Oh near-mythical Chelsea, the city of soul and corruption. Our Tammany Hall on the Mystic River where immigrants have always found a modest flat to launch their American Dream. Chelsea, a place of sweat and toil; its sagging three-deckers, where families laid out their hopes and dreams for much of the last century in Yiddish, Italian, and Polish while industry – and fumes and lead paint chips from the Mystic River Bridge – drifted in, making it one of the most polluted cities in America. Oh Chelsea, where ward healers at City Hall and crooked cops counted their cash from developers and business owners, who understood that everything in the two-square-mile city was for sale.
In “Turbulent Years in Chelsea: Documenting Life in the 70s and 80s,” Josh Resnek and Arnie Jarmak, two Marblehead natives who ditched their comfortable suburban lives in the 1970s to become journalists at the Chelsea Record, tell a remarkable tale of a city in decline. On these pages, you’ll step into the Wild West – that blur of black and white tenements that you glance at while driving over the Tobin Bridge – where corruption was the rule, and everything seemed broken except for the working stiffs and families who wanted a better life for their children.
Resnek, a reporter, and Jarmak, a photographer whose black-and-white pictures adorn the pages, lived in the city for decades and tell a tale that might even make some old- timers from the Bowery blush. “We especially came to love the characters dressed in rags and dirty clothes, living in the street, eating scraps from trash barrels or dumpsters, crashing in warm hallways or living desperate lives in rooming houses,” Resnek and Jarmak write.
There is charm and dignity to the city’s history, and the authors pay homage to its modest beginnings. George Washington made several trips to Chelsea during the Revolutionary War; Abraham Lincoln – then a Whig congressman from Illinois – gave a speech at Gerrish Hall in 1848. As immigrants found their way to Chelsea by the early 20th century, the Irish and Jews emerged as power brokers.
For New England Jews, few areas – save for the West End or Dorchester – played a more influential role in the Americanization of the Eastern European immigrant. Everyone who grew up near here seemed to have a relative in Chelsea. “Turbulent Years” documents their arrival in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the 1920s, the city’s Ward 2 – now the site of a Market Basket – was home to most of the city’s 20,000 Jews. On those streets, rag and recycling firms were nestled between sad brick tenements, allowing for Greater Boston’s own Lower East Side to emerge. There were open-air markets where people bartered in Yiddish and over 20 synagogues.
“Turbulent Years in Chelsea” brings alive the characters that shaped the city’s history. Perhaps no one loomed larger than Lawrence Quigley, a populist mayor who handed out turkeys on Thanksgiving and Christmas to the poor, and buried the indigent. He spoke Gaelic and Yiddish, and ruled the city with his golden tongue. The authors detail a mayoral debate in front of Jews in the early 1920s, when Quigley faced a Harvard-educated Jewish attorney, Colonel Clarence Richmond. Richmond challenged Quigley to name the number of Jews he had hired to work as police or firefighters. “You good people work hard so your children can go to college and become doctors, lawyers, and accountants. That’s why I’ve never appointed a Jewish fireman or policeman,” Quigley said, as the crowd roared.
“Turbulent Years in Chelsea” is also a paean to the golden orator’s son, Andrew Quigley. The younger Quigley served as mayor, state representative, and state senator before buying the Chelsea Record in 1976. It was the younger Quigley who hired the authors.
While Andrew Quigley did not allow investigative reporting in his paper, “Turbulent Years in Chelsea” frees the writers to document a period of greed and corruption that operated openly – from the warrens of City Hall to the Police Station to grimy, forlorn Fifth Street, where slot machines clanged in back rooms and bookies and gambling chiefs set up shop.
In between the hustlers and strongmen, like Sammy Berkowitz – the city’s “King of Crime” who operated out of the Harmony Bar, sipped miniature bottles of champagne and carried around a pardon he received from Ronald Reagan – we’re gifted with Jarmak’s stunning photos of a lost and invisible working class. The honesty and simplicity of the portraits reflect a world almost devoid of technology. It is hard to conceive of any of his subjects holding a cell phone or conducting online banking.
It all crashed in the early 1990s when several former Chelsea mayors were indicted and went to jail, and the city and its school system was taken over by the state. That’s when this forgotten city began to rebuild.
If you grew up in Chelsea, this book is a must – if only for the photos to remind you of the sense of place the community had amid so much chaos. The authors are working on two more books for this planned three-volume set. Perhaps they will further document how so many Chelsea natives could overcome obstacles such as poverty, pollution, and corruption, and become some of the most successful and brilliant minds in our region.
“Turbulent Years in Chelsea: Documenting Life in the 70s and 80s,” by Arnie Jarmak and Joshua Resnek. The History Press, 142 pages, $22 in paperback.