Richard Kruszkowski (age 67)
252 Commonwealth Avenue
Interviewed September 1, 1998
Concord Oral History Program
Dick Kruszkowski lives in the neighborhood close to the White Row houses at the Concord prison that are currently scheduled for demolition.
I have lived in this neighborhood since March 1959. We moved here from Somerville, Massachusetts. I actually followed Nuclear Metals at the time from Cambridge out to Concord so I commuted quite a bit. The neighborhood was a neighborhood of camaraderie. Everybody knew everybody else. They looked out for each other's kids, and it was actually a pleasure to live here. I can remember when we first came here before Dutch Elm disease came into place, the entire avenue looked as if you were driving through a tunnel because of the elm trees that were set in place and hanging across from one side of the street to the other. It was a very quiet, enjoyable place to live.
The presence of the prison brings about a good thought about the past. Having moved into our home in March of ‘59, I believe it was probably April 15 or so that the Reformatory experienced a very serious riot. I can remember heading in that direction but of course, we were kept back as far as we could by law enforcement and corrections officers, but I can remember state police lobbying canisters of tear gas over the wall to try to calm the prisoners or get them to slow down a bit. Suddenly the canisters were being tossed back the other way out onto Commonwealth Avenue. It took a while for them to bring things under control and we haven't had any major incidents since.
The White Row houses were in use at that time. They were very well maintained and as some of the historians and restorationists will say, they were beautiful buildings. But I believe it has been at least 18 to 20 years since they've been occupied and their condition has been allowed to continually deteriorate. I can see the Department of Corrections' point of view when they indicated that a few years back when they didn't want that area turned into affordable housing because of security concerns. Knowing the height of those buildings, I can see where someone would somehow be able to take covering off the windows in the attic and see into the yard and into the guardhouse. Now that the Special Town Meeting in October of 1997 has brought about the possibility of those being demolished except for one that will be saved and hopefully renovated properly, I think it will just add to the ambiance of the neighborhood.
I did make a brief presentation at the Special Town Meeting. I spent 13 years as a permanent fire fighter and 7 as a call man and I've had my share of fires that I've been involved in. Knowing the situation of the White Row and Green Row facilities, I was aware of the fact that the fire department had conducted an investigation or an inspection of the properties. As a result of those inspections, it came to my knowledge that the only way those buildings would be handled in the event of a fire would be with the fire department doing defensive mode. There were orders on the bulletin boards in both stations that there would be no entry into any of those structures and that was based on the deterioration and condition of those buildings. Chief Robinson answered the question at Town Meeting. I felt even though I knew the information about the defensive approach, I thought it was worthwhile that the voters at the Town Meeting be aware of the fact that the buildings are in such deplorable condition.
People in the neighborhood originally sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen and this was signed by various people in the neighborhood and we also had people from the Green Row area that wanted to become part of it. The letter was addressed to Mr. Arthur Fulman, Chairman of the Board of Selectmen on January 11, 1997. At the time we were upset with the possibility of the property being or an attempt being made to refurbish the property because we thought it was a very expensive proposition whether it were handled by the town or even by the state. It's still our money that has to pay for it. As a result of that, nothing really happened for a while. But, Joanne Sheehan, a resident of the neighborhood, happened to be at a Board of Selectmen's meeting a while after that and when there was an open spot for questions, she asked just where the Selectmen were in their discussions with the Department of Corrections. And that kind of started if you want to call it the hornet's nest. Joanne was born on Commonwealth Avenue. She's a member of a large Sheehan family. We had Sheehans all over the town of Concord. Sheehans have been in Concord and many of them on Commonwealth Avenue for quite a while.
After that we had meetings with Susan Fargo, State Senator, and Pam Resor, State Representative for our district, and as a result of that an effort was made to get something going in order to handle the property in hopefully an expeditious manner. As a result of that we ended up with a warrant article at the Special Town Meeting, and as a result of this Special Town Meeting we had an affirmative vote which was going to have the Board of Selectmen work judiciously to come up with a solution with the Department of Corrections. There is an apparent agreement that one of the properties will be maintained and refurbished and as I pointed out earlier, I hope this can be done so that the property will be a benefit and an enhancement to the area if it's going to remain standing. If they're not going to do the job properly and allow it to deteriorate, it should probably be torn down with the rest of them. And that may have to be done at a future date. The ball is in their park now.
I understand the appropriation comes up with about $850,000 for demolition or possible demolition of the property and the remaining $250,000 is there for the building of a new parking lot at the other end of the facility. I believe what will come into play quite possibly is future refurbishment of the rotary area. There is talk, of course, they've talked about Route 2 and the rotary, for the last 20 or 30 years anyway, but it could be a situation that they attempt to eliminate the rotary because that is a high accident rate area.
I happened to come across a copy of some paperwork regarding a Board of Health inspection of the properties on Commonwealth Avenue and they inspected all seven buildings plus three buildings on Elm Place. As a result of that, the Board had requested that the Department of Corrections identify the steps that they would intend to take to remove or abate these nuisances within the next year which we're talking October 1997, and we're now approaching October 1998. They were asked to submit their plan in writing to the Board of Health within 60 days of receiving this letter. I haven't heard whether they responded or not. This documentation shows pretty much how bad the condition of the buildings are. In fact I think the Board of Health could have been more emphatic rather than request an identification of the problems. I mean we all know the problems. The inspection people went out and identified the problems quite vigorously. If you can't fix it and it's broke, throw it away.
If I can quote from Mr. Fulman's letter to my wife and myself, "There is a strong community interest in restoring these important buildings if at all possible. While razing the buildings and creating a use incompatible with the neighborhood would be unacceptable, administrative offices might be permitted. I have asked corrections official to detail any intended uses and consider renovating those buildings in the best structural condition and removing those beyond reasonable repair. Board members have emphasized to do something other than simply let the unused buildings further deteriorate." It is important to know that the condition of the buildings has deteriorated to the point where they require demolition. The people who voted were favorable, let's say they were almost all favorable bar quite a few, that one of the buildings would remain and be renovated. Let's just say it's a case of good negotiation if you want to call it that. I think it is important to note that as a result of the Special Town Meeting and the affirmative vote we've gotten, the Board of Selectmen has changed their opinion in some cases probably hesitantly, but they are in agreement that the buildings have to be brought down.
We have lived very amicably in the neighborhood with the prison. We've had no problems with the Department of Corrections. In fact, many of our best friends were or are Department of Corrections officers. That's the reason we knew what the condition of the buildings were when they were occupied. They were beautiful. I can remember my wife going to a shower for the son of one of the supervisors at the time and she was invited to the superintendent's home and it was a magnificent structure. If it had been maintained properly it would have been an asset to the neighborhood. Those structures would have been an asset to the neighborhood. I can't say I blame the Department of Corrections. They had no further use for the buildings and I think they should have taken action earlier than we are really pushing them to do. If they had taken action earlier and maintained those structures, we wouldn't be at the situation we're in now. Other than that our relationship with people at the Department of Corrections has been fine. We've had no problems. We've been aware of any time there's been an escape through the use of the whistle system quite a while back and now they have an alternative warning system. People in the neighborhood realize if someone is going to get out of a corrections facility, they're not really going to hang in and stop off and have a cup of coffee with any of us. They're going to head out of the neighborhood.
Carrie Flood, a native of West Concord and a member of the Board of Selectmen at the time of the Special Town Meeting in October 1997, has followed this topic for a number of years.
The question of the houses in particular has been a real sore spot for the neighborhood and an embarrassment for a long time. There was a "Welcome to Historic Concord" sign near the rotary and what you came upon was the prison and these dilapidated houses, so it's something we've been aware of for a long time. We also were working throughout these years on a more positive relationship between the town and prison management over issues related not just to the appearance of the facility but the operation of the facility. Certainly security for the surrounding neighborhood and the Town of Concord is first responder for health emergencies and fire emergencies at the prison so we have a lot of common ground that we've had to work on over the years.
The effort on the part of the Board of Selectmen to resolve in one way or another some mutual solution to the appearance and condition of those houses actually predates my time on the Board. It's not something that came to us new last year. What was different was the energy of the neighborhood coming and saying, "This is the year something is going to be done. We appreciate that you've been trying to work with the prison and the State to get the funding. We remember the money that was set aside (and I've forgotten whether it was 10 or 12 years ago when State Senator Paul Cellucciwas still representing this area at the State level), but that money is gone and nothing has happened and all we've gotten is excuses." That gave us sort of the impetus to raise it to another level, and say okay, we the town really don't control the fate of those houses, they belong to the property of the State under control of the Department of Corrections but with the energy of the community as a whole and the town as a whole through Town Meeting we feel we have more strength in our position. We can probably get farther with that. So there was a discussion about whether it would be a petition article on the part of the residents or whether it would be an article that the Board of Selectmen sponsored. There were pros and cons both ways, but we decided that it was ultimately a stronger statement if it was a proposal by the Board of Selectmen that had the overwhelming support of the town at large, not just the 200 or 300 people from the immediate neighborhood who might sign the petition. We also had a sort of a philosophy that government should not be run by petition. There are procedures for accomplishing things at the local level. Petitions certainly have their place in raising consciousness and making people aware of the critical nature and the sensitivity of a particular subject, but it's not the petition that should rule. There are calmer, more objective procedures for getting things done and that had to do with our decision to make it an article put forth by the Selectmen. But there was a lot of discussion in the specific wording to make sure that we were accounting for the feelings and the objectives of the people in the immediate neighborhood as well.
We were in agreement with the neighborhood that the houses had gone past the point of being saved. The Town had several years ago appointed a committee, the White Row Study Committee, that had gone in and had some grant funding to do some pretty substantial research on the feasibility of restoring the houses. What was determined at that time was it certainly could have been done. Of course, those buildings could have been restored to useable condition. Of course, the facades could have been improved and brought back to their original condition, but it was a question of cost. The cost was amazingly high because all the mechanical systems were quite antiquated, a lot of damage had occurred, not to the structure, but to the finishing. Woodwork was in bad shape, plaster was in bad shape, plumbing, heating, wiring were all going to have to be totally redone and the cost was very high. The only way to make that economical was to break it down into a number of units in each of the buildings which was sort of a conflict with their original design in the first place. But that didn't deter us from trying to work an arrangement with the Department of Corrections where the houses could be restored with money to be gotten from somewhere. We weren't asking DOC at the time to come and spend $800,000 or whatever it was per building to fix them up. I don't think it was quite that high but pulling a number. But their objections were consistently based on no residential use of that property because of their own security concerns, having people permanently situated that close to the wall. We offered having local policemen live in them, we offered closing off many of the windows that might have had visual access across the wall, there was nothing we were going to offer that was going to satisfy them.
Remember the buildings that were originally constructed were housing for the officers. At that time, we're talking late 19th century, 1875 roughly when everything was built there, having the guards in very close proximity to the prison, 24 hours a day, was not only consistent with the philosophy at the time, remember is was a reformatory not a prison, there was a community around the reformatory. If there was a problem across the walls, having the guards just across the street and available in five minutes notice was obviously the way to go. All of that has changed. More recently the buildings have been rented. And we're talking 20 years ago they had been rented to families. But that began to be an issue of its own Â¾ that there was some kind of preferential treatment for certain people who would get into these buildings. You know who were they to deserve the low rent, whatever. So DOC took a lot of heat 20 years ago for continuing use for their own guards. There weren't enough to go around for everybody. People had their lives somewhere else. There were certain inequities that were perceived or real.
My great-grandfather was a guard at the prison, an officer and also taught cabinet making to prisoners. My grandmother spent many years living in one of the houses. I know it is one of the houses that is still standing today and probably one I support tearing down. When I was a little girl, she would tell me stories about going in to play her mandolin at Sunday services for the prisoners. She talked about having picnics on the hill where the prison farm now is. She talked about riding the streetcar that came out Commonwealth Avenue. It was a community with a life and a heart of its own in those days, and her life as a kid was the outside world and the inside world. I never picked out anything in her stories as it was something that was frightening or intimidating. She seemed to accept the prison and the prisoners as part of her childhood.
Previous selectmen have tried to work on the issue for at least 20 years now. Up until probably two years ago all that energy went into trying to save the houses, somehow trying to restore them to their former glory whether they were used in the way they were originally intended or in some other way to make it appear the way it had appeared in the earlier part of this century and when they were originally constructed in the late 19th century. That never worked. Even before Joanne Sheehan came to the Selectmen's meeting in what would be the spring of 1997, we were getting to the point where we were saying if nothing else is going to work, tear them down. We are embarrassed by the way they look. It is an embarrassment to the town, it's an embarrassment to the neighborhood. We don't think it looks very good for the Department of Corrections. When people ask us about the houses and we say they belong to the state under the Department of Corrections, what kind of endorsement is that for the prison system. If you're not going to do anything else, why not tear them down. It had gotten to that sort of level of frustration on that one point. But at the same time, the town's relationship with the prison had been on a very positive note in a lot of other aspects of other interactions. They had responded positively to a request to clean up a small trash dump behind the prison that was visible to a small number of neighbors. They have allowed the town to store snow that is removed from the West Concord business area on their property. There has been a much improved relationship between the guards and the police department over any issue of public safety in an emergency. So it was sort of a strange situation that we were working so well on every other aspect of interaction with the prison, and I think that underscored our sort of understanding that we weren't going to be able to resolve the matter of the houses in a way that brought them back to their former state. It wasn't going to happen.
Razing even involves its own budgetary allocations. We had to work with our state representatives. There was the issue that money that had been allocated or appropriated in the early ‘80s and the money was spent on other capital projects. Some of the money was spent on fixing up just one of the houses to the point where it could be used for office space for the department and some of the money was spent on abbreviated stabilization of some of the other buildings. But the great bulk of the money was spent on other projects. It wasn't there any more. There wasn't an available pile of money somewhere in a checking account. So we worked with Pam Resor and Susan Fargo. We talked about the possibility of the special bill and decided in the end to put it in the supplemental budget that tries to allocate surplus funds at the end of the budget year which is probably the best and most expedient way to go about it. We thought a special bill on the floor of the House and Senate puts us at a sort of an obligation to explain to the rest of the state how is an expenditure to tear down these houses in wealthy Concord going to benefit the Chicopee community or the Pittsfield community. With the surplus funds I think there was less sensitivity there. We weren't looking for a huge amount of money relative to the total annual state budget and that just fit nicely into the leftover funds. People seemed to be less reactive to that. We rapped it up with money that would have benefited the Department of Corrections as well in getting a new firing range but that part of it ended up coming out of the bill before it was signed. The money for demolition for most of the structures and some money to fix up one of them did survive the process. And hopefully go forward.