Chelsea Resilient: Call and Response Through the Ages
Created on November 15, 2021
Mural by David Fichter, installed in Bellingham Square at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Street in November 2021.
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The “Battle of Chelsea Creek” was the first naval battle of the American Revolution. In May of 1775, just before the Battle of Bunker Hill in nearby Charlestown, the revolutionaries managed to disable a British warship, The Diana, remove its canons and other valuables, and set it on fire. Revolutionary War General Israel Putnam waded into the water of Chelsea Creek to call out to the British to surrender, which they refused to do. The mural begins with Putnam calling out across the ages, standing in the water of Chelsea Creek, next to one of the American canons that were used in the battle, while The Diana burns. General Israel Putnam calls out to the troops winning a 1775 victory over the British in the Battle of Chelsea Creek. This was the first offensive action and the first naval engagement in the American Revolution.
In the smoke of the burning Diana, you see a map of the town in the 18th century with locations for the naval battle. To the left of the ship is a scene of indigenous women digging for mussels on the shores of Chelsea Creek. Before the area was colonized it was known as Winnisimmet.
Fanny Fairweather was a woman enslaved by the Carys, a prominent Chelsea family. She recounted her memories of being captured by slave hunters at age seven in West Africa and auctioned in St Kitts to Samuel and Sarah Cary. The Cary family made riches through their sugar plantations in Grenada and Fanny spent most of the early years of her life there where she cared for the Cary children. After eighteen years in the Caribbean the Cary family returned to Chelsea permanently, bringing Fanny and two other enslaved people, Pompeii and Charlotte, with them. She married David Fairweather, a freed slave, and lived in a home owned by the Cary family at 32 John Street in Chelsea. Her inclusion in the mural is important to tell the full story of slavery here in New England. While no portrait of Fanny survives, a lot is known about her character and life. She is depicted in her older years with a favorite cat on her lap; a book, since she could read; and her parrot perched on the cannon. She is smoking a pipe. She died in 1844 and is buried in Rumney Marsh Burial ground in Revere.
Helen Louise Gilson was the niece of the first mayor of Chelsea, Mayor Francis B. Fay, who was elected shortly after Chelsea became a city. Helen lived with Mayor Fay and, during the Civil War, answered the call for nurses to serve the Union side and cared for Black soldiers.. After the war she returned to Chelsea and married, but unfortunately died in childbirth.
The Bellingham-Cary House is the oldest surviving 18th century building in the city. It was constructed in 1724 and may incorporate remains of the 1659 hunting lodge of colonial governor, Richard Bellingham. An Englishman, Bellingham was involved in the formation of the Massachusetts Bay Company which formally established Boston in 1630. After Bellingham’s death, the house passed on to the Cary family and was enlarged several times by them until 1914, when the Governor Bellingham-Cary House Association, a local non-profit organization, was established to preserve it. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places.
This is an image of 19th century Chelsea Square during the trolley era. The Chelsea Courthouse is on the left with the Stebbins Fountain. In accordance with city landscapes of the period, Chelsea Square was planned to include open space, in this case, two teardrop-shaped areas of grass with curbs that defined the space. The Stebbins Fountain was constructed in 1897 and named for banker and Mayor of Chelsea, Isaac Stebbins, who bequeathed the funds for its construction to the city. He was also responsible for the Stebbins Block of buildings constructed nearby. The Fountain was deliberately positioned in the Square so that, as dictated by the conditions of Stebbins’ will, “both man and beast might drink from it.” Though the 1908 fire destroyed many significant buildings in the city, it stopped short of Chelsea Square, preserving many historic properties here.
The Chelsea Ferry crosses Chelsea Creek with a view of Admirals Hill in the mid-19th century with both the Naval and Marine Hospitals. The Chelsea (Winnisimmet) Ferry was founded in 1631 and operated until 1917. For nearly three centuries the ferry moved passengers, animals and goods back and forth between Boston’s North End and Chelsea and was a hugely important lifeline to Boston and the surrounding cities. The Chelsea Naval Hospital was constructed of Vermont granite and commissioned in 1836. The hospital served naval personnel and others through four wars. When it was decommissioned in 1974 it was the oldest naval hospital in service in the US. Notable patients included Presidents John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy.
Lewis Howard Latimer was a mid 19th century African-American inventor who grew up in Chelsea. Latimer was the youngest of four children born to escaped slave George and Rebecca Latimer. At age 16, during the Civil War, Latimer enlisted in the US Navy. After the war, Latimer returned to Boston and accepted a menial position at the Crosby and Gould patent law office. Here he was able to teach himself mechanical drawing and drafting and eventually moved to New York. An important Black inventor in history, Latimer’s most notable patent was for the carbon filament used in the incandescent lightbulb. Latimer worked closely with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.
The start of the Industrial Era in Chelsea is noted with images of the Chelsea Clock building, as well as the large Chelsea clock in Bellingham Square. Founded in 1895 as Boston Clock Company, and renamed Chelsea Clock in 1897 by Charles Pearson, Chelsea Clock is America’s oldest clockmaker and clock repair shop. To this day, Chelsea Clock remains a foremost name in the industry, famous for its Ship’s Bell model with 12-hour chime movement.
The manufacturing plants in the background include the Forbes Lithograph Manufacturing Co., which was located on Chelsea Creek. Founded in 1862 in Boston, Forbes moved to Chelsea in 1884 where its factory complex spread over 18 buildings. Forbes Lithograph grew into one of the largest lithograph companies in the United States with branches in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. Their wide-ranging work included posters, tickets, tags, embossing and more, even producing banknotes for the Free French government during World War II. The company was sold in the 1960s and the Chelsea plant was closed. Two French Canadian workers stand in front of the Forbes building. From 1840 through 1930 thousands of French Canadians immigrated to communities across New England to escape poverty in Canada, many of them to Chelsea. They were devoted to their religion, their new homeland, and their community.
Two young Polish American girls from the Chelsea Polaski festival in Chelsea Square dance. Beside them is pictured the founder of Kayem, Polish immigrant Kazimierz Monkiewicz, driving the horse drawn wagon. Between 1870 and 1914 thousands of Polish immigrants settled in Chelsea, contributing to the community and to the industrial growth of the city. Kazimierz Monkiewicz and his wife Helena founded Kayem Foods, a premier brand of meats, in 1900. For over 100 years Kayem has been family-owned and operated in Chelsea, employs many of its residents, and is the home of the “Fenway Frank” and other quality prepared meats.
An elderly Italian-American street vendor is pictured selling tomatoes in front of the Chelsea Clock, representing Italian immigrants who made their living in Chelsea during this period selling ice, milk, vegetables and fruit. As the vendors made their way down the streets pushing their carts, they called out their products in Italian and English.
An early 20th century newsboy hawking newspapers holds a copy of an April 13, 1908 edition with headlines about the first Great Chelsea Fire that devastated the city. The fire started in the Boston Blacking Company, on the Everett line. A forty mile an hour wind sparked flames in nearby wood-framed houses. Only when the flames came up to the edge of Chelsea Creek did the devastation stop. In this tragedy, 350 acres were burned, 15,000 were left homeless and 19 people were killed. Community institutions including City Hall, schools, and churches were demolished. The community rallied to care for one another as residents opened their homes to their displaced neighbors. Pictured here are images of Chelsea people lining up for assistance, as well as images showing the destruction of churches such as St. Rose and St. Stanislaus.
An early 20th century newsboy hawking newspapers holds a copy of the Chelsea Record newspaper from October 1973 when a second devastating fire destroyed much of Chelsea. The fire started less than 200 yards from the 1908 fire in an area of machine shops and wooden buildings. Accelerated by dry, high winds, within two hours of its inception the fire engulfed eighteen city blocks. Chelsea’s firefighters were joined by 111 other fire departments. In the aftermath of the fire, residents, businesses and the city itself needed to rebuild once more.
This is a trio of heroic Chelsea firefighters. The reference photo for this drawing was taken by Arnie Jarmak during a fire in 1978. On the right, wearing the #1 helmet is James (Jimmy) Grafon. He was a Lieutenant on Group 4 E2 and went on to serve as a Captain on ladder #1. He was also a training officer for the department. Harry Ells worked Engine #4. Many years later his son, Edward, followed in his footsteps and became a Chelsea firefighter. Holding the flashlight is George Ostler, who worked as a firefighter until September 1983. In retirement he devoted many years to the care of the archives at the Chelsea Public Library. His daughter, Mary Bourque, served the city as Superintendent of Schools.
These images represent the Chelsea Jewish community through the early twentieth century, when Chelsea was predominantly Jewish. The “call and response theme” is illustrated by a Jewish woman with a Shofar, a ram’s horn blown at the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Ellen Rovner, who grew up in Chelsea’s Jewish community and remain active in it today, posed for the depictions. Through research, advocacy and walking tours, Ellen tells the history of Chelsea’s Jewish past and continuing outreach for those fleeing persecution.
These images represent the Chelsea Jewish community through the early twentieth century, when Chelsea was predominantly Jewish. Ed Medros is shown carrying the Torah scroll, the sacred writings of the Jewish faith. Ed is a long time member of the Walnut Street synagogue. He grew up just steps from this mural in Veterans Park, in housing that was once near Fifth Street and Walnut. Today, the site is beneath Route 1.
The building is the Walnut Street Synagogue, rebuilt after the 1908 fire. It is known as the “Queen of Synagogues” because of its majestic sanctuary and elaborate, hand-painted ceilings and walls. It is home to a Torah Ark built by Sam Katz and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Chelsea-born Armando Anthony “Chick” Correa, of Italian descent, is shown playing keyboard in front of the Walnut Street Synagogue. A world renown jazz pianist and winner of 23 Grammy Awards, Correa was introduced to the piano by his Dad at the age of 4. He went on to perfect his percussion-style use of the piano with famed musicians Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
Katz Bagels remains one of the still thriving Jewish businesses in Chelsea. Richard Katz (who carries on the 70 year tradition of his father) is shown making the Pizza bagel, which his father invented in the 1970’s.
The beloved Jewish delicatessen, Murray and Eddy’s, was a political and social meeting place for Chelsea’s leaders until its closing in 1979. Two of the brothers are pictured standing in front of their eccentric menu board. A corn beef sandwich and matzo ball soup are displayed on the counter.
A group of Chelsea Puerto Rican children eat ice cream they got from a neighborhood truck. In the 1970s new residents from Puerto Rico built a Spanish speaking community here. The 1980s photo used as a reference for the mural was taken by Arnie Jarmak, the photographer for the Chelsea Record through much of the 80s and 90s. The ice cream truck was parked just outside the offices of the Chelsea Record on Fourth Street at Cherry. Arnie reports that he saw these children all the time because they lived just on the other side of Broadway at Fourth and Division Streets. For him, “young kids getting an ice cream from a truck in summer is a timeless image”.
A Central American child is raised up by many different hands, to symbolize the community coming together. For generations immigrants have made a home in Chelsea with the hope of making a better life for themselves and their families.
A woman makes pupusas, a typical Salvadoran dish made from cornmeal dough and filled with a variety of beans, cheeses and meats. The woman depicted here is Yenis Hernandez.
Members of the Chelsea Somali community wear traditional clothing. Maryan Hassan holds her niece with her sister, Hoden, beside her and Yahya Noor in the back. The reference photo used here was from a day when they volunteered at the Chelsea Community Garden with other members of the Healthy Chelsea Coalition. They represent the promise of the growing Somali community in Chelsea.
Salvadoran dancer, Carmen Villalta, is dressed in a traditional costume of blue and white, the colors of the flag of El Salvador. Carmen and members of her family emigrated to America to escape the violence in her homeland. She is an engaged member of the Chelsea community.
This is a scene of kayakers from GreenRoots on the Chelsea Creek with the Tobin Bridge in the background. GreenRoots is an environmental justice organization that engages residents to improve public health. Projects include caring for natural areas, expanding greenspace and advocating for climate resiliency. At the bow of the kayak is Sarah Levy, a Transit Justice Organizer with Maria Belen Powers, Co-Director of the organization, at the stern.
Pictured here are gardeners from several Chelsea gardens. Founded in 1996, Chelsea Community Garden gives residents of densely populated Chelsea the opportunity to grow their own vegetables and flowers while interacting with other gardeners and cultures from around the world. Enesa Skopjak, an immigrant from Bosnia, is shown with a gourd curling around her shoulders. A particularly active member at the garden, especially in caring for the raspberries, she has a strong interest in nature and shares her knowledge generously.
Members of the Chelsea community respond to the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic by distributing food to hungry residents. The image represents how the community rose up to meet the immense needs in 2020 in so many ways. Among the groups leading major food assistance programs were La Colaborativa, an organization that provides a range of support programs for Latinx immigrants related to social and economic health. Faith-based groups cared for all without discrimination, most notably the Salvation Army, St Luke’s (San Lucas) Episcopal Church, Revival Church and the SELAH center at Nuestra Iglesia La Luz de Cristo. Among the individuals depicted here distributing food from those groups are: Father Edgar A. Gutiérrez-Duarte of Saint Luke’s Church, Reverend Elaine Mendes of Revival Church and Gladys Vega, Roy Avellaneda and Margarita Franco with La Colaborativa.
Chelsea residents are at play at Mary O’Malley State Park, the former grounds of the Chelsea Naval Hospital. Mary O’Malley was active in Chelsea community affairs in the 1960s and was a long-time advocate of Chelsea Naval Hospital Park and chair of the Chelsea Naval Advisory Board. She died in 1978 and the Park was dedicated to her in 1984 for the enjoyment of all residents. The park has spectacular views of the Tobin Bridge and beyond to Charlestown.
The signature water tower once stood beside the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. The Soldiers’ Home opened its doors to Massachusetts veterans of the Civil War in 1882 and continues to care for those who served in the American military. The iconic water tower, for so long a Chelsea landmark, was taken down in 2019 to make room for new and expanded facilities.
A Quetzal bird, native to Central America and the national bird of Guatemala, flies up and over the scene. The bird alludes to the arrival of recent Latino immigrants to Chelsea, but also to the Phoenix rising from the ashes to represent the revival and reinvention of the city. The bird is symbolic of rebirth, hope, renewal, progress, and the end of oppression.
The far left of the mural represents youth in the present, focused on the future and the desire for social change, an aspiration strongly communicated by the Chelsea high school students who participated in the community meetings for this mural. Jayde Umemba, the young woman on the megaphone, was one of the organizers of the Chelsea rally for Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020. Jayde grew up in Chelsea, the daughter of Joan Cromwell (a long time advocate for the people of Chelsea, and President of Chelsea Black Community, an organization dedicated to outreach and service). After the peaceful rally, and in order to hold the city of Chelsea accountable for meaningful change, Jayde and the organizers of the rally drew up a series of resolutions to address systemic inequities in the city and presented them to the City Council. In this mural, Jayde represents a new generation of activists, dedicated to thoughtful action and pursuing the goal of equality and justice to benefit all in the community.
Luis Pehna, a young Honduran American man, blows a conch shell. The shell is a traditional musical instrument found throughout Central and South America, as well as in Asia. He performed in a community festival in Chelsea Square. The sound of his horn echoes across the city with a spirit of joy and harmony.
The tower of Chelsea City Hall appears at the top of the mural. In the summer of 2021 the landmark tower was repaired with a restoration of the clock, repairs to the brick, and gilding.
The green girders of the Tobin Bridge rise up over the mouth of the Mystic River. The Maurice J. Tobin Memorial Bridge, completed in 1950, is an engineering marvel, a primary link between downtown Boston and communities on the north shore, and a regional landmark. It soars 110 feet over Boston’s inner harbor to allow for the 65,000 cars, trucks and crossing to between the shores of Charlestown and Chelsea and the unhindered movement of waterway traffic below. In Chelsea, the highway bisects the city as its road deck rises beside homes, businesses and industrial areas as it skims Chelsea’s downtown and reaches the waterfront.