BOUT three years ago, I guess. Let's see, about then, about three years ago, I went over to Allston where they were evicting the families for the turnpike extension. Lots of people there TV people, too to see them thrown out of their houses."
William Ackerley looks like an old Yankee lawyer, the bespectacled, blue-suited, blue-bow-tied old fox you'd love to have if you ever get busted; benign, mildly ironical, but devastating as he verbally disembowels the cretin for the prosecution. Except Ackerley isn't a lawyer. He's a retired businessman. But he's a retired businessman with a cause. And he's beautiful.
"I saw a woman carrying a crying baby led out of her house by policemen. I saw a man with eight children dragged out into the street. They put him in the wagon and left the eight kids on the sidewalk."
So he's not a lawyer. I'd still like to have him on my side. As I said, he's beautiful.
"A bulldozer was sitting there, aimed right at a house. In the backyard a woman was running back and forth, passing groceries over the fence to her son who had a shopping basket. That's all she had time for. Later on, I found out her husband had just died. So had her father. And they wouldn't give her any more time."
William Ackerley was angry that day when he went home to Cambridge. He was still angry a few days later when he called a meeting to warn the people of Cambridge in the path of the proposed Inner Belt about what was going to happen to them. Three hundred people showed up that night. Although few of them knew Ackerley, they gave $287 to fight the Inner Belt.
Ackerley went to work. He formed the Cambridge Committee to Save Our City. He solicited more funds. He solicited support. He organized and led demonstrations. He instigated studies of the need for the Inner Belt and possible alternatives to it. He plastered the city with all those signs reading, "Cambridge Is a City, Not a Highway." He wrote pamphlets. He drew cartoons about the Inner Belt. He wrote poems about the havoc the Inner Belt would cause. He went to the Statehouse. He went to Washington. He even went to MIT and Harvard for support.
The Statehouse said, "It's a federal decision."
Washington said, "It's a local decision."
MIT said, "It's political."
Harvard said, "It's political."
It's passing the buck. It's indifference and incompetence. Over 1400 people are going to be displaced by the Inner Belt. No plans have been made for their relocation.
Well, who the hell cares? One man did, and now many do. It's a power play by the powerful, a money grab by the rich. The poor and the weak won't profit. Ackerley says that of the 1400 or more in the path of the road builders, 798 are 65 or over. Nearly all are of low or moderate income. The percentages are: 6% of Cambridge's total population, 14 % of the non-white population. Chew on that. Bourgeois Cambridge becomes bourgeois sanctuary becomes academic Levittown. Yet even the groves of academe will be trimmed. Ackerley claims that once the Inner Belt is built, a connecting road on Memorial Drive will be deemed absolutely essential. The sagamores, beloved by Harvard students, faculty, Old Boys, and a few human beings, will inevitably topple.
Alternatives? Simple, Ackerley says. Rapid transit. Too simple, it appears, for the people's choices. Although the advantages of rapid transit are obvious, Ackerley thinks the interests are all too vested. Both the governor and the lieutenant-governor are road men: Volpe is a contractor and was a federal roads commissioner; Sargeant was Commissioner of Public Works. And the federal funds for rapid transit are not now available as they are for highways. Besides, MIT looms as the outraged victim. Hitherto reluctant even to communicate with Ackerley's committee, MIT did respond to the suggestion that a few of its minor buildings be sacrificed for either rapid transit or alternate highway routes. Gargantua threw a tantrum. Cancer research, nuclear research, Viet Nam war research are conducted in those buildings! Nonsense, replies Ackerley. They're minor facilities, in some cases just warehouses. Christ on a crutch! Does MIT fib, Well...
Despite it all, and more, much more (political cynicism is boundless), Ackerley remains optimistic that someone somewhere in the sickroom-green rooms of the bureaucracy will come to his senses and stop this madness. A feeble hope, I should think, having spent some time myself in those wards. But then, I'm not William Ackerley.
I'm not putting you on. The guy is beautiful. He is real. He has to be. At an age when I'll probably be long dead from lung cancer or from the subtle club of some goon or another, he is, and has for three years been doing battle with the insensible brutes. Well, sure, so have a lot of us. Sure, if I asked him about Viet Nam, psychedelics, the hippie scene, his reaction would likely be that of the retired businessman. Sure, and any time I'm sick of all the crap I may pack up and go straight to Newton or Scarsdale, forget about everything except my retirement plans, and in forty or fifty years be so lobotomized that I won't lift a palsied eyebrow when the final flood of concrete comes gushing in the windows and down the chimney.
But I won't if I've got enough of what William Ackerley's got, what he showed me for nearly two hours as we talked in the late afternoon sun, what made him angry when he saw those people being bulldozed, what's kept him angry for three years. And that's let me say it before I get mealy-mouthed that's listen, flower-power that's love.