MERRIMAC  MEMORIES

By Mehmed Ali

Greek Community Bore The Brunt Of Federally Funded Residences

A few years before the United States entered the Second World War, this country embarked on a new crusade to provide federally funded residences for its civilian citizens. The port of departure for this journey was Lowell, where the first public housing project in the nation, North Common Village, was built in 1939 and 1940. The housing plans called for seven hundred spacious and modernly equipped apartments available to low income individuals and families. The project was a noble sounding idea and, at first, its advantages to working people were easily advocated. However, when the site of the proposed project was decided upon, it meant the destruction of almost 150 structures and the displacement of over 90 businesses and 2000 residents-all in the heart of the Greek community.

The Greek immigrants to Spindle City had turned one of the most well-worn sections of Lowell, the Acre, into a lively center of religious, business and civic culture. A concentration of Greek restaurants, stores, shops and residences lay between Dummer, Market, Common and Cross Streets. The buildings in the Acre were certainly not the newest structures around but many Greeks were happy to call it their neighborhood and did not consider the area a slum as Mayor Dewey Archambault had designated it. The community never imagined that their small storefronts and crowded tenements would be targeted for total demolition and were caught unprepared for the city's designs.

In 1937, the Lowell Housing Authority (LHA) was created to reap the benefits of the recently passed federal legislation which set up the United States Housing Authority. The LHA was also given official sanction by the State House where representative Albert Bourgeois, of Lowell, helped bring the enabling laws to fruition in 1938. The first chairman of the Housing Authority appointed by Mayor Archambault, was none other than Albert's brother Homer Bourgeois, a prominent Mill City  banker.

Homer Bourgeois kept the news of the project’s location under wraps for many months, not officially disclosing it until June 1939, after the LHA had already taken options from several non-Greek property owners. The Housing Authority said it delayed releasing the information to prevent speculation on the parcels within the proposed district. However, announcing the site would have alerted property holders not to sell to profiteers and postponing the announcement would have benefited any political insiders and limit the time the Greek population had to fight the housing plans.

The Greek leaders who saw the danger of the project to their compatriots' lifestyles were small businessmen who lived and worked in the Acre. Theo Apostolos ran the International Coffee House on the corner of Dummer and Market Streets in a building owned by Arthur Themelis. James Karellas operated the Karellas Brothers Dry Goods Store on Market Street right around the corner from Theo Katramados' Minerva Cafe on Jefferson Street. These four men helped establish the Lowell Anti-Housing Committee chaired by Constantine Dukakis who lived away from the Greek district. Others who supported the Committee included Archbishop Christopher Contogeorge, leader of the Autonomous Greek Orthodox Church of America and Canada, Henry Connor and Donald Reed of the Lowell Taxpayers Association and hundreds of Acre Greeks

On July 28, 1939, the Committee filed a bill of complaint at the Middlesex Superior Court to prevent the project from destroying their businesses and forcing denizens from their homes. The bill noted, “The wholesale evictions and exodus of communicants of various Greek churches will cause irreparable harm to their social and religious life.” Chairman Bourgeois and the other members of the LHA were subpoenaed by the court to defend allegations that their actions were unconstitutional and for private not public purposes.

At the Court hearing on August 5th, defendants were granted a demurrer which delayed the proceedings for a week and a half. Two days later, the Federal Housing Authority made $629,000 available to the LHA which began distributing the money to purchase property from non-Greek owners. By the time Judge Thomas Hammond decided in favor of the board members, eviction of Greek residents had begun in earnest; 80 families were displaced during the Court case.

By mid-September 1939, most property holders, including many Greeks, had caved in to the LHA. Five owners still held out, in hopes that the state housing law, which established the local authorities, would be found unconstitutional in a challenge occurring in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. During the first week of October, the city served the five owners papers, thus starting a condemnation process which would take their land and buildings for $l through eminent domain. By the 25th of October, the razing of the surrounding structures began and the five owners decided to take a settlement and relinquish their homes and stores. The Supreme Court upheld the State housing law in November and the last family of tenants finally abandoned the old neighborhood on December 29, 1939.

The new housing constructed for North Common Village was completed the following year, but few Greeks returned to the area. Out of 277 apartments listed in 1940 and 1941, only eight Greek families are named as residing in the Village. The rent requirements for the housing was too high for most Greek families and the rigid preference for "natural or cohesive" family groups prohibited the Greeks who maintained semi-communal living arrangements.

The new apartments were the first of many public housing projects built in Mill City including Bishop Markham Village, "Shaugnessy Terrace" and Dewey Archambault Towers. The Village was also the beginning of the numerous urban renewal programs in Lowell which fell heavily on ethnic neighborhoods including Little Canada, part of the South End between Central and Lawrence Streets and the Hale-Howard district. The North Common project, while beneficial to some in the city, must be remembered for evicting more people than it housed.

Copyright © by Mehmed Ali. All rights reserved.
This article first appeared in The Lowell Dispatch News, Friday, February 10, 1995, Vol. 2 No. 6.