One foot in the past, the other in the new normal

Gretchen Grozier talks to the tour group about Woodbourne Historic District in Jamaica Plain on Oct. 25, 2020. She says houses were built around a central garden to foster a sense of community. Photo by Mita Kataria/BU News Service.

By Mita Kataria
BU News Service

A morning in the new normal

It was 10:30 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning, just a week before Halloween. Gretchen Grozier, a walking tour guide, waited for her group members to arrive at the Bethel AME Church for a tour across the Woodbourne Historic District in Jamaica Plain.

In a sky blue, Jamaica Plain Historical Society 25th anniversary t-shirt and dark blue jeans, Grozier sat at the steps of the 102-year-old church on Wachusett Street. With her short brown hair and blue-rimmed glasses, her mask – a gift from her aunt in Honolulu – stood out, with its light-blue background and navy tropical prints. She riffled through her notes to recollect things that the pandemic and its consequential lack of tours had pushed to the back of her mind.

Typically, Grozier – a Boston by Foot and Jamaica Plain Historical Society volunteer tour guide – would lead about 70 walking tours from March to October. This year, she’s only led four. But this weekend, Grozier was more excited than usual; she had a tour on Saturday and Sunday. This normally would have been par for the course, but this year, it was happening for the first time.

After a quick shower earlier in the morning, Grozier went to Green Street to take a picture of a building that in 1895 was the location for Hotel Morse — which, contrary to its name, was a residential building. Since the Jamaica Plain Historical Society hasn’t been doing many tours this season, they have sought community engagement through social media, posting pictures of buildings that have replaced those that stood in 1895. 

In her last post, Grozier mistakenly put up a picture of the building across the street from Hotel Morse. A member of the society and a familiar face on tours, John Wicker, pointed out the mistake, so Grozier posted the correction. She then walked to Evergreen, a café on Green Street, where she eats every time she does a tour of the area. On Saturday though, she just grabbed takeout and walked to the church. 

Around 10:40 a.m., the first of her 16 tour members showed up. The guest, an older man from Revere who Grozier said has been a regular on her tours lately, started talking to her.

“I guess, that’s what I’m doing for the next 20 minutes,” Grozier thought to herself, begrudgingly.

The past few months had restricted interaction to virtual spaces. In-person interaction is not only rare but in the new normal, more skeptically viewed. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the past few months have left people deprived of human connection. Grozier’s initial reluctance gave way to a conversation that flowed from discussing Jamaica Plain to the last presidential debate. “Clearly, I think it was nice to have someone to talk to,” Grozier admitted later. 

Gretchen Grozier (right) talks to the tour group about Woodbourne Historic District in Jamaica Plain on Oct. 25, 2020. Photo by Mita Kataria/BU News Service.

The tour begins

By 11 a.m., a crowd began to gather at the church. Two tour groups — one led by Grozier and another led by her colleague, Hilary Marcus — stood at a distance.

Grozier’s group stood at the steps of what used to be called St. Andrew’s Parish, built by the Archdiocese of Boston. A gray exposed brick and stone structure with a gabled roof, circled by a garden, towered over the group. The members barely exchanged greetings, some nods but no smiles, at least none that anyone could see. Everybody tried to adjust their positions in a scattered semi-circle, but it was tricky. They had to be close enough to Grozier, but far enough from everybody else in the group.

Grozier then put on her microphone, an additional accessory, to accommodate the group of people, all standing six feet apart. She tucked the transmitter over her jeans’ waistline and put on the headset. With her off-white tote bag hanging off her shoulders, her blue earrings embossed over an image of the sea dangling from her ears and her hiking shoes, Grozier was ready to begin the tour. 

After a brief history of Jamaica Plain and the Bethel AME Church, Grozier led the group to the first stop: the Francis Parkman School, now called the Boston Teachers Union Pilot School. The school was named after the American historian Francis Parkman, who according to Grozier is “the man, if anybody wants to know about the French-Indian wars.” A former history major at University of New Hampshire, Grozier proudly claimed to the group, “I can talk about Francis Parkman all day.” 

Grozier’s love of history stemmed from her upbringing. Since her father was in the air force, she grew up in different parts of the country and Europe. She was a “history nerd” who became intrigued with the New England history on summer visits to her grandmother in Massachusetts.

While doing her masters in international relations at Boston University, she tapped into her curiosity about buildings and people. Living in the dorms at Bay State road, she began researching the past residents of those buildings and eventually started giving tours. As someone who has always worked with computers, currently as a project manager with Harvard University, Grozier had never had an opportunity to share her knowledge and passion for history with anyone. Walking tours helped her channel that knowledge, do what she loved, and have the opportunity to meet new people. 

After 20 years of doing walking tours, Grozier was dismayed at the complete shutdown that ruined plans for both Boston by Foot and Jamaica Plain Historical Society this year. Even though Boston by Foot resumed some private tours, virtual tours and presentations became an integral part of their offerings. Grozier did some of the virtual tours on location, connecting with a virtual tour group through Zoom as she took them around a historic location in the city. Though these tours made it possible for people from across the country to join in – including her parents, who live in South Carolina – the biggest disadvantage was the lack of interaction. The inability to see anyone’s faces or reactions while talking made Grozier uneasy. “You have no idea,” Grozier said. “These people could be sleeping.”

Masks and social distancing had an impact on the tours as well. Standing far away from people with  mask-muffled voices that often fail to reach each other has made talking a challenge. The volunteers have stopped passing around old pictures of the buildings they visit on tours. Grozier is also saddened by the lack of questions and intermingling among group members.

The group on Saturday’s Woodbourne tour was no exception. The awkwardly distant and silent group was spread out, occupying a good part of the narrow street as a few latecomers joined in. Grozier talked about Parkman as a car’s soft hissing grew louder from around the corner of the street. Grozier cautioned everyone to move to the side. Familiar with the ongoings of the traffic in the neighborhood, once the car passed Grozier comfortably stepped out on the road again. “These cars won’t kill us,” she chuckled. “Maybe just complain.”

On to the next stop

At the next stop, a building housing six condominiums on Patten Street that used to be the Upham Church, Grozier pointed at a rocky structure on the opposite side of the street. The structure was the Roxbury Conglomerate Stone, which is also referred to as the Roxbury Puddingstone, and the state rock of Massachusetts.

The Gettysburg Cemetery has a Roxbury Puddingstone Monument for the 20th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. When Grozier visited the cemetery she annoyedly corrected the park ranger giving the tour, telling him it was the Roxbury Puddingstone when he called it a granite structure, much to the embarrassment of her mother. “My mom was like, ‘are you kidding me?’” She suggested to the tour members that on their next visit to Gettysburg, they could do the same.

Moving forward on the tour, the group halted at what was previously home to Seaver School, a middle school that was also converted into condominiums in the 1980s. A group member asked Grozier about the changing demographics of the neighborhood. She explained how Jamaica Plain’s population, like that of Boston, decreased in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, a lot of schools were shut. When Jamaica Plain later saw an influx of young people, many locations were converted to residential units.

When Grozier moved to Jamaica Plain in 1999, she said there weren’t that many kids. Since then, their number has increased, and so has the need for schools.

“Now it’s like you try and get a cup of coffee on Center Street and there’s a million strollers. But that’s my opinion and not the historical society’s,” Grozier laughed. “Anyway, I would rather have a million strollers than none.”

After living in Cambridge and Brighton, she was fascinated with Jamaica Plain’s liberal, diverse and socially involved population. She said it was the place where she felt most at home. For the last 21 years, she has seen the neighborhood change, and many people — students, professionals, families — come and go. The neighborhood, she said, has increasingly become gentrified with a lack of mid-price housing. But people have also resisted unnecessary change, or at least have tried to fight it together. That’s what Grozier likes about Jamaica Plain. “People are invested in this neighborhood,” Grozier said, “in ways you don’t always see across the city.”

The neighborhood has a rich past, too. It does not get the storied limelight like those of the Freedom Trail or other monuments of national importance downtown. But Grozier feels that the  history of the small, relatively unknown, spots in the neighborhood — its architecture and the stories of people who made it — make it a place that locals want to explore. 

On the journey through Woodbourne, the group learned about the Minot and Olney families of Jamaica Plain and the contribution of the Boston Dwelling House Company in developing affordable housing in the area as they slowly zigzagged through the curvy streets. The tour reached its pinnacle with a last set of stops along the Northbourne, Bournedale and Southbourne roads.

Clusters of houses here were constructed based on the Garden City tenets of ample common and green space for fostering a sense of community. The clusters, including single and multi-family houses, were built facing a central garden. In one of the gardens, surrounded by red brick houses with steep slate roofs, fallen leaves covered the green grass with red and yellow hues. Another cluster of houses had a common yard through it which a cobblestone paved way cut across. A short walk through to the other side, the group found itself at the end of the tour, back on Wachusett Street. 

As the group members dispersed, each going their own way. Grozier reminisced about the time when her weekends were packed with at least a couple of tours every day. Even after she was done with them, she would stay out. Sometimes she would grab coffee with her tour members, meet up with friends, take a tour or a field trip. “Not anymore,” a surrendered smile spread across her face. Grozier knew she was going straight back home.

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