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Burning Greed documents the Symphony Road arson ring

Burning Greed RC VO Test

It was a full house last night at the Fenway Community Center at 1282 Boylston Street where Burning Greed was screened. A second screening will be held tonight at the Capitol Theatre, in Arlington....more

Burning Greed is a documentary produced by Sonia Weinhaus covering the arson-for-profit ring operating in The Fenway in the late-1970s.

Fires broke out on a regular basis along Symphony Road and other streets for a series of years in the 1970s - at least thirty buildings burned. Residents - white, Latino, and black families, the elderly, and a good number of gays and lesbians - knew something was going on but faced ambivalence and skepticism from the city and state. One fire official said he believed the residents were setting the fires, that arson was something only kids and pyromaniacs - and, "angry ethnics" were capable of. That official also suggested that the gay men in the neighborhood could be responsible.

The neighborhood organized, driven by pride - and, necessity, since many did not have the means to move elsewhere.

Things got worse before they got better; four people died in a single fire, and, in 1976 a four-year-old infant was killed.

Fenway residents created "Symphony Tenants Organizing Project" and, joining with some nearby Northeastern University students, started looking for answers. This was in the days before anything was available online, so they had to pour through paper records to attempt to figure out what was going on.

Neighbors including Jack Wills and David Scondras, and dozens of others, worked feverishly to find connections between all the fires, finally uncovering an arson-for-profit ring, where real estate speculators were buying and selling properties at inflated prices, eventually burning the buildings to the ground in order to collect insurance proceeds.

Angry ethnics, indeed.

With the help of then-MA state representative Mel King, residents' cries for help were finally heard. Attorney general Frank Bellotti and assistant attorney general Stephen Delinsky got involved and, when a surprise participant turned state witness - eventually started prosecuting land owners.

Eventually, more than 30 individuals were charged - and found guilty - of arson-related crimes, including a member of the city's arson squad(?!) and a state fire marshal(?!).

The documentary covers a lot of this, and more. An hour long, it's worthy of a trip to Arlington to see it tonight, or follow Burning Greed on Twitter for future showing information.

(The 1970s arson breakout was followed up in the early 1980s by another one. Incredibly, residents were again blamed for setting the fires ... but who was doing it, and why, was a shocking surprise.)

To learn more about Boston's arson-for-profit ring in the 1970s, check out these links or search "Symphony Road Fires" online.

56-72 Symphony Road garden renovation

Computerworld profile of STOP and David Scondras:

Boston on Fire, by Stephanie Schorow:

WGBH Ten O'Clock News (B-roll video):

More on arson for profit, including a lot about Boston

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I've lived in the area since 1989 and had no idea that the community garden space was part of the arson history. Hope to check out the film sometime.

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Very interesting. Thanks for posting this.

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The Bad Old Boston of my childhood. Change is good.

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I've lived since '86 in one of the buildings that was made into a cooperative after it was rehabbed in '85 by a community group. I've been looking forward to seeing the film for a couple of years now that we've been hearing about it. I followed the story back in the day although I wasn't living in the neighborhood during the arson. I did witness a Central Sq. tenement building burn in what I am pretty sure was an arson fire and it was a pretty fearsome thing. I can't imagine what it must have been like to live in this neighborhood knowing what was happening and struggling to get official investigations going.

It wasn't just on Symphony Rd that it happened. It was just that the Symphony Rd. neighborhood was able to organize and convince the powers to be that it was the landlords and developers who were doing it. They were able to reform the system to take most of the profit out of arson. They set a model for the rest of the country to fight the problem.

It's a rather proud legacy for the neighborhood. (Even better than Babe Ruth living on the street when he joined the Red Sox.) I'm surprised it's not as well known.

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The Park Chambers fire on Peterborough Street at Jersey Street in ~1972. Killed 8-9 people and completely destroyed one of the largest apartment buildings in the neighborhood. A blatantly deliberate case of arson with intent to murder which had blocked all the entrances to the building near simultaneously with fire. The tenants had refused to vacate after a "warning" fire had been set in locked electrical closet the week prior and it was obvious the responsible part was angry about it. The fire spread so rapidly people on the upper floors only survived because one tenant had mountain climbing equipment and was able to rope other residents down from balconies.

The infamous slumlord Maurice Gordon was believed to be involved. But no one was ever convicted. The fire department was looking the other way at the time. Real bastards.

A young unknown reporter named Brit Hume started his career covering the story.

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thanks for posting this Adam

this is a terrific piece of work on the part of the filmmaker

Sonia has does us a great service

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but, this was happening in other neighborhoods, also. When you look around town today, and see empty lots, especially in places like Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, odds are good they are the result of arson for profit that occurred in the 1970s into the 80s, due to the collapse of property values, high inflation, the epidemic of violent street crime, so called 'white flight' (really middle class flight) and blockbusting by large real estate interests (slum-lords). Maurice Gordon was one, Harold Brown was another notorious slum-lord. Corruption in city hall, the police and fire departments, the DA's office, helped facilitate it all. The 1970s were a bad time for America, and especially urban America. Many bad things happened, that embittered a lot of people. It shouldn't be forgotten and swept under the rug.

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and should have. There were a bunch of similar fires all over the city at that time. Hyde Park, Roslindale, Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and JP. BFD firefighters performed a lot of heroic unsung work. Thank you.

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I saw BURNING GREED and it is a pretty good film. A few points:

I live in the East Fens as I have for 33 of the last 37 years. i am an active member of the Fenway CDC

-I lived at 4 Symphony Rd. in a rooming house for $25 a week. I was the only white, straight, English speaking male there.
-Rent control was one of the reasons for the plague of arson. This does not excuse the illegal and immoral actions of owners but it is significant and BURNING GREED ignores this fact.
-Anyone complaining about "affordable housing" should realize that the legacy of arson lasted a long time and artificially depressed rents until about 1983.
-Symphony Rd. had a lot of Latins nd Burbank St. had the Vietnamese as the East Fens was a very "slotted" neighborhood.
-I arrived in Boston just after the Francis X. Bellotti indictment that finally ended the evil. At the time of the indictment Mr. Bellotti was regarded as an ineffectual "good old boy." It is to Mr. Bellotti's credit that he aggressively pursued prosecution.

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I knew Scondras back in the day as a good guy and passionate activist. Was disappointed when the accusations about teen guys came to light. Nice to be reminded of how much he did for Fenway and Boston, despite his failings.

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A lot more than accusations. He is a convict now.

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