By Darlene DeVita
(The following is one in a series of sneak peeks at the upcoming People of Chelsea additions by Photographer Darlene DeVita. The new work will ultimately appear on the fence of the Chelsea Public Library (CPL) this fall in a collaboration between the People of Chelsea project and the CPL.)
“I was born in the city of Chelsea in 1939. My family was the Smiths, we were the third largest family in Chelsea. The largest family was the Nelsons, they had something like 26 kids, and the second-largest was the Zulus.
My father never had a decent job. He worked at Bernstein’s scrap metal company worked there for years. He finally got a good job at the Statehouse running the elevator. He had a slogan. He used to say to all of the people, ‘Leon takes you up, and Leon brings you down. Remember Leon when Christmas time comes around. The reason why he didn’t have a good job at that time is because Blacks didn’t have opportunities back in those days. Even though he had connections, they weren’t accepting Blacks at that time.
I went to the Williams school. I didn’t get a chance to graduate, I had a chance to get a job. I had a trade. All I knew was cooking, cleaning, and fighting! I got tired of getting beat up all the time, so I went into the cooking and cleaning business.
Then I went into the barroom business with Sammy Berkowitz. He was the one that got me started. I first started out doing the general cleaning. I worked my way behind the bar, then became a partner, and ended up owning the bar. It doesn’t exist anymore. Before that, I owned a restaurant on Everett and Arlington st. with my sister Edna. When we had the [Chelsea] fire like a fool, I sold out to her before the fire, and I missed out on all that long money. I had a mixed clientele. Everett Ave was mostly Afro-American, then when I moved up to Chelsea Square we had a mixed crowd. Then when we moved to Mill Hill it was an all-White crowd. That’s when I had the problems.
There was a lot of prejudice in the city. As a businessman, I really found out how prejudiced people were; this was back in the 1970’s. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I went into business. I had my windows broken, I had crazy glue stuck in my locks, my car windows were smashed. These were guys I went to high school with. I hung around with them. We were good when we were going to school. Playing sports, everyone was fine, but it was a whole new ball game when it came to business.
But I didn’t realize until later they did a lot of favors for me. When I went into the barroom business, I had a lot of white people that financed me with a handshake. Like Sam Berkowitz, he loaned me $3000 on a handshake. I was one of the 1st black men to have a liquor license under my name.
I’ve seen a lot of change. I remember when they 1st built the [Tobin] Bridge. I was the first black man to ride my Schwinn bicycle from Everett Ave over to Charlestown just before City Square. That’s where the bridge stopped at that time. They added on after. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. I’ve seen a lot of things that have happened in the city of Chelsea. For instance, a lot of people didn’t realize that a at one time on the corner of Broadway and Chestnut St the street caved in. At that time it was called a cave-in, now they call it a sinkhole. The brother of Paul Casino fell in! It took a long time to find him.
I have nine grandchildren, six great and four great, great. My family is called the United Nations, we’re related to just about everybody in Chelsea. We have Spanish, White, even Chinese in my family, Irish, Jewish, you name it. We’re the “rainbow coalition” as Jesse Jackson used to say. I’m very proud of my nieces and nephews. I have a niece that’s head of the CBC and another who is president of CAPIC”.
To finish up Paul showed me a print of Chelsea from the ‘30’s he brought with him. He showed us where the Stop and Shop was, now a fruit stand, where the bank was that is now Bunker Hill Community College. And all about the many delicatessens. “Arlington St. area was a Jewish community. Sam Pressman had a beautiful corn beef sandwich. Unfortunately you can’t get that anymore in Chelsea.”