Bay State Banner, June 19, 1997

Roxbury commune survives on Fort Hill

Seth Cobin


Two decades ago Roxbury's Fort Hill neighborhood was the heart of Boston's counterculture. Racially integrated for the last 40 years, the district also known as Highland Park attracted many who were seeking freedom to live outside of the mainstream.
"There used to be upwards of twenty collectives, gurus and bands here," notes one long-time Fort Hill resident. At one point this mix included a gay commune and the headquarters of a black power group.
While most of the communes which once filled the area are gone, one remains: The Fort Hill Community. Founded in 1966, the current commune has its roots in the social experimentation of the '60s.
Headquartered in two large Victorian homes atop the hill which lent the neighborhood its name, the Fort Hill Community stands as proof of the continued vitality of alternative communities in America and the strikingly colorful nature of Fort Hill.
Freelance journalist Dick Russell, a member since 1975, describes the group as an extended family. "After living together for 25 to 30 years, we really are a big family now raising a third generation of children," he said. "We are a group of people who have worked really hard to live together and to make a life."
While once known for its reclusive ways, group is now accepted by the neighborhood, and they in turn see themselves as a part of the community as a whole.
"We've always had friends in the neighborhoods," says Nell Foote, an original member of the group. "Their children come over and play with our children. We're part of the community."
"We call them 'the commune,' but they're just our neighbors," agrees Connie Reid-Jones, a former president of the Fort Hill Civic Association.
Relations have not always been so good. In the early days of the commune the members sometimes found themselves at odds with the neighborhood. Neighborhood residents recall disputes over the use of the Fort Hill park that borders the group's property.
With the passing of the decades, such conflicts faded away or were resolved. However, while they are a fixture of the neighborhood, the group still remains isolated in many ways.
According to some, it is this ability to maintain good relations with their surroundings while still maintaining their own separate way of life that accounts for their longevity.
Not only have they survived, they have prospered. The 80 or so members now own several properties around the country, including a farm in Kansas, and an apartment in downtown Manhattan.
While some of this wealth originally came from the private inheritances of group members, the Fort Hill Community's primary source of income is the Fort Hill Construction company.
Begun after the group renovated the derelict houses which now make up their compound, Fort Hill Construction has done work for Hollywood film director Steven Spielberg and actor Dustin Hoffman among others. Recently they received publicity for the work they did for entertainment mogul David Geffen.
"We basically learned how to do construction by fixing up the buildings we lived in," Russell commented.
While they regularly receive multimillion dollar contracts from celebrities in California, Fort Hill Construction also regularly does work in the neighborhood.
"There's never a job too small or too large for them," says one elderly resident of the neighborhood whose floor they redid. "They do fantastic work. They're very obliging and they take pride in what they do."
In fact, while the Fort Hill Community has gained some notoriety for their unusual past, group members feel that the success of the construction company is due mostly to their hard work and reputation for excellent craftsmanship.
"In construction, they hire you based on how good you are, not based on who you are," said Foote.
Begun in the late sixties, in an era when people were re-discovering the long American tradition of utopian experiments, the so-called Fort Hill Community coalesced around the charismatic figure of folk musician/poet Mel Lyman.
"It was a group of close friends who were folk musicians from Cambridge who wanted a place to make music together and share a life," said Russell, who first came to the group as an investigative journalist.
Many young musicians, artists and students were drawn to his dynamic leadership and his vision of a new society, one free of greed and materialism.
"People always gravitated to Mel," said Russell. "People loved to be around him."
By 1966, the community which had developed around Lyman began buying and renovating several homes in Fort Hill.
"Originally, the property values were really low, so it was easy on the purse, and it's just a great place to live," said Foote. "It's a beautiful, fascinating neighborhood."
After moving into Fort Hill, the Family began publishing The Avatar, one of Boston's first underground newspapers of the '60s. The group' s membership swelled and its visibility grew, two of its members starring in "Zabriskie Point," an avant garde film about the youth rebellion of the '60s.
However, the '70s were not kind to the Lyman Family. Lyman's charismatic personality began to draw negative media attention. In 1971, Rolling Stone Magazine ran a sensationalistic two-part series entitled "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America."
In the series, reporter David Felton portrayed Lyman as a Charles Manson-like cult figure who controlled his followers though mindcontrol, drugs, violence and intimidation, coining the expression "acid fascism."
To this day such allegations are strongly denied by Family members who say the piece was defamatory and full of lies.
Then, in 1973, the Family again drew media attention when three group members, including Zabriskie Point star Mark Frechette, tried to rob a Roxbury bank. One member was shot and killed by the police as he fled the bank.
The other two were convicted and sent to prison, where Frechette died in a mysterious weight room accident. Lyman himself died in 1978, falling victim to a long illness.
Since Lyman's death, much has changed. The psychedelic drug use which fueled rumors in the '60s and '70s is no longer a factor and drug use has gone with the changing times. The group now rents three of its Fort Hill buildings to outsiders, something which would have been unthinkable in Lyman's day.
Despite their many fundamental changes, the collective spirit at the Fort Hill Community has not faltered. All property and profit is held collectively, children are raised and educated both at home and in public schools. Family members say they never even considered breaking up or moving as so many other communes and collectives in the Fort Hill area did as the '70s drew to a close.
"It's not so much that we survived as much as that other people wanted to go somewhere else," says Foote. "We've been here so long, it's home."
Foote says she feels that relations with the neighbors have, for the most part, been positive. "We've always had friends in the neighborhood, " she says. "It's never been a struggle to stay here."
"I think this is one of the most beautiful spots there is in the whole city," Russell said. "Both George Washington and Malcolm X walked around this fort. There's really a sense of beauty and history here. It's a magical spot."
The neighbors, for their part, appreciate the group's presence, whatever the particulars of its past may be.
"They've always been quiet," says resident and former Civic Association President Beth Deare. "We've never had any hassles or trouble with them. They keep their houses up beautifully and that's very important to the image of the neighborhood. They help keep the area quiet."
Mel Lyman