INTERVIEWER: Today's February 25, 2016, and I'm Joe McMaster. As part of the MIT Infinite History Project, we're talking with Cambridge mayor Denise Simmons.
Mayor Simmons is a lifelong resident of Cambridge, owner of a small business in the city, and was first elected to the Cambridge City Council in 2001. She's currently serving her eighth term on the Cambridge City Council. And this is her second term as mayor of the city, having also served in that position from 2008 to 2009.
In her decades in public office and public service, Mayor Simmons has been a strong advocate for her constituents and for preserving and creating affordable housing, a vibrant and robust local economy, public safety, better schools, and much more. She attended the Cambridge Public Schools, holds a Bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and a graduate degree in psychotherapy from Antioch College.
Congratulations on your recent re-election.
SIMMONS: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: And thanks for speaking with us today.
SIMMONS: Thank you. My pleasure.
INTERVIEWER: So for people who don't know Cambridge city government that well, how does the mayoral election work? It's not a popular vote. It's somewhat different, I guess.
SIMMONS: Yes. The way we vote in Cambridge is through a process called proportional representation. It's if you think of a list of things and you list them in order of your preference or what you like the most to what you like the least, and that's how we vote.
And if you get 10% of the votes cast, you can win. And if you don't, through a process of elimination, you get to what's called quota-- and I'm really doing this shorthand-- you get elected.
Now, once you're elected, once nine members of the Council have been elected, over that next two months, November and December, they will negotiate or figure out ways to become mayor, those who want to. And so it was a real pleasure and honor this particular term to be voted as mayor unanimously on the first vote. That was historical in a lot of ways because usually it takes more than one ballot and sometimes many, many months, or I should say many, many weeks.
INTERVIEWER: Wow. So that's wonderful. Congratulations.
SIMMONS: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Were things different in Cambridge at this point? You're clearly a very popular candidate here, so how did this come about this way?
SIMMONS: Well, I think my colleagues respect me. I am very collaborative, try to make sure that we work together because at the end of the day, we're not here for our own purposes. We're here to serve the citizens. And keeping that in front of us, keeping people to sort of create a spirit of collaboration and coordination.
And people know my work and believe and know that that's the way I like to work. And being on the Council for a long time and having a Council that's about a third new, it was an opportunity to have someone who kind of knew the terrain, knew how the Council worked, but also has a good appreciation for those people that bring new and different ideas. So I think I was a good choice.
INTERVIEWER: Great. Absolutely, yeah. So now, you grew up in Cambridge. Is that right?
SIMMONS: I did.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe you can tell me about that, because you grew up right in this very part of Cambridge, as I understand it.
SIMMONS: Well, Cambridge has really changed since I was born. And when I was very, very young, I actually lived on Sidney Street, which is an MIT property now-- so MIT's been in my life for a very long time-- at the corner of Sidney-- I'm trying to see it in my mind's eye-- Sidney and Erie Street. And that building is very, very long gone.
But for most of my life, in childhood and adult life, it's always been in this part of the city in The Port, what we call The Port and what we have now we named as The Port. And so in the area of Newtowne Court, Suffolk Street, Worcester Street, Columbia Street, that's where I grew up and that's where I now live.
So I grew up there, moved for a very short period to what we call The Coast or Cambridgeport , and then moved back to The Port about 20 years ago-- no, longer than that-- 40 years ago-- and lived there ever since. And I love it there. It's a wonderful community.
It's always been a close-knit community. And although it's changed, we still kind of hold onto that. And so I often say MIT's in our community as opposed to we're in MIT's community. MIT is a part of our community, and we enjoy having the college and the campus around it.
In fact, I remember growing up as a kid and my very good friends-- unfortunately, they're both gone now-- the Dickerson sisters, Laurie Dickerson and Jackie Dickerson, every Sunday, we would get dressed up in our Sunday best. And we'd walk down to MIT and go through the hallways and go to the architecture department and sit in the lobby. And sometimes we ran up and down the halls, but not often. Going to Killian Court when the weather was really nice.
And we would take lots of pictures. And I was just thinking the other day, there's this a picture of me standing in the hallway of the library in my Easter Sunday best because in those days, your parents very often would make your clothes. And my mother was no different, so she had made me this outstanding blue cape. And there I was standing in the hallway of MIT with my brand new shoes from Corcoran's, which is very, very long gone, on one of our trips to MIT.
So for me, growing up in Cambridge, MIT was sort of like my playground. It was part of my backyard and I really enjoyed it. And it has changed a great deal, of course. But a lot of it hasn't changed, particularly a lot on the campus hasn't changed.
And so sometimes when I get the opportunity, and I don't get it as often as I used to, I walk down and say gosh, I remember this. I remember when we did this-- and fond memories.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, that's great. Well, and it's interesting that it's an open campus and-- I don't know. That's an important part of the dynamic, I would think, with the city.
SIMMONS: It is a very open campus. And so for me, there was never a line that said this is where the neighborhood starts and the campus starts. As I said, when I was a younger woman, we would walk through the campus.
And when I got to be more of an adult, I would go onto the campus and use the gym. Now, I'm not saying I was supposed to be there, but the campus was very open. And I would go into the building on a number of days and walk around the gym.
And then when I got older, another whole decade or so, when they laid the outdoor track, a friend of mine, we'd get there every morning, say we need to get out, we need to exercise. And we would come down to the MIT track and go around the tracks several times, several times.
And then later on-- I guess we have really a tradition-- when the museum came online-- I would bring my children to the MIT Museum-- my grandchildren, I should say, and not so much my children because I wasn't there at the time. But when my grandchildren came of age, we would go to the museum. So we have a strong tradition of hanging out at the campus at MIT.
INTERVIEWER: That's great. So you mentioned the area's changed a lot and Cambridge has changed a lot. What comes to mind in particular? How's it changed in your experience?
SIMMONS: Well, it's changed in terms let's look at ground-floor retail. When I was growing up, we had about three or four local retail stores where you could buy clothing. So we had Goorin's and Harvard Bazaar and we had Corcoran's and Salinger's. Salinger's was mostly for men.
But you had all these stores because people didn't all have cars. Everybody shopped in Central Square. You bought your groceries at Elm Farm or at Kennedy Butter & Egg. You, again, bought all your clothing there. There were a few restaurants-- Hayes-Bickfords-- not so many. We didn't eat out a whole bunch. And fast food wasn't as common. I'm talking back in the '50s and so.
But all that's gone. You can't do that in Central Square anymore. There's some conversation that we may have a Target, which would be great. But we don't have a place where-- you can't one-stop shop in Central Square.
And it's kind of broken up that feeling of community because that's where you met your neighbors. That's where you caught up on neighborhood events-- not only when you went to church and saw people, but just in the everyday coming and going. You could be in Central Square for a good hour, hour and a half, and just get a chance to engage with your neighbors.
And that doesn't happen as much. People now get in their cars and drive, or maybe take the train and they go to the CambridgeSide Galleria or they get in their car and drive to Watertown to do all that shopping and then maybe grab a bite to eat afterwards. But you don't have that feeling you once had in Central Square, and I really miss it. I miss that sense of community.
And I know as the City Council continues to talk about ways that we can bring that back, how do we bring people back to the Square? How do we bring families back to the Square, because again, it was a real meeting, gathering place years ago?
INTERVIEWER: Right, and it sounds like there are plans, various plans maybe, for different kinds of development in the Central Square area, I guess.
SIMMONS: There's lots of plans for development. And we're paying a lot of attention to the ground-floor retail to the degree that we can to bring that feel back again. I mentioned there's some talk about-- hopefully we'll get it-- a Target.
Now, I'm not saying Target's the be all and the end all, but it's a clothing store. It's a store where you can buy a number of things. You can buy a coat, a jacket, a shirt, sneakers, shoes. The things that we now have to go out to get, we'll be able to do that one thing.
We don't have the same kind of supermarket, but we do have some supermarkets. There's the Harvest. Whole Foods is not too far away. There's H Mart. So there's some semblance of the kind of supermarkets of 40 years ago.
But I'm hoping through our deliberate thinking and looking at the C2 Study, we can bring a little bit back of the older Cambridge while we enjoy the newer Cambridge-- places like Workbar. What our job as the City Council is to sort of balance the two-- bring back a little bit of what made Cambridge home to all of us that have been around for a while, while embracing the new technologies.
INTERVIEWER: All right. And how about the Kendall Square area? What was that like growing up?
SIMMONS: Well, Kendall Square in a lot of ways is very much the same as it was. And what I mean by that-- years ago, Kendall Square was our industrial center. That's where the factories were, the soap factories and woven hose, and shoe factories and things of that nature. And people came to work in Kendall Square. And so to a large degree, as my feeling about it, was it was a part of the lifeblood of Cambridge because that's where the industry was.
Well, that industry has now evolved in a very good way because it went from a place where the factories sort of died out, moved away, and it kind of became a place that people really didn't want to be. But over time, through the influence of the universities and research centers coming into Kendall Square and wanting to be close to where technology and industry and education wanted to be close together, it's really built it up.
Now, the other side of that is the same as in Central Square, is how do you embrace the new but also have enough that everyone feels that they can be in Kendall Square. Now, people come to Central Square, but I don't ever hear residents in Area Four-- excuse me, The Port, saying, god, I want to go to Kendall Square.
They'll go to Central Square to maybe eat, to take in some of the activities because there's lots of music venues in Central Square. But that doesn't happen quite in Kendall. And I'm hoping as that begins to develop-- and it's developing. It's clearly the technology innovation hub. But we also want it to be a place where people come to meet.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, and I guess there's this Kendall Square Initiative that's being worked on between MIT and city. And how does that figure into this, do you think?
SIMMONS: Well, again, as we had that discussion, MIT has its plan as a university and as an innovator. And our jobs, in my opinion, of the City Council is to balance that. One of the things I had said when we had those discussions was I want MIT to feel that they're in Cambridge and that Cambridge is in MIT. And people should feel comfortable going there. So there has to be ground-floor retail that speaks to all income levels and opportunities that engage.
So one of the things we talked about with the Kendall Square Business Association is maybe having like a gallery walk where local artists display their work, say, in store fronts. So that brings you down there. I don't know if there's a theater or a movie theater. You have the Kendall Square Movie Theater-- but things that will bring people to Kendall Square.
I know one of our squares has an ice skating rink. I think Kendall has one, as well. How do we get more of that, more opportunities for folks regardless of their income, can come to Kendall Square and find something to do? So we're having that conversation.
And it's on MIT in part, but it's also a part of what the city has to mandate. It has to say we want retails that everyone can enjoy, not just a six-figure income individual, but anybody-- so the grandmother, me. If I want to go into Kendall Square with my grandchildren, I want to be able to have an affordable dining experience, those kinds of things.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned The Port and Area 4 and then the name change, which is very interesting. I was wondering if you could describe how that came about.
SIMMONS: Well, growing up in Cambridge, Area 4 was always called The Port. We didn't call it Area 4. Area 4 was something I learned once I grew up and went to work for the city, that they called the neighborhood that I lived in Area 4.
Not only did I call it The Port, I grew up knowing it was The Port. My mother and her friends called it The Port, and my kids call it The Port. We never called it Area 4. Area 4 was this technical name that was given to this particular area of the city where we live, and it's one of those maps.
It's not a zoning map per se. But if it comes out of one of those community, citywide maps. And it kind of stuck as opposed to getting another name, like Cambridgeport, Mid-Cambridge. Area 4 stuck. And we really didn't like it because Area 4 is a police designation. It's not a community name.
And so we worked very hard and very long to bring it back to the name of The Port. And there's some people that are not so comfortable with it, and I understand it. They're new to Cambridge. They're new to the area. Area 4 sounds kind of catchy to them.
But for those of us that grew up here, we lived in The Port. And we want to bring back that name because it brings back that history that my fear is we lose. So when people say, well, why is it called The Port, it gets someone like myself or others to say, well, let me tell you how.
INTERVIEWER: Right. So I shouldn't say name change, I should say the resortation--
INTERVIEWER: Reclamation, yeah.
SIMMONS: Reclaimed name, yes.
INTERVIEWER: So you grew up here and went to schools in Cambridge. What was that like? How was that experience?
SIMMONS: Average, nothing exciting. To correct the record, I went to parochial school for nine years and then I went to the public high school. And in those days, where I lived, you had to live in the parish to go to whatever Catholic school.
So as my mother tells it, she asked me when I was about five, where do you want to go to school? And I said, I want to go there. And she said, OK, and she sent me to a parochial school. I said, wow. So I said to my mother, what if I said I wanted to go to school abroad? Would you have sent me?
But anyway, so the long and the short of it is that's how I ended up at the parochial school. I was there for nine years. Now, what was interesting about that was I was the only African-American-- for the nine years of schooling there, there were only two of us. I was the only African-American girl and there was one African-American guy. And we went to school the entire first to ninth grade being the only two.
So that was a bit different because the public schools were far better integrated than the Catholic schools. So that was interesting. So I didn't get to see my peers in terms of ethnically speaking until I came home. So that was different. Otherwise, it was pretty anti-climactic.
INTERVIEWER: And then what drew you to get a degree in sociology?
SIMMONS: Well, at that time, I really wanted to work with people and I couldn't figure out how just to do that. So I did a little research. And sociology seemed like that would give me the pivotability to go in a couple of different-- if I wanted to work in criminal justice or social work or social services, a sociology degree would give me the most leeway of the ability to go back and forth.
And when I got into college, I always had an interest in how can I help people? How can I do things for people? So that's why I went into sociology. It wouldn't be till after I graduated I realized that I should have went for a social work degree, but that's OK. It worked out fine.
INTERVIEWER: Did you go right on to the graduate degree, then, or did you work in between those two?
SIMMONS: I went right on to the graduate degree. It was a new graduate school. It's now called Cambridge College. At the time I went, it was Antioch. But why I chose it was because it matched your interest with your education.
What was interesting about going to college, and I still think stays the same for the most part, is you get all this academic information, but no practical information-- no what is it you wanted to do and how do you learn to do that? And so this particular school matched that, matched your interest in what you wanted to do with what you studied. Even though it was psychotherapy because at that point, I thought I wanted to be a psychotherapist, it matched the work I wanted to do with what I studied.
And for a while, for a very short while, I did some psychotherapy work in private practice-- not very long. I really decided it wasn't what I wanted to do. But that was why I chose that school.
INTERVIEWER: So where did you go after that? How did your career develop from there?
SIMMONS: Right after graduate school, I applied for a job with the City of Cambridge. And it was interesting, I didn't see the first time the job was advertised. The first time the job was advertised, it was advertised with an associate's degree.
I guess they didn't feel they had gotten a rich pool, I don't know. But they re-advertised it. When they advertised it the next time, they were looking for a master's degree, and mine was freshly minted.
So I went and applied for it, and I got the job. And that really got me into what I really wanted to do, which was work with people and provide advocacy. I worked for an organization called the Civic Unity Committee. And that committee had been started in 1945, appointed by the city manager to look at race relations.
And it was one of about 40 across the country. And its job was to, again, bring people together across religious and racial lines, but also to find pathways to make sure people were treated fairly. And in those days, in the '40s and '50s in particular, there was a great deal of segregation and racial unrest.
In my archives, it will tell you stories about what discrimination at the universities or at the Woolworths, the time blacks couldn't sit at the counters at Woolworths. African-Americans weren't being able to be housed wherever they wanted to. There were housing discrimination that you can live in The Port and you could live in The Coast, but you couldn't live in East Cambridge.
Even the organization did a study on landlord-- it's called the Landlady Study-- and looked at trends. And the trends would say landladies, if they owned property in the eastern or north or west Cambridge, tend not to rent to African-Americans. And so they did that kind of work. And so how do you get around that?
The organization ran institutes on racial understanding. We did community police relations. We did employment, housing, police community relations, and there was one other area that I can't think of at the time. But that's how right out of grad school I went and worked there for 10 years before I ran and won a seat on the school committee.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, so probably amazing, amazing experience, I would imagine.
SIMMONS: It was really amazing. In fact, for a short period of time, I actually thought about studying religion because I spent so much time working with the ethnic community and the religious community, I got in the practice of giving sermons, really being a main participant in religious services. And I really contemplated for a short time studying theology.
INTERVIEWER: So what took you into sort of the more political realm, then?
SIMMONS: Well, I was on the Civic Unity Committee as the executive director. And a group of us went before the school committee to ask the school committee to hire a full-time affirmative action officer. We're talking about now we're in the '80s. And I remember the school committee listened really attentively-- great ideas, shook their head.
And then when we walked out of the room, so did our issue. It just never took hold. The committee didn't take it up. And I said, well, how do you make a difference?
And I said maybe part of it is gathering people to support the issue, but then the other side is being on the other side to make sure that issue actually goes forward. It's not to say that the school committee turned a blind eye. It's just wasn't vigorous about let's carry this issue forward.
And so that's what made me think about the school committee. I ran, and it was a great experience. I ran, I lost.
INTERVIEWER: But you eventually--
SIMMONS: Then I ran again, and I lost.
SIMMONS: And then I ran again and I won. And actually, I took the seat of Fran Cooper. Frances Cooper, who was also an African-American woman, was serving and called me and said, I'm going to step down and would you be interested in-- I ran for her seat.
And when you look at the history of Cambridge in terms of the service of women and people of color, women had been serving since the 1880s, but not so much were women of color. So when I got to the school committee, I think I was the third woman of color to serve.
Yes, Henrietta Attles and Fran Cooper, then myself, followed by Robin Harris. And so we've had a person of color since 1982-- no, before then because Gus Solomon served on the school committee, as well.
But as I took these jobs and looked around and said, my goodness, the people of color are so underrepresented. So I was very pleased. That was another reason, was to kind of keep the tradition going of having a person of color serving in elected office, representing not people of color in particular, but representing people and making sure people of color were heard.
INTERVIEWER: Absolutely. Where do you think this-- because obviously, you have a very long and deep interest in working with the community and public service. Where does that come from?
SIMMONS: It actually came out of the Civic Unity Committee. First, as I said earlier, just an interest in service. And that developed even more so in the Civic Unity Committee because I was trying to open doors.
My favorite quote, and I don't know who the author of it is, but it's, give me a fish and I'll eat for a day. But teach me to fish, and I'll eat for a lifetime. So that became sort of my mantra.
How do we teach people to advocate for themselves, to be present, to stand up for their children, their neighborhood? And those were the kinds of things that I did when I was the executive director of Civic Unity-- going into neighborhoods and working with people to advocate for if you wanted a traffic light on your corner. But more so, it'd be around race issues-- more teachers of color, kids of color in advanced placement classes, jobs, increasing literacy in neighborhoods of color, in poor neighborhoods.
So it wasn't exclusively communities of color, but poor communities because The Port was always, if you looked at the socioeconomic status, was also one of the poorer communities. So I was living in that place where I saw the need and put my work to that, and that really came together as the executive director of the Civic Unity Committee.
INTERVIEWER: And then carried this forward, obviously.
SIMMONS: And just carried it forward to school committee. And when I was on the school committee, one of the things I feel very good about was with the family liaisons, we wrote the family engagement policy, which still stands today.
INTERVIEWER: And what is that?
SIMMONS: It just basically says, it's a rule of the school committee, that says parents can, will be engaged, and these are the ways. So we said that it's important. It'll be a policy of the school committee that families will be involved as much and as often as possible. Then the administration's job is to find ways to make that happen.
INTERVIEWER: And so from there, you went right on to-- well, right on to, after 10 years, I think you said--
SIMMONS: Yeah, right on to the city council after serving for 10 years. I always had an interest in the larger city issues, particularly housing, and I didn't have access to that. I could testify at any time to the city council about housing issues, but that was about it.
So I went to the city council primarily because of my keen interest still around fairness, but around housing. Housing people live low- and moderate-income means, having the ability to stay in Cambridge, which was hard in the '90s and 2000, and even harder now.
And so we continue to kind of do that work. But that was part of the reason why I had gone on to the city council. And there was a vacancy, so I took advantage of following my interest at the time that it'd be easier to get elected.
INTERVIEWER: So what kinds of things are you most proud of, or have you worked most on? And how have you advocated for housing?
SIMMONS: Well, I'm most proud of going back to my early days of being on the school committee, that family engagement, family involvement policy. And that's always been the bedrock of my work, so I'm most proud of that from that place.
I'm most proud of my work on the city council around housing and looking at our policies and our practices. We have been very good at finding ways to have as much affordable housing as possible. But for a very long time, our practice was one and two bedrooms, which really kind of discriminated or left families, larger families, out because a family that needed a three bedroom and sometimes a fourth, there was no place for them because we weren't developing. Or through our policies or inclusionary zoning, we weren't making those size units available.
So I'm very proud to have kind of worked toward making that happen. So now we do have more three bedrooms online and a few four bedrooms. So I'm very proud of that.
I'm very proud of a monument that I worked on called the Prince Hall Memorial. You may not know about Prince Hall, but he was an enslaved man and that bought his own freedom, was manumitted at age 44 and started Prince Hall Masonry, but in addition, opened the first school for Africans in the colonies and continued to fight to get Africans to fight in the Revolutionary War in the hope that they would win their freedom.
They did not, but he was that person that was in the front line to make that happen. And through my work, we have a monument to the work that he did on the Cambridge Common, so I'm very proud of that.
I'm proud about the work that I've done around getting the linkage fees changed, which was huge to making it available, monies available, for the Affordable Housing Trust so that we can fund more low- and moderate-income housing, and also proud of the work around wage equity-- making sure we've closed the loopholes for third-party contractors so that to and at third-party contractors so that they can not skirt around our wage requirement, which is paying the prevailing or a living wage to their contracted workers, just to name a few things.
INTERVIEWER: Very important stuff, though, for sure. Because going back to ways in which Cambridge has changed, which anyone who's been here for even a few years-- almost day to day, you see it in this area-- how do you balance that kind of growth, which is really explosive in some part of Cambridge?
SIMMONS: It's not easy, but you do it through your policies and your practices. And that's the hard work that we have to do. That's why to go back to my earlier point around why linkage was so important, why it's so important that what we do around condo conversions so that all our units don't convert to condos and then people are priced out because they're too high, too expensive to buy, our policies on inclusionary zoning, which we're trying to change, looking at our homeless policies, how do we get people off the streets and into homes.
But also in the center of all that has to be equity, that everyone regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, their age, who they choose to love, regardless of all that, they have an equal chance and equal opportunity. One of the things I hope that we get to do this term is to look at the intersection of housing and the economy so we can get a better balance, because Cambridge is changing.
And Cambridge can only develop through its development partners-- in other words, developers that build. And through our policy of inclusionary zoning and linkage, we can only get so much low- and moderate-income housing.
We have to also look at people with the 25 employers that employ people in Cambridge and outside of Cambridge, that they're paying a living wage, particularly to women, so that they can live in the city with or without the benefit of some of our housing subsidy programs.
INTERVIEWER: Right, because the challenge seems enormous.
SIMMONS: Huge, huge, huge.
INTERVIEWER: How do the changes in this area seem to you as someone who's lived here your whole life. And as I said, just in the last few years, you look around, certainly this area and the area between here and Lechmere, it's just--
SIMMONS: Again, it's happening at a pace to some degree that we can barely keep up, but we have to. We have to be as proactive as possible. We have to almost anticipate what's going to happen so that we can be poised to participate, be a part of it, have an impact on it.
And we want Cambridge to be affordable, so you can't put a shovel in the ground if you're not thinking about affordability. You can't put a shovel in the ground if you're not thinking about wage equality. Those are the kinds of things that the council has to think about and make sure it's part of our policies going forward.
So if a developer or a business, a large corporation wants to come to our city, they'll know what the playing field is. They'll know what the expectations are.
INTERVIEWER: One other aspect of your career, and we alluded to this in the beginning, in the introduction, is owning and operating a small business. Maybe you can tell me about that.
SIMMONS: Well, it's funny. When I was working for the city, I was about to be laid off. And that's when a friend of mine says, well, why don't you sell insurance? And I said, huh, insurance. Tell me more.
And we spoke about it. And I said, OK, maybe this might work, and it did. And it was interesting then, and maybe even now, I think I'm the only African-American woman that owns an insurance agency for however long, however long it may continue. But I did that for self-sufficiency because I was being faced with a possible layoff.
And what was I going to do? My children were still young. Where was I going to find a job close to home? So I made it happen. But they say necessity is the mother of invention. So I invented myself.
INTERVIEWER: How is Cambridge for people running and owning small businesses?
SIMMONS: It's sometime difficult. And it's not anything that Cambridge has to do. Commercial real estate is very, very expensive. I'm lucky. I've been in the same place for a very long time. So the rent's pretty stable, but not for everyone.
And so that's the challenge for anyone that wants to start a small or micro-business, is where do you find-- particularly it has to be ground floor, ground-floor space that's affordable, that's in a high pedestrian district so you're going to get some sort of, depending on what you do, you get passers by, as well as people that you market toward.
It's a challenge. You don't see as many small businesses. We still have something-- like University Stationery, family-owned business, or Izzy's, a restaurant family-owned business. But not as many of those anymore because it's just not easy to do.
INTERVIEWER: And then I read also that you are a justice of the peace, right?
SIMMONS: Uh-huh. That kind of goes back to my Civic Unity days because I spent so much time in the church, people thought I was a minister. And they would often say, oh, would you marry me? Would you officiate at my wedding? I said, I can't. I'm not a minister because I toyed with the idea of studying theology. And that would be part of what I would be able to do.
And I said, no, I don't think so. So I became a justice of the peace and do lots of weddings. I love doing weddings. There people are always happy. I don't advertise much. I do most of them by referral.
My daughter is now, my daughter Jada is a justice of the peace. So we have a daughter that works in the insurance agency and I have a daughter that's a justice of the peace. So we do it as a family.
I do a lot of same-gender weddings. Being an openly gay lesbian doesn't hurt and draws people to me. And so I have had an opportunity to do lots of weddings. And when you talk about things that I'm proud of, I'm proud of my city.
Back a little over a decade ago, I think, when we opened our doors at 12:00 midnight to same-gender couples so that they could get married, that was an outstanding experience. And it happened in the city that I grew up.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about that. Was that like, that experience, because you were on City Council?
SIMMONS: I was on the City Council at the time and we had just gotten the word, was back in I want to say November of-- I don't want to quote a year because I'm going to be wrong-- that same-gender weddings were going to be allowed in the Commonwealth. And I said, this is great, let's put in a council order. Let's start registering people today.
And then the governor said, oh, no. And it went before the legislature. So there was this long period where they were duking it out as to was it going to go on the ballot, were we going to allow it to happen? And it passed in the legislature that we would allow same-gender weddings. It would not go to the ballot.
And it was May, and that became a reality. We sat down in our city hall chamber and planned at the strike of 12:00-- think of being Cinderella-- at the strike of 12:00, instead of something bad, which would happen in Cinderella, something wonderful happened. The new sense of liberty and opportunity would open up to thousands and thousands of people.
So 4,000 people were out on the city hall lawn waiting and being there to cheer and say yay. And over 200 couples processed in. My wife and I were part of those couples. We didn't get married then because her brother was in Afghanistan at the time, so we postponed it. But it was just a wonderful experience. I really feel honored and privileged to be a part of that.
INTERVIEWER: And you were a first in some of those ways you just alluded to, certainly in Massachusetts.
SIMMONS: And the United States.
INTERVIEWER: In the United States, right. Tell me about that.
SIMMONS: Well, I didn't know. I became mayor and then someone says, do you know that you are the first openly gay African-American woman to be mayor in the country? And I said, wow, that's pretty good-- wasn't a goal, but I'm proud to have that, to be that. And what happened in that particular first year as mayor, I got a lot of phone calls of congratulation.
People wanted me to come and talk all the time, and particularly young people because this was a first. I actually had to start to decline because I could have stayed out of the city more than I was in the city.
But the most telling part was when a young lady came up to me. She was 16 years old. She said, I am so proud of you. I am so proud to see someone who is like me. I think I'm going to be able to come out to my parents. And I said, well, honey, if they are not going to support you, may want to hold off on that.
But the whole idea of her wanting and feeling empowered was really tremendous. I felt like not only was I the mayor of Cambridge, I was a mayor of a whole bunch of other folks that said I am now liberated because there's someone who is like me. I feel strong about coming out. I feel strong about maybe being in elected office or being involved in my community. It's a really great experience.
INTERVIEWER: Sounds like it. Has it been easy? Maybe that's the wrong word, but Cambridge is, of course, a very open and accepting place. But nonetheless, how has that experience been?
SIMMONS: It's been pretty easy. It's been pretty easy. Cambridge is very liberal, very progressive, very proactive. Opening the doors at midnight before any other city. That's very proactive.
It was also before we did that, we had domestic partnerships. Before that, we were one of the first cities to have a pride day. I think it was when Alice Wolf was mayor that we opened the doors, and we've been doing that ever since.
And so it was easier. It's been harder when I was younger as an African-American girl finding equity than it was as an adult being openly gay. I've had my bumps. But for the most part, it's not been too difficult.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I'm sure many people look up to you for these things. What's sort of on your agenda? Now that you're in the mayor's office again, what's kind of on your agenda? What's on your mind these days?
SIMMONS: So the agenda hasn't changed. I'm still working for fairness and equity. That's very important to me. It's important for me for our children, not just for children of color, but for children, that they live in a society where people feel that they have the right and opportunity to do, be whatever they want to be. So that work is still there.
I still am working, going to work very hard on issues of housing. This last term, we wanted to get to inclusionary zoning to change the formula. We weren't able to do that last term. We had a really hard winter.
So a lot of the meetings were cancelled. I lost a very good friend and colleague, Brian Murphy. He was the deputy city manager of community development, and that's the department that handles our housing. He died very suddenly, much too young. But that slowed the work down, and so there was a lot of stuff that was left on the table.
At the end of the last term, I did a report. And so it's picking that up. So we can look at, as I mentioned earlier, our condo conversion practices, our inclusionary zoning, our eligibility requirements, are there ways for us to be a little bit more proactive around moderate-income housing in particular, what's going to happen on the Volpe site in Kendall Square?
So that's that piece. There's the fairness piece. And then there's gender equity-- really making sure that we are a model of fair wages to women in particular. Women very often are the lead person, head of the household. And if they're being underpaid, then we're impoverishing not only that family, but a whole generation of individuals, so looking at that.
So that's just a few of the things. And then, of course, there's the facilitating the process of the city council and the school committee. On the school committee side, looking at fairness of the city council.
How do we close the opportunity and the education gap? How do you make sure that parents not only are involved, but are informed and involved, because the two are not necessarily intertwined? A parent can be involved, but not necessarily informed. We want them to be both.
INTERVIEWER: And you had an interesting program that I know you started a number of years ago for girls in the city, is that right?
SIMMONS: It's still running.
INTERVIEWER: It's still running? Tell me about that.
SIMMONS: I started it when I was mayor the first time and it was called the Mayor's Girls Leadership Program. And with Eva Martin Blythe of the YWCA, we jump-started it again. And at the time we started, which was last year, I was not the mayor. So we said we can't call it the Mayor's Program. And it sounds kind of boring, Girls Leadership.
So I think it was Emily Shields that came up with this name, GOLD-- Girls Only Leadership Development. It's a wonderful name, I think. And what we try to do is teach girls how to advocate for themselves how can they be leaders in their own right, how to take care of themselves, how do they as eighth-grade girls look at their high school experience with an eye toward a career, not just going to college, because we've found, and you probably can appreciate this, the last time you called your electrician or plumber, you said, maybe I should have been an electrician or a plumber-- for the money that you pay them.
So girls don't always have to look at going to college and going into the "typical" fields. They can think about going into high school with an eye toward a career, but how do you advocate for yourselves to make sure you get those opportunities?
In our one high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which is a wonderful school, there's wonderful opportunities. But if you don't know where to find them, if you're not strong and advocate for yourself, you could miss them.
So that's the purpose of this program. And Eva and I shepherded the program for a while. We now can back away. Sort of she and I and Neal Alpert and Anna Wike, we were kind of holding it together. We now have this young woman, Simone, that's running it. And it's really taken off and really pleased with it. And I heard from a few of the girls from the earlier years, and they're doing extraordinarily well. And they say, I really appreciate that the program-- and their parents come in to us and say, we really appreciate you doing this program.
So it's a labor of love. It's hard work, but now we have staff and we're moving forward and very proud of what we've been able to do so far.
INTERVIEWER: That's great, sounds fantastic.
INTERVIEWER: How many participants?
SIMMONS: We have about 30.
INTERVIEWER: Great, great. Getting back to sort of the Cambridge and MIT relationship, I'm kind of curious about that and how maybe you've seen that. Or has it developed or changed over the years since when you were growing up and in your early career and now these days? And I don't know-- how would you describe that relationship and that story?
SIMMONS: It waxes and wanes. And what I mean by that-- from one perspective, neighborhoods get very concerned about how the university grows and encroaches on the city and their access to it. So that's one piece. And MIT as an institution has to continue to work at being a really good, open-handed, reaching out to the community neighbor.
The neighborhood has to be encouraged. And again, MIT has to welcome-- but to be encouraged to come into MIT, come onto the campus through-- well, we used to have Area 4 Day and if we reinstitute it, it'll be Port Day-- but the idea that I started that action, the idea was to get the community comfortable with being on the campus for a whole bunch of reasons.
If students are on the campus, can feel it and taste it and touch it, they may think about maybe this is where I want to go to school because it becomes a reality-- because it's not this walled off place to them. And so we really have to continue to work it.
And I'm not saying that the institution doesn't give. It's how do we make sure that it gives in a way that really has benefit to the community, has the community feel welcomed on the campus, and continue to build that strong relationship. And that has to be deliberate and worked on. It's not going to happen on its own.
INTERVIEWER: You say it sort of waxes and wanes, I guess?
SIMMONS: Well, it depends on what it is. So when we talked about the development of MIT down the Main Street corridor, that really got people's backs up in the neighborhood because they felt like MIT was taking more and more of Cambridge. And so that wasn't a really good feeling.
So what MIT is going to have to do to build community trust is to continue to underwrite programs, to invite people on the campus. It could be Port Day at Technology Square-- not so much the Volpe site because that doesn't belong to any of us. But how do we get people in the neighborhood in front of Kresge having a picnic?
And there are lots of things that MIT already does. They Support Science Club for Girls. They do things with the Fletcher Maynard Academy. But there's always more that we can do to develop that rich community feeling.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, and Cambridge is certainly an interesting and kind of unusual place, obviously, too, with all these different academic institutions.
SIMMONS: But we have to get better at lining it up. There are some, say-- let's take schools, for instance-- some schools might be better at the ask than, say, another school. So how do we even that?
And there are two or three schools and preschools in the neighborhood that abut up against MIT. How does the campus, how do the professors, how do the students get more involved in a way that we can quantify, we can look back and say, we gave a million hours worth of volunteer effort, we did The Port cleanup day, we did-- I want to say every focus group i have been saying it so long-- we did Port Pride Day, we supported computers for the fourth graders, we underwrote the trip-- Fletcher Maynard Academy takes their fifth grade out of the country every year. So we supported them in part going out of the country. We brought our professors into the classroom.
There's so many ways that we can do it, and we have to be a little bit more organized at it. I know it happens, but I don't know it happens. I have to find out. I have to ask, say, Sarah Gallup or Paul Parravano, what's going on? Or they'll come and tell me, or I'll go to the Kendall Square breakfast or I'll go to the Margaret Fuller House.
But there's got to be other ways that the community feels that, wow, it is wonderful that MIT is here. We have really got to benefit. Maybe there's some program where it says that the kindergartners from Fletcher Maynard Academy end up all and in part going to MIT. Somehow we have to make the community feel that MIT is a part of the community in a way the enriches our lives.
INTERVIEWER: Very important, yeah. Tell me about-- I was going to say in Central Square, you touched on that briefly. But what are your hopes for-- well, and even beyond Central Square-- Central Square, Kendall Square. What are your hopes there for the development of the community as a whole?
SIMMONS: Well, let's look at the ground-floor retail. So one of my hopes, and I mentioned this earlier, is that I can go into Kendall Square with my three-year-old granddaughter and we can find something to do and that we could sit down and have lunch.
And there's no library in Kendall Square. There's no parks in Kendall Square. And there's no affordable eatery in Kendall Square, so she and I are not going to go there. We'll go to Central Square and we'll go the library because there's two libraries.
There's the Central Square Library with a wonderful children's room, and then there's our gorgeous state of the art library closer to Harvard Square. I want Kendall Square, MIT, and Central Square to be more where I can do things with my grandchildren, where we can walk and do it, our bike and do it.
I know across the city, we do arts in the park. And where's that open space maybe when I think they call it Pork Chop Park-- it has a weird name right now-- when that comes online, that's a place where she and I can sit.
Now, right now, we do the Caribbean Carnival. And that's wonderful, but we have to have more opportunities where I can feel it I want to go to Kendall Square and do something as opposed to walk through it or find my way to the T station so I could go in town or go to Porter Square. We need more of that.
Now, we have a little bit of a blank canvas in that Central Square is on the move. It's just beginning to evolve, but making sure it evolves in such a way that everyone regardless of who they are, where they are from an income perspective, can enjoy these squares.
Kendall Square's really-- they have a beautiful rooftop garden. No one knows it's there. I go. I do a lot of weddings there. But most people don't. I take my granddaughters there. And we hang out with a book and we bring our lunch and we sit there and we hang out a little bit. We need more of those opportunities.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, that's an interesting place. I came across that quite by accident. Beautiful, though-- beautiful. Thinking about this, 2016, being the 100th anniversary of MIT in Cambridge, I'm just sort of wondering if you have any sort of thoughts about that last 100 years or kind of the future--
SIMMONS: Think more of the future than I think about the last 100 years. And I do like history a lot. But I think of going forward, I want to see a campus that's exciting for everyone. And so I want to see more interaction from the MIT community.
I can't think of anything off the top of my head, but picnics and outdoor activities, kids being able to use that state of the art athletic pool, if that's the right way to say it. There's a lot here that doesn't take a lot to make happen-- a brother, sister program where students are coming and working in the schools, taking the kids onto the campus, inviting parents, bring your picnic basket and hear a concert, those kinds of things.
And then, of course, when the Main Street part of MIT gets developed, we'll go back to having some kind of activity or-- I won't say museum, because that's not quite what I mean-- something that engages the community, some sort of active space that people can come and sit. And it could be another open plaza.
I know we talked about it a little bit. There was some conversation about having a plaza where people might be able to in the summer-- it has a big like, what do they call them? Duplitrons? Whatever it is-- that large, large, large-- Jumbotron that's out there and you're watching Lion King and there's free popcorn and a vegetarian hot dog stand, something like that.
Whatever-- because people will feel comfortable in a place that they're invited to go. And then you can talk about all the rich and wonderful things that are happening-- finding cures for cancer and diabetes and hypertension, all the wonderful work that happens right here that infects the lives of the people that live right here, and no one knows about it. And no one comes to see about it.
The Koch building has all this interesting stuff on the first floor that speaks to the research. I don't know what it means. How do we bring people in through some sort of event and say, you know what this represents? This represents a cure for cancer. And people say, wow, that's happening here? Didn't know it.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, interesting. You mentioned sort of museums, and I read you have sort of an idea about a Cambridge Museum?
SIMMONS: Yeah. As Cambridge changes, how do we remind people, teach people, engage people about what it was before? People come and find this Cambridge and they think that's what Cambridge is. And they don't know about the Cambridge that preceded all of this, and have some way to-- some visual representation of the history and the culture.
Cambridge wasn't always 60-foot buildings and research and development. It didn't have MIT. It was grassy area where native peoples lived, and there's no representation of that, or the bridges that were built. I think it's the Longfellow Bridge, which was what was the first bridge that brought Cambridge and Boston together.
But I know that because I seek out that information. But generally speaking, people don't know it. My family probably knows it because I drill it into their head and every time we go down the street, I remind them. But generally speaking, people don't know that.
People don't know about the first African-American who studied architecture here that helped build Tuskegee Institute. No one knows that. It's in the architecture department of MIT, but no one sees it.
So how do we get that out? And I think it helps build cultural understanding and appreciation of people when you know who they were and what they contributed.
INTERVIEWER: Absolutely. What do you think it would take to create a Cambridge museum like this?
SIMMONS: A building and lots of money.
INTERVIEWER: You think we might see that?
SIMMONS: Oh, absolutely. If I can build a monument to Prince Hall, I think I can get a museum going. And there's a lot of interest with people. So that's another opportunity to put people together, people that have been here for a while and people that have skills that have just gotten here and bring them together and say, help us build this legacy.
INTERVIEWER: The history of Cambridge is so rich for so long.
SIMMONS: Yeah, it is. It is.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned a granddaughter a few times.
INTERVIEWER: You have other grandchildren?
SIMMONS: I have five. But I have two little ones, Celia and Seematti, and they're my running buddies. And we go out and do lots of things together. One doesn't wear me out as much as the other. The two-year-old is a ball of energy and kind of wears me out.
Then I have my two other granddaughters, Aziana and Tara. Aziana is at HCBU doing really well. And when she comes home, I constantly talk to them about the history of Cambridge. In fact, there's a running joke in my family about don't go to movies with me because I'm always trying to get-- that really didn't happen, this is what happened, your grandmother went to school with the Tuskegee Airmen. That did not happen. So no one goes to movies with me anymore.
INTERVIEWER: So you're telling them about your mother?
SIMMONS: I'm telling them about my mother. Or even we walk down the-- like they know about the Prince Hall Monument because I took them and I said, look at this and read the quotes. You know who Mumbet was? Do you know who this is? Do you know why that happened?
Do you know the relationship between the Prince Hall Monument and the Irish Famine Memorial, because the gentleman that is named in the Irish Famine Memorial was related-- not related, blood related, but interacted with Prince Hall. And these are things that you have to know.
INTERVIEWER: And you mentioned your mother went to Tuskegee. Is that right?
SIMMONS: Yes, she went to Tuskegee.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about that.
SIMMONS: So my mother, who grew up in the South, was born in the South. Her and her family had to move to Tuskegee. So they came out of a little town called Claxton, Georgia. You blink, you'd miss it. That's how small it was.
But when my grandfather was hurt in an auto accident, being he was a veteran but because of segregation, he was not allowed to go to the VA hospital in Georgia. The only black VA hospital was in Tuskegee, and that's how they came to go to Tuskegee.
And they bought a farm because my grandmother's father, who was born enslaved around 1863, when through Emancipation Proclamation they were freed, he taught himself how to read, bought a farm, and bought a lot of land, which he gave to his children. So she took her land, sold it, and bought a house in Tuskegee, where she raised her children, was able to be close to her husband in Tuskegee.
And so it was important for her because she had gone to high school. She didn't complete it, but she had gone to high school. She wanted her children, to make sure they finished high school and went on to college.
So my grandmother and her brother-- her brother just passed this last-- this is February-- January. He was 90 years old. They both had gone, but she was the first, my mother, that went to Tuskegee Institute. And she knew Booker T. Washington, talked about him often.
INTERVIEWER: And what did she study?
SIMMONS: Well, this is the sad story, actually. My mother was quite bright, but she was regulated-- no, she was pushed. Let's take that regulation word out. So my mother was quite bright and had gotten a scholarship to come to Simmons and to NYU, but her mother wouldn't let her leave. She insisted that the city was too big for a woman, that she should stay close to home, she should study home economics and become a teacher.
My mother hated home economics. She did not want to teach, but she did what she was told. And when she graduated shortly thereafter, she left and came to Boston. And it's so funny because she said I remember coming over the Mass Avenue Bridge and seeing MIT-- this is just exactly what she said-- and said, this is where I want to live. I don't get it, but that was the story she told.
INTERVIEWER: So she settled here?
SIMMONS: She was the only one of all the people that migrated from the South, and they all migrated from the same basic area-- none of her siblings came, but a lot of our cousins, they all stayed in Boston. She was the only one that came to Cambridge.
INTERVIEWER: Wonder what she saw in it?
SIMMONS: I have-- MIT. She said I saw MIT, this is where I want to live. I said, OK. Nice story, but you have to tell me more. And I never got rest of the story. So I'm sure there was more to it. It may had nothing to do with MIT. That's just what she said.
INTERVIEWER: Now, I also read you do-- it said online and I think somewhere that you do a lot of family history, a family historian and photo archivist? Tell me about those activities.
SIMMONS: So once back in the 1980s, I went south to spend time with-- my aunt. My aunt was the family griot. She was the holder of the stories and of all the photos and all of that.
And so I went down to Tuskegee and then later to Claxton and rented a Geo Metro and put about 3,000 miles on it in a week going back and forth collecting the photos of the family because she was the one that told me the story of my grandfather, Pompey Hines and being a slave and told a lot of this story.
And while I was down there-- well, let me take a step back. When I worked for the city in the 1980s, I was asked often to give presentations of the history of blacks in Cambridge. Now, I'm first-generation Cambridge, so all my history is not here. My history is in the South.
And by doing the history, the wonderful history of African-Americans in Cambridge that go back years-- so like the Dottin family, and there's so many families that have generational history in Cambridge-- it made me yearn for my own history because, again, mine starts with me. So that's why I went down to my aunt's.
And she had all this information, and I just kind of got as much out of her as possible. And while I was there, I was able to find a portrait of my grandfather and my great grandmother, who was clearly mulatto. You could tell that from her photo.
And I just started-- before we had Ancestry.com, I would hang out in the archives and found their marriage license, which wasn't a license because they didn't really give licenses to blacks. They just kind of wrote a notation in a book. But I found that and found the land that he gave his children, got to see the house before it was demolished that he built for his family. It was about a four-room, five-room house, which was huge back in the 1800s, and just continued basically building on that history, but trying to do it through photographs, by taking the photograph and attaching the photograph and a story so that when someone would read it, they would say, so this is Pompey Hines, this is what he looked like, this is what he did. This is Ellen Geiger. This is who she was, this is what she did. It was easy to find history on him and a lot harder to find it on her and her family because at about 1870, there is no records.
The biggest thing that I was just able to do through a very good friend of mine-- I call her my sister because we have similar interests, Valerie-- Valerie Beaudrault who works for the New England Historical and Genealogical Association-- we were actually able to find his mother because at this point, all these years, we always had to start with him. You couldn't find who his mother was.
And there it was in a court document, where the owner of him and his mother went to court to sue for rights to her property, which she had willed to her children. And so the court had appointed an attorney ad litem for the kids to fight the husband to make sure that the kids would maintain that property. And I have it.
In the court document, there he is-- Bessie, which was his mother, value $500; Pompey, one years old, $75. And that's how we found her.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, that's extraordinary.
SIMMONS: It was extraordinary. And then I now found her grave, which I'm trying to go see. You can go online. I actually want to visit it. It's a really powerful and it was really a wonderful opportunity last year to unveil that to my family because no one knew who she was.
INTERVIEWER: I bet. I bet. Wow, that's extraordinary, really. Well, let me look and see if there are any other things I wanted to ask you about. But are there other things that come to your mind that we haven't covered that we should talk about?
SIMMONS: I'll think of it as soon as I leave.
INTERVIEWER: It's been great.
SIMMONS: The only thing I could think about was when you say hopes and dreams for grandchildren and great grandchildren, that they will not have the struggles that I've had and my mother before me and my grandmother before my mother, in that life becomes easier.
Not to be cliche, but it's sort of like in the words of Martin Luther King, that they'll be judged by their character and not by the color of their skin or their gender or who they choose to love, that we really will have a society that's equal and free.
INTERVIEWER: Wonderful. Great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.
SIMMONS: You're very welcome. It was very nice to have this opportunity.
INTERVIEWER: And good luck with--
SIMMONS: All of it.
INTERVIEWER: All of it and your time as mayor and all that.
SIMMONS: It's a good time. It's wonderful work. There's nothing better to be able to be the leader of the city that you grew up in. What better? And if anyone said, what's your dream job? I am living my dream job. It's really great, and my kids are very proud of me. My granddaughter said to me, does this make me the first grandchild? I said, indeed, it does.
INTERVIEWER: That's great. Well, we should all be so lucky-- or not luck, but--
SIMMONS: No, a lot of hard work.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, hard work. Wonderful. Well, thanks again.