Harvard Summer News
Tuesday, August 20, 1968
Non-Psychedelic Reflections of Fort Hill
By Michele B. Slung
ROXBURY HIGH FORT
a strong earth work planned by
Henry Knox and Josiah Waters
and erected by the American Army
June, 1775 crowning the famous
Roxbury lines of investment at
THE SIEGE OF BOSTON
Placed there by the city of Boston in 1877, it has not been a prime tourist attraction in a city over-endowed with landmarks. Located in a corner of Boston's black ghetto, Fort Hill is not included on the Freedom Trail. Yet in the past two years, students from the Harvard Divinity School, writers and photographers from Life, Newsweek, and Esquire magazines, and the ladies of a Roxbury civic organization have made the trek up the hill to investigate the activities that are occurring there.
There are seven houses lining the gravel road which runs past the tower. They are fronted by picket fences and critically landscaped gardens. The license plates on the parked cars reveal that people have journeyed here from California, Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois. At first glance the only inhabitants appear to be a bewildering variety of barefoot children and cats. The single jarring note in this otherwise conventional-seeming neighborhood is a sign painted on an old van:
"ETERNALLY AT YOUR SERVICE"
This is not an attempt to be facetious. It is merely an indication of where the occupants of the houses are at. Inside one house, No. 4, pictures of Lincoln and Emerson can be seen hanging near a Buddha on a mantelpiece. A copy of the I Ching protrudes from a bookcase. These are further hints of what is happening here on Fort Hill.
Liz: "The main reason people come here is through being frustrated in their desire to help the world. Unable to succeed alone, they have more incentive and a better chance with other people. Here."
Ester, from Sweden: "Before I came here I didn't know what life was about. People didn't like me. I was selfish and defensive. You have to have had your experiences before you come here. This is sort of like the last place for people to find."
The first people to find Fort Hill found it two years ago when it was a small decaying slum. They moved onto the Hill from Cambridge, buying up the houses as the blacks moved out. Most were involved with publishing the Avatar, which they proselytized for their way of life and through which they deified an ex-harmonica-player with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band named Mel Lyman.
It is impossible, in discussing the Fort Hill community, to ignore the Presence of Mel Lyman. His personal life and biography are unimportant compared to the power he presently commands. His house is surrounded by a stone and cement block wall. Being a god, he is not a mixer. Yet his name and the force it carries permeates the entire Hill. In essence, he is the Hill.
Liz: "Christ was Pisces the last time he was around. Then he brought us from the Arian Age, like when the Hebrews sacrificed rams. The Christian symbol was the fish. Now we're into the Aquarian Age, and Mel is here to bring this to us. It is mutable air, the spreading out of the mind, the Great Dispensation, the Great Opening-up. We are here to be the connection to the world for the new consciousness. Through the Avatar, which means 'manifestation of God,' through television, through movies Mel is using any instrument he can to make heaven on earth, starting on the Hill."
The one refreshing aspect to this now-familiar genre of message is the lack of psychedelics. The dropping of acid is frowned upon except in very special circumstances and under approved conditions. The houses are DayGlo-free. and the only recurring ornamental note is photographs and pictures of Mel. On the Hill the people "tune in" and "turn on" but it is to the revelations of astrology and the gospel teachings of Mel Lyman rather than to dope.
"Dropping out" is another thing altogether, for, while one can renounce a past life in order to join the community on the Hill, it is impossible to be a drop-out during any stay there.
"You're free to stay up 24 hours, but when there's work to be done, you have to do it," said one girl. "It's up to your conscience, and Mel is a tough conscience to have."
The Hill echoes with the noises of hammering and sawing. There is a project under way to join the back porches of all the houses with the feeling that it will enhance the organic structure of the community. The three plots of roses planted in front of the tower must be weeded, and all who pas by pause to tug at at least a few dusty plants. Ceilings must be painted and repaired. Rooms must be insulated against the coming winter. There are meals to be cooked, dishes to be washed, and laundry to be done. Everyone is allowed to stay if they do their part; no one automatically has a place. If a person does not contribute, he must leave the Hill until he is able to accept the responsibility that accompanies the freedom there.
Kay, from Ohio, is one person who is being asked to give something up. She used to live in Cambridge, visiting Fort Hill often. When No. 3 came up for sale, she purchased it with the intention of allowing friends to live with her. The rigors of communal living soon brought tension when the friends who had moved in with her decided it would be a groovy thing to knock down the walls of her house in order to open up the living areas. Kay, afraid to protest, left for a vacation in Nova Scotia with here parents. Returning to the Hill, she found that the creative demolition had begun in her absence. Knowing she has been up-tight about the situation before she had left, the conversations regarding her reactions on her return go like this:
"Kay's back, but she hasn't said anything."
"It's good and it's not good."
Something has to happen. Kay's feeling about the house, her possession in non-Hill terms, must be brought into the open. If she merely accepts what has been done then it is "something that she is not a part of." One bystander manages to have the final word: "It's not her house anymore. It was only bought with her money."
Money is never in plentiful supply around Fort Hill. Income trickles in from the sale of Eben Given's drawings and from the sale of the New York Avatar in Harvard Square. Some people work at being cab drivers or truck drivers, but, unless funds are especially low, jobs in the outside world do not seem to be eagerly sought. Often friends contribute food, and many of the clothes are home-made. Meals are for whoever happens to be around when food is being served. Residents of the Hill will point out that all things seem to work on the "loaves and fishes" principle.
At a small grocery-cum-variety store a few blocks away, the Negro owner says: "I know them. They come in and out of here, especially the children when they have a few pennies. Most of the people in this neighborhood are conventional people and can't understand those kids leading unconventional lives. Those kids have rejected our society. They aren't hippies. The hippies are on the Common, not For Hill. Those people on the Hill all work at something. And they bathe. No nasty filthy talk. Those who go there expecting a hippie community where you do nothing soon leave."
Joan is a girl who has lived on Fort Hill, gone elsewhere, returned, and is soon to leave again. She comments: "It's much different from the outside on the Hill than it is from the inside. Lots of things happen to people. They just seem to happen quicker here, you have to be able to take what comes." Then: "I'll probably be back." It is said that no one who leaves can stay away fro long. Jeremy, from England, sums up the Hill's attitude toward the future by saying: "Each of us here try to live here as if we were going to be here forever."
There is a permanent nucleus of approximately 50 persons on Fort Hill, including a set of infant twins named Raspberry and Mulberry. There is also a shifting peripheral populace and a fairly steady influx of visiting friends and relations. Strangers often appear at odd hours and commit the social faux pas of demanding to see Mel. They are more often than not politely turned away, for it is understood that there is little of importance that Mel does not already know.
An enclave in an essentially hostile country, Fort Hill holds to its self-image of a tiny by powerful city-state. Visiting dignitaries, such as Dylan, Country Joe and the Fish, and Paul Williams of Crawdaddy magazine, drop in to pay their respects to Mel while he himself maintains contact with the World Council of Churches and the Vatican. United Illuminating, Inc. is the corporate name which encompasses Magna Building, Avatar, Inc., and Mel's other projects which involve the world beyond Fort Hill. One person stated confidently that at some time in the future United Illuminating "will be the only company in the entire world, building model cities for a new world and making the stars shine at night."
Politically, Fort Hill was into the Kennedy campaign: "Then, when he won, Mel could be president through Bobby. Now we're going to work through Reagan because, if he becomes president, this country will see a reflection of where it's really at. That's our thing reflections."
Whatever their "thing" is, the Lyman Family, as they style themselves, can be shrugged off as the "fools on the hill" or accepted as builders of another "strong earth work." The members of the Fort Hill community counter iconoclasts with: "Whatever level you're on is the level you see Mel on."