“To call it a house is being a little generous”
When Carl Kurz first moved to Boston, he did not plan on setting down roots. He arrived in 1984 to protest Seabrook, a nuclear power plant on the coast of New Hampshire. A few years later the protests finished, but Carl never got around to leaving Boston. He explained to me that he did not necessarily have somewhere else to go. “I guess you could say I was a free spirit.”
Carl explained all of this over the sound of his electric belt sander, as he removed paint from the deck of a home in Egleston Square. Carl talked as he worked, not looking up from the pressure-treated board he was scraping. He told me to, “Hop up on this deck real quick, I need your help with something.” Sidestepping the array of tools strewn about the half scraped deck, I stepped up onto the porch and helped Carl move a large planter pot so he could scrape the paint underneath. “They told me I’m not supposed to do any heavy lifting but what are you gonna do. I don't have much choice in this matter.” The “they” Carl referred to were his doctors. A few weeks after our first meeting, Carl would have major back surgery, where they would fuse together six vertebrae in his spine. The surgery is a result of more than twenty years of awkward twisting, bending, and lifting, working as a carpenter and a painter. After moving the planter pot, Carl returned to scraping the paint from the deck boards.
Carl explained that when he first came to Boston, he was staying with multiple people in a house that he described as “a squatter.” In the immediate area surrounding the squatter, there were only seven other houses in a three block radius. Almost all of his neighbors were either alcoholics, drug dealers, or prostitutes. A prostitution ring was run in the house directly adjacent to his. Carl told me that the prostitution ring next door had no running water, and their power was often shut off: “You would come back home after a day at work and you would see them [the women working in the prostitution ring] shitting in the street, they didn't have a toilet.”
At this point in the conversation, Carl turned off his belt sander and walked down the steps of the porch to his early 2000’s Subaru Outback. He pulled a broom from the trunk of the car and handed it to me. While Carl scraped and sanded the deck, I swept off the remnants of what he left behind.
I asked him if anybody had known he was squatting in the house, and why nobody kicked them out. “To call it a house is being a little generous,” he responded. Apparently, a large part of the roof was caved in, and almost nothing about the house was up to code. It would be impossible for the owner of the house to ask for rent. I then asked Carl who owned the house.
The New England Baptist Church owned almost all of the property in Carl’s neighborhood before the late 80’s. In the late 80’s the community in Carl’s neighborhood began to withhold rent from the New England Baptist Church, demanding that the Church bring all of its buildings up to code The community in Carl’s neighborhood organized through the CDC, or Community Development Committee, now called Back Of the Hill. The New England Baptist Church decided that instead of bringing the houses up to code, they would sell each triple decker house for $2,000 each.
Carl stopped scraping and stood up, looking at the remainder of the deck that needed to be scraped. The deck was supposed to be sanded and re-stained by Thursday, and it was Monday at the time. On Wednesday, Boston was due for a torrential downpour. Carl sighed and exclaimed that he probably would not finish the job by the homeowner’s date. I decided to leave Carl to finish his work. As I left my observation of Carl, I was struck by how warm he was. Even though I may have been disrupting work, it was clear that this did not bother him, as he answered every question I asked readily and enthusiastically.
“Without looking up from his work, he explained”
A week later, at Carl's home near Jackson Square, I found Carl kneeling in the large garden on the side of his house. As I approached him, he looked up from the herbs he was planting and commented on my new shoes: “We are going to have to get those dirty in the garden today.” Almost as soon as I arrived, Carl stood up from his work and walked to the front of the house where I saw him shake the hands of two people, who I assumed to be his neighbors.
As I waited for Carl to return, his partner, Cessilia, or “Cessy,” emerged from the house and offered me a glass of orange juice. I declined, and she sighed and said “I used to have a son that looked like you.” She was referring to her son Ziggy, who is traveling down South, currently in North Carolina on a mountain bike trip. I have known Ziggy for many years, so I laughed and told her that I am sure that he will be home soon, just hopefully with no broken bones. She laughed and said, “Yeah, we will see. He takes after his father you know.” As I waited for Carl to return, a young man with long dyed purple hair emerged from the house. He sat in the garden, on a bench across from me. “Are you also waiting for Carl?” the young man asked me. I told him I was and he said he was too. The man introduced himself as Carl's upstairs neighbor who had just moved to Boston less than a year ago. He was waiting for Carl because they had made a plan for Carl to teach him about permaculture and how to cultivate a garden.
When Carl returned, he apologized for making us wait. He told us that he was trying to sell his son’s old bike to one of his neighbors. Without pausing, Carl ushered us over to where he was working previously. He knelt in the dirt and began running string vertically between two posts. Carl told me he was trying to plant some sort of string bean. As Carl began to work, I told the upstairs neighbor that I was doing an ethnography of Jamaica Plain. He replied, “Oh, well Carl is definitely the guy to talk to. He has dropped some serious knowledge on what JP used to be.” As I watched Carl interact with his upstairs neighbor, it became clear to me that my ethnographic observations of Carl were familiar territory to him. Even though Carl had told me that he had never formally been observed, it appeared that his neighbor was actually observing Carl in a similar fashion as I was. Carl framed the upstairs neighbor and my joint observation of him as, “helping him out in the garden,” while in reality, it was more than that. Carl was not only teaching us how to garden, but giving us a window into his lifestyle, and in doing so, was inherently building a stronger connection with us both.
As Carl strung line and the upstairs neighbor and I watched, Carl began to talk about the garden. Without looking up from his work, he explained that where we were standing used to be one of the houses owned by the New England Baptist Church. About 20 years ago, somebody burned the house down. I asked Carl why somebody would do that. Carl responded, “Some people like to set fires, and others get paid to do it.” Carl told me that after the MLK riots, there was white flight out of the city. People in Carl’s neighborhood began burning their houses down for insurance money. This is part of the reason why the New England Baptist Church was selling all of the houses so cheaply. Carl explained to me that after the house had burned down, he ended up buying the plot of land for $500. He now uses the land for his garden. Carl then told me that one day he intends to extend the cultivation of his garden to a few others in his neighborhood. He explained that he just wanted a few people that he could work alongside of and swap gardening knowledge. This comment in particular, further calibrated my perception of Carl. In my interactions with him so far, it was clear to me that he loved to talk as he worked. Carls comment on then sharing his work with those in his neighborhood gives me the impression that Carl uses his work, both in the garden and as a carpenter, as a praxis for connecting with people in his community.
Once Carl mentioned the plot of land he purchased, it appeared to me that he was comfortable speaking on the financial aspect of his relationship with his neighborhood. I asked him whether he ended up buying his house for $2,000 from the New England Baptist Chuch. He laughed and shook his head. One of his friends, who he was squatting on the house with at the time, ended up buying the house from the New England Baptist Church for $1. Supposedly the house was in such poor condition, that the NEBC just wanted it off their plate. Years later, when people began to move back to Boston, Carl ended up buying the first floor of the house from his friend for $40,000. He then said he spent many years putting roughly $40,000 worth of work into the house. Carl says that the part of the house that he owns is now worth roughly $300,000.
“Traditional Argentine dishes”
A few days after I visited Carl's garden, he called me explaining that we needed to get the observations done as soon as possible. He was having his back surgery in a few days. Carl then invited me to a surprise birthday party that afternoon for his son, Ziggy. The party would be at his house, in the side garden. When I arrived, I was introduced to just a few close family friends, all hiding behind the house waiting for Ziggy. As we waited for Ziggy to come home, maybe twenty more people arrived and we all hid behind the house. Carl seemed very excited. He ran around making sure everyone was ready to surprise Ziggy, as well as trying to prepare food and pick the right music. Once Ziggy arrived, Carl and his partner Cessy, who is from Argentina, began serving traditional Argentine dishes to the party. Carl had told me earlier that he loved South American food. Years ago, Carl and his family left the united states to travel Argentina for 2 years. That atmosphere at the party was light and fun as people ate food and danced. Many people spoke in both Spanish and English. When I talked to people at the party, it appeared that almost everyone there was from Jamaica Plain. I asked Carl how he knew many of the people at the party. More often than not he explained that he knew them through his previous work at Bikes Not Bombs, or he had lived with them in the past.
“Long term repercussions”
The day after the party, I had my last visit with Carl. When I arrived at his house, he informed me that he had a lot of work to do, making sure that some of his bikes were ready to sell. Carl’s responses to my questions were shorter and more abrupt than they normally were, making it clear that he was preoccupied with his impending surgery the following day. Carl’s house is a single floor, with three bedrooms, one bathroom, and an open running kitchen and dining room. The floors were freshly polished hardwood that looked to be about 20 years old, but had been cared for well. Art lined many of the walls and books in both Spanish and English were strewn about the living room. There was a large Evergreen tree in a planter pot, growing directly next to the front door.
Carl brought me down to his basement where he works on his bikes. The basement was considerably less organized than his house. The floors were dirt and the walls were lined with Carl's tools. As well as the cluttered tools, there were maybe 10 bikes leaned up against all the walls in the basement. I was not surprised by this, considering Carl is the former co-founder of Bikes Not Bombs. Carl began working on the bike he had been trying to sell when I’d met him previously. He was replacing a few spokes and sanding down the rims of the wheels. As he worked, Carl and I spoke about the surgery he would be having the next day. He told me he was incredibly nervous, as he had many surgeries in the past, but none this serious. During our conversation, Carl received a call from the hospital. They were calling to go over the procedure with him and provide him with instructions for the night before. It was clear that the call was going to be long and involved, so I left to give Carl some privacy.
On the drive home, I found myself also feeling concerned about Carl's surgery. I was sure the surgery would go well, but I wasn't sure of what the long term repercussions would be. Carl is an active person and needs to be mobile for his work. I was nervous that the surgery would hinder his ability to work, but also his ability to do the things he loves, like working on his garden or on his bikes.