergency “ex parte” (that is, with only the moving party present and represented) hearing over the phone – he at the clubhouse at the golf course, I at my apartment on Fulton Street. I explained the situation to him, noting that the BRA was taking it upon itself to tear down a big part of the fabric of a very old and cohesive neighborhood, all without considering what it would do to the historic and architectural environment of the area – the Waterfront and the North End. I told Judge Murray that, in my view, wreaking such irrevocable damage on an urban neighborhood of such historic and architectural splendor and importance was a violation of the National Environment Policy Act of 1969 {“NEPA,” 42 U.S.C. sec. 1450 et seq) because the BRA had not conducted, in advance of deciding to tear down the buildings, an investigation of the impact that the destruction would have on the urban landscape, and hence could not and did not write an “environment impact statement” as required by NEPA.

Judge Murray told me that he thought that my argument probably was correct, but that he needed time to study the situation after allowing both sides to file briefs and make oral argument. I pointed out that the buildings were in the process of being torn down as we spoke, and hence emergency court intervention was required. In order to be able to hear the matter in an orderly fashion and preserve the status quo, Judge Murray said, he would immediately issue a Temporary Restraining Order (“TRO”) prohibiting the BRA and anyone acting under the BRA’s orders, from engaging in the destruction and demolition of the buildings. And so Judge Murray dictated his TRO over the phone.

I was elated. I excitedly asked Judge Murray who would inform the BRA’s demolition crew of the court’s emergency order, and Judge Murray said that I would have to do it immediately, although he would see if Bob Smith might rustle up some United States Marshalls to rush to the scene in order to present the oral order and thus help me out. I thanked the judge. Clerk Smith said he would immediately contact any Marshall on duty that week-end, but that I should rush right over to the scene and let the crew know of Judge Murray’s order.

With my heart racing, and aware of the difficulty of my forthcoming task, I raced back to the demolition scene and informed the crew supervisor of the judge’s emergency order. The supervisor asked to see “an official piece of paper.” I said that the order was oral, recited to me by the judge over the telephone. The supervisor laughed in my face and ordered his men to continue tearing down the buildings.

Just as I was about to despair, a single deputy United States Marshal, in a suit-and-tie, raced to the scene, carrying only his badge. He was, from all I or anyone could see, unarmed. I explained to him – a Latin American immigrant by the name of, I believe, Raphael Luna (I’m sure of his first name but not his last) – that Judge Murray had just issued an oral TRO over the telephone but that the wrecking crew would either not believe me or would not obey an oral order transmitted to them by me. The deputy marshal said that Judge Murray’s clerk had explained the order to him. He walked right in front of the lead wrecking crane. He took his badge off of his lapel and held it out and up so that the wreckers could see it. He then shouted something forever etched in memory (mine, and I suspect the wrecking crew’s as well): “Stop, in the name of the United States District Court.”

And the deputy just waited, staring up at the operator of the lead crane, focusing unrelentingly on the wrecker’s eyes, a lone man confronting a small army of machinery. A minute or two passed as the wrecker and the marshal weighed each other, although it seemed like an eternity. The deputy repeated his admonition. “Stop in the name of the United States District Court!” Suddenly, the wrecking balls started their journey to the ground. The confrontation was over; law and order in the best sense of that term had prevailed.

We went to court early the following week, where both sides had the opportunity to argue. Judge Murray then converted his Temporary Restraining Order into a Preliminary Injunction, writing a brief opinion dated April 18, 1972, in what became the case of BOSTON WATERFRONT RESIDENTS ASSOCIATION, INC., and others v. GEORGE ROMNEY, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and others, Civil Action No. 72-1157, reported at 343 F.Supp. 89 (U.S. Dist. Ct., D. Mass., 1972). (The George Romney, under whose technical supervision the urban renewal program was federally funded and would proceed, was the former governor of Michigan and the father of a later-to-be governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.) Judge Murray pointed out that I had made a respectable and likely correct legal argument, and that, in any event, since “the act of demolition is irrevocable,” he would allow the lawsuit to proceed while the injunction continued to preserve the status quo.

Not too much later, the BRA and the mayor could see the handwriting on the wall – the texture and history of an important and unique urban neighborhood was to be considered part of the “environment” and hence subject to protection by federal environmental laws. The urban landscape was entitled to the same legal protection accorded to forests, streams, and various natural environments. The city decided to throw in the towel. (The citizen in me figured that maybe the city thought the better of its renewal plan and became convinced that the historic district was indeed worth preserving, while my cynical lawyer side suspected otherwise. I thought that, perhaps, the city administration wanted to avoid a legal battle, during which my legal team would inevitably put the construction executives who were licking their chops at the prospect of the hugely lucrative contracts envisioned under oath and ask probing and perhaps embarrassing questions about any shenanigans surrounding the demolition and construction contract discussions.)

As a consequence, the parcel was allowed to stand, and the buildings were let out for bids by neighborhood residents who could purchase a building from the city at the nominal price of some $4,000, provided the bidder were prepared to make a firm commitment to spend at least $100,000 to rehabilitate his or her building. All the buildings were eagerly scooped up by grateful area residents.

I was one of the relatively few area residents who did not make a bid, since a lawyer for the BRA got word to me that an angry Mayor White specified that under no circumstances would Silverglate be allowed to get a building to develop. So I was destined to be a renter until years later, when I moved to Cambridge, married a Cambridge native, had a child, and finally, when our son was a year old, bought and renovated an old wreck-of-a-building and turned it into a family home there. The Boston buildings that were saved and then renovated are worth many millions of dollars each today. But, most importantly, the neighborhood and the historically important and authentic streetscape – save for three buildings that had been torn down before the deputy marshal stopped the action – were preserved. (An elderly housing project – new construction – was built on the vacant land.) And a statement was made by the federal court that the urban landscape, and the excellent buildings that make up many such landscapes, are as important to a civilization as the trees in a forest or the clean air that citizens rightly expect to breathe.

Ironically, just a decade later, in 1983, my then partner Nancy Gertner and I were hired by one of Mayor White’s chief aides, one Theodore Anzalone, to defend Anzalone against a multi-pronged indictment that was obviously aimed at pressuring him to testify against the mayor in a massive political corruption probe launched by then-United States Attorney (later Governor) William F. Weld. Gertner and I won both trials, relieving the pressure on Anzalone to sing the prosecutor’s song. Mayor White, relieved, sent Gertner and me a bouquet of flowers. I guess he could not send a building, as they had all been scooped up and renovated by then. I’m sure I had a twinkle in my eye as I put the flowers in a vase of water to prolong their life for the next couple of days.