Re-inventing Life On a Hilltop In Roxbury
Robert L. Levey, Globe Staff
The Fort Hill community has a single mind and a single heart.
Perched on a Roxbury hilltop, this commune of about 100 men, women and children continues to build a place for itself as if the entire group were a single person reinventing life.
From the birth of the community on Aug. 10, 1966, when the first piece of property was purchased, the project has expanded to embrace a row of six wooden houses facing a small park, a group of garages and three entrances of an adjacent apartment block. It is all assembled under the United Illuminating Realty Trust, the corporate structure that holds all the community's property.
If a person gets involved with the Fort Hill community, he gets totally involved. Hundreds of people have passed through the hill in the past three years, but those who came to just look around or to find a hippie retreat where they could relax and take drugs have not lasted long.
For there is a severe authority structure on the hill. People are divided by function and they are all instruments in a plan for a new way to live that begins and ends with Mel Lyman, the 31-year-old leader of the Fort Hill community.
Lyman was born on the West Coast and roamed the country for years before settling in Boston. At different times he lived in Greenwich Village, Cambridge, North Carolina and Portland, Ore. He is a fine folk musician and used to play with Kweskin's Jug Band.
Lew Crampton, who lived on Fort Hill until last Summer, said of Mel, "I guess he's been into just about every scene there's been to be into." Like many of the adults on the Hill, Lyman's past experiences have included exposure to various mind-altering drugs. But at this stage, the faithful of the community have gone beyond those experiments as they work toward the intense unity and, as Crampton puts it, "level of energy" that is Fort Hill.
Lyman is accepted quite literally as a god figure by those who have assembled around him. The group used to publish The Avatar, the unique newspaper that was hawked on the streets by Boston's young hippie population.
Sellers of the paper faced obscenity charges because of the words and descriptions which it included. Those charges have been struck down by the state Supreme Judicial Court, but the hill people are already into new forms and no longer publish words. Their newest product is a record, just released on the Reprise label, called "Love Comes Rolling Down," with The Lyman Family and Lisa Kindred.
But when the community was publishing Avatar, which came out more than 30 times in both newspaper and magazine formats, it was dominated entirely by Mel Lyman. He was idealized in excellent drawings by Fort Hill artist Eben Given. He wrote a letters column, replying to the adoring and outraged correspondence from Avatar readers.
He wrote poetry, philosophical tracts and when he tired of writing for Avatar, the paper published transcripts of his conversations with other members of the community - his disciples.
In one of these conversations, Mel had this to say in characterizing his role as spiritual guide of the community.
"I traveled a lot, I preached for years all over this country until I FOUND my people, the few who could UNDERSTAND me, and now THEY will have to do the travelling, YOU, until you find YOUR people, and this is how the word will spread, and always HAS spread. I mean look how long I had to put up with your ignorance, your mistrust, your pride, and now you KNOW me, and YOU must learn to do the same. Everything I teach you you are obligated to teach to others, and I will never STOP teaching you because I will never run out of things to TEACH you."
"I mean somebody who is tuned into the Creator, to spirit, to God, like me and like Jesus, there's no LIMIT to how much they can give, absolutely no limit. It TOTALLY depends on who they're GIVING it to, on how much THEY can RECEIVE, and in order to get people to receive more and more you break down their structures. That's why ALL saviours have the same TEACHINGS."
"All great men say the SAME THINGS. The variations in what they say are determined by the listeners, but the essence of what they say is always the TRUTH and that's an absolute, the essence of truth is always the same, but the FORM that the essence takes is always DIFFERENT, but it's the same essence. And the form is always the shape HUMANITY is in, the people AROUND the truth at the time."
Later in the conversation he talked of how the structures must be broken. "You can see that on the HIGHEST level, heaven and earth creating mankind, or in terms of nations and war, and all the way down to man and wife, it's the very law of evolution itself. That's why, when the structure has outlived it's [sic] purpose and the occupant refuses to budge he has an ACCIDENT, just to break down his most surface structure. That's what I mean when I said shock is the last resort, if you won't learn gracefully then you will learn by force, if you won't change when it's time to change then you will FORCE yourself to change and on the lowest level that is physical violence. Go to war, start a fight, get somebody to beat you up, smash your car into something, break a leg so that you can lay in a hospital bed for a few months and finally get some time to think about what you've been DOING, and what you've been NEGLECTING."
This insistence that individuals continue to evolve and change leads to intense confrontations among those on the hill and between them and outsiders who come to visit or observe the community. There is a premium on persons being honest with each other to the point of insult. The motive is to bring people into deeper relationships of trust and common feelings.
My own presence in the community as a reporter was greeted with some suspicion and hostility, I was berated for not having the capacity to participate fully in the Fort Hill experience, for remaining rigid and aloof. I was informed that one member of the community had said of me, "He's so empty I didn't want to sit too close to him because I might fall in." Twice, when I told people it had been good meeting them I was angrily accused of lying.
This impatience with outsiders stems largely from the fact that Fort Hill residents have each gone through a series of intense changes and experiences in their own lives. They harbor massive faith in Mel Lyman and they regard most of the other three billion people in he [sic] world as infants who have not proceeded very far long the path of real life. As Mel wrote in his first article for Avatar: "Life is hard work, we're here to make a paradise out of this mess. Accepting that is the ONLY freedom . . . Don't expect any peace, don't expect any rewards, don't expect anything."
The paradise involves a lot of building. "Right now, 99 percent of our activity is in construction," explained Jim Kweskin, who used to head a popular music group called The Jug Band, and now devotes all his time to managing the Fort Hill community.
Over the past two years, the construction effort centered on renovating the old buildings that comprise the hill community.
Now the work in aimed at developing a center where musical recordings, films and television taping can be done. This activity is going on at one end of Fort avenue terrace. Behind number 5, a large cinder block foundation was installed during the Fall as the start on the film studio. The second floor of the same building has been gutted to the studded walls to be readied for conversion into a fully equipped recording studio.
The work goes on continually. While many members of the hill community go to outside jobs to bring in money, a permanent work crew of at least 10 men stays on the job. At lunch one day, a member of the crew said "we are building a place where we can work."
The women who work on the outside take such jobs as waitresses, counter girls, temporary secretaries. Men have been mechanics, or worked in metal shops, the Navy Yard and a variety of other day labor positions. Kweskin said that a person living in one of the community's buildings might give as much as two-thirds of his income toward the support and building of the general community. But there are no absolute formulas. Like most things at Fort Hill, the situation develops based on how people feel.
HARD AND WELL
The work ethic is deeply felt. People explain that they are doing "what is needed" of them. This sense of commitment reaches awesome proportions. With the exception of occasional spontaneous holidays or time when everyone gets involved in music-making or Sunday football afternoons, people are on the job all the time.,
Behind the main houses in a row of garages, a roomy workshop has been set up. Two years ago, Fort Hill carpenters were using scrap wood, sometimes having to plane away the rotten sections of each board to create usable lumber. Today there is a good stock of lumber stored in the workshop and large power tools to fashion needed supports for the reconstruction of the buildings.
Besides working hard, Fort Hill people want to work well. There is a commonly held desire to perform the simplest tasks perfectly. When the men are doing carpentry or remodeling, they take extra pains to do the very best job. Instead of painting a door, they will take the time to sand it down and stain it. "Creating a beautiful room is just as important as anything else we do," Kweskin explained. It fits in with Mel's philosophy that a man must work his hardest on whatever task is before him.
This insistence of perfection and beauty is evident throughout the Fort Hill house. People take their shoes off when they enter any of the houses to avoid tracking in any dirt. Mel's apartment, particularly, is beautifully appointed, with glowing polished wood floors and an impressive arrangement of varied period furniture.
The women on the hill serve the men. There is a traditional division of labor, with the men doing the heavy work and the women rearing the children and keeping the kitchen. All the houses on the hill are connected by telephone communications that go through a central switchboard. The women run the switchboard 24 hours a day.
In the late evening men from the community stand guard. Off and on, there have been minor incidents between people from the hill and outsiders who have come roaming in the area, so the community installed an alarm system that can rally all the men from bed at a moment's notice. Also, as one Fort Hill woman said, "It's good to know that someone is always awake on the hill."
The children of Fort Hill live at 3 Fort Avenue Terrace. There are oriental rugs on the floor of the downstairs playroom and the kitchen, halls and dining area have been comfortably renovated.
Those who are of school age attend the nearby Highland Park Free School, though if it is ever possible, the community would like to develop its own school.
Everyone who is a permanent member of the community feels a special attachment to ALL the children. "We don't feel that parents are necessarily, the best people to raise their own children," Kweskin said, "as long as there is someone around to love the child that is not his own."
Right now there are about 20 children on the Hill, Kweskin said, ranging in age from infants to 12 years old.
Fort Hill has a way of attracting to its fold what it needs. They needed lots of construction work and among them was Richie Guerin, who has handled the architectural planning for the renovations.
They wanted to put out a beautiful newspaper and there was Eben and his art work and Ed to do the layout.
Now, George Peper has gone to New York to work in experimental television for CBS and acquire skills and connections that will aid the hill when they develop their own television facilities. And perhaps most unusual of all, Mark Frechette was picked off a Boston street to play a leading part in Italian film director Antonioni's new film, which was shot in America.
Mark returned to the hill with Daria, his co star in the picture.
Another hill resident, Ed Beardsley, is affiliated with some experimental film production going on at Channel 2. Another member of the community manages a recording studio where The Lyman Family currently makes its recordings.
Even the spot where the community is situated seems part of a mysterious and fortuitous plan. The hill is dominated by a remarkable brick tower that lends an aura of uniqueness to the immediate environment. And with the city of Boston sprawled out in all directions below Fort Hill, there is the sense of being at the center of something.
The language of Fort Hill is astrology. Every permanent resident has a deep and abiding interest in the stars and their meaning. General conversation is interspersed with references to people's Sun signs and Moon signs and the significance these aspects have on an individual's behavior.
At lunch one day, the men on the work crews were discussing with amusement the strange developments that will take place in the Army under the new draft system, which will induct large numbers of men with the same birth date at the same time. "Can you imagine a company of Tauruses," said one of the men, "they'll blow reveille and no one will budge."
It was the general concensus at the table that the Armed Forces are in for some special problems.
The No. 1 sport on the hill is football. This Fall the men of the community formed two full squads. Each morning they faithfully conducted a calisthenics drill and a scrimmage. Then they went to the morning work meeting and to their jobs for the day.
On Sundays, professional football took over. Most of the men and some of the women would gather before television sets and watch all the games. The football spirit derives from Mel, who is so devout a fan that he sometimes watches three games at once.
Almost everyone on the hill has read Jerry Kramer's football memoir, "Instant Replay." "Football is the only war going on in America," Kweskin said. "It's a way people can safely experience conflict."
Fort Hill does not set any special goals for itself. The people there want to be understood and emulated, they want to communicate with their music and any other artistic media they develop, but as Kweskin said "the main product of the community is the community."
It is not easy to understand what is going on there. Kurt, who worked with computers before quitting his job and moving to the hill nine months ago, said "It' heaven and hell here. Sometimes it's very painful, but I haven't been bored for two hours since I came here."
During his stay, he has changed from a skeptic, to a believer in Astrology, He has become a skilled carpenter and he works ceaselessly on the buildinng [sic] projects of the community. His M.I.T. background and work with artificial intelligence is dim past history. "That old mind, that isn't me anymore," he said.
Kurt, like most of the Fort Hill people, has gone through the traumatic breaking of a love relationship during his stay there. The intense communication among the entire community seems to break down any reason for couples to stay together if they feel their relationship has deteriorated. And since they all look toward Mel to derive a sense of themselves, they inherit his view that the pain of human relationship is inevitable and must be worked through.
Fort Hill people are the first to point out that Mel Lyman's influence on this growing group has parallels with the case of Charles Manson and his "family," the accused mass murderers on the West Coast.
Pictures of Manson, in fact, are in evidence in some of the Fort Hill houses. Jim Kweskin was on the phone recently with an executive of the record company that will be putting out their album and the conversation got around to Manson.
"Sure, we got a lot in common," Kweskin said. "But Charlie Manson talked about saving souls and he went around killing people. Mel Lyman talks about destruction and he goes around saving souls."