Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Gully Rules, Part 2

The Gully: our beloved hangout for so many years. I thought I had adequately described it in The Gully Rules, Part 1. But how remiss of me not to mention The Gully House. No, I’m not referring to the extravagant party palace that the older Gully guys built when we were just kids—the incredible wood fort that was lined with tarps to keep the rain and snow out.

The Gully House I write about below was a real home that was pretty much right smack in The Gully. Unlike the other houses on Wilbraham Road, it was set far back from the sidewalk with a dirt driveway leading up to it. Here is how we came to know The Gully House up close and personal. It’s a long story, and it begins on Maebeth Street.

The Gully House Rules

I wafted the smoky salty sweet smell of bacon to my nose. Ah, ambrosia. Bacon. A few of us had pilfered the delectably cured meat from our freezers for our school “skip day” bacon fry-in at Stan Janek’s house, and it was in snapping and popping musically in a skillet. We all loved bacon and thought it would make an excellent brunch to munch while we played hooky.

It was the spring of 1979 and Stan, Rick Riccardi, and Dave O’Brien were participating in the annual Duggan Junior High School skip day—an adventure that wasn’t planned to be all that adventurous. The three ninth-graders planned to hang out at Stan’s all day, which sounded good to me. I was a sophomore at Cathedral High School and I wanted in on this event. It would be simple: cutting school could be accomplished easily at such a large school as Cathedral. I had seen it all before: you could fall between the cracks. Students skipped, my homeroom teacher would bug the absentees to bring in excuse notes from their parents for several days after they were no-shows, and then she would forget about it.

So there we were: Skip Day 1979. We watched TV. Stan cranked his stereo. We laughed at Leave It to Beaver. We laughed even harder at Heritage Corner, the hokey five-minute black pride show on Channel 40 between 9:55 and 10:00 a.m. “I shall not be—I shall not be moved,” cranked the show’s theme song, a children’s chorus singing the old black spiritual hymn. We were having the time of our lives on our fine skip day. Like a tree planted by the water, we shall not be moved.

But we were wrong. We were soon moving very, very quickly.

I forget who was tending to the bacon with loving care when our day was rudely interrupted. And why Dave O’Brien was in the attic I’ll never know to this day. He had brought in a ladder from the shed and was “exploring” up there. What was he hoping to find? A stash of Playboy magazines? A suitcase full of money? I forget what was blasting on the stereo: probably Led Zeppelin. All I know was that The Price Is Right was on the TV. “Come on down!” Bob barker barked. “You’re the next contestant on The Price is Right!”

Then Stan’s older sister Laura came on in. We heard the back door slam. “What the hell is going on here?” she screamed. “Everybody OUT!”

My response, in a nutshell:


We didn’t even get a chance to sample the bacon. And there was no question that we had to obey. Laura was seven years older than Stan, and since their mother died when Stan was five, she had a lot more authority than most older sisters. The only unanswered question was whether or not she’d tell their father—who in turn might blab to our parents.

We discussed this tattletale scenario as we walked down Wilbraham Road. Our new plan—to hang out at to the Electronic Circus video arcade at the corner of Wilbraham Road and Breckwood Boulevard—changed shortly after we passed Pineview Street and we saw the shuttered white bungalow on the right. No one had lived there for a while, and it was set back from the road—yes, well into The Gully—giving us a perfect opportunity to break in. As you can see from the aerial photos below, the woods provided ample cover. No one would see us.

Recollections are vague on how we got in the house. Upon rehashing the day’s events recently, one theory was that we broke a small window on the back door, reached in, and unlocked it. Another postulation says we just kicked the door in.

Now we would hang out in The Gully House. But not for long, because we almost immediately took out our ruined-skip-day-frustrations on the interior, smashing doors, walls, windows, countertops, and even kitchen cabinets. EVERYONE partook in the trashing. And then we did the ultimate dick move: we plugged up sink drains, turned on faucets full-blast, and slithered out of the house into The Gully, trying but failing to stifle our laughter.

We spent a couple of hours in the woods, first debating what to do if the cops came. The consensus was that if we saw a cruiser, there weren’t enough trees in The Gully to hide us if the police really wanted to find us, so we would book it down Creswell to the Putnam’s Puddle woods and into our party fort The Pothole, which no one know about. But The Man never came, so we proceeded to the Electronic Circus.

I recently talked with Stan about our misdeeds. Why the hell did we have to trash the place and leave the water running? We didn’t have an answer. We did agree that it was an idiotic thing to do, so I guess we’ve matured somewhat in the last 33 years—I guess, even though I’m immortalizing our asshole antics that day in this blog. Yes, Stan’s sister told his father about playing hooky. No, Stan’s father didn’t rat the rest of the gang out, but Stan was grounded for a few weeks.

The house was boarded up for a few more years, and then people started living in it again in the early 1980s, so fortunately our damage was fixed. I actually found a 1986 real estate listing for it (below). Not a bad deal for $74,900: on a busy road, but lots of woods in back. The pastoral setting in that area of The Gully, however would be totally eliminated 16 years later.

The Gully Goes Away

I always wondered about the dirty details of what finally did The Gully in. So I did some exhaustive research. Is that weird? Oh well.

Much of The Gully’s demise was well known in Springfield from what I call The Gully Controversy of 2001.

But the city’s drive to pave The Gully began in earnest back in 1982 when Springfield auctioned off two parcels of land—plots known as South Side of Fairlawn Street Parcels 50 and 75, according to a Springfield Union-News classified ad:

The first house went up in 1983. This was pretty much my reaction upon seeing the construction equipment:

By 1986 two more houses were built on Gully land:

I moved to Boston in the summer of 1986, and my friends continued to park their cars and party at what used to be The Gully for about a year—albeit away from the houses and closer to the intersection of Fairlawn and Pineview. But the hangout’s appeal waned.

After all, the woods on the Fairlawn side were gone. Once The Gully lost that Fairlawn connection in the mid-1980s, that was pretty much it for us. Game over. You can’t really hang out and drink beer in front of people’s houses. Or can you?

Then, in 1993, the seeds of the destruction of the Wilbraham Road side of The Gully were first planted firmly when the City Council was presented with plans for a nine-home subdivision there—long after we had abandoned our hangout.

It was a time when developers were gobbling up green space in Sixteen Acres like a Pac-Man eating a line of Pac-dots. In 1990, the controversial Broska Farm subdivision went up on Winterset Lane off Wilbraham Road. In 1992, in the western edge of the neighborhood, the Reeds Landing retirement community was built on the Springfield College’s wooded East Campus on Wilbraham Road despite heavy opposition.

Although the remaining two-and-a-quarter acres of The Gully was targeted for housing by Lemnos Realty in 1993, nothing happened until eight years later. In The Gully Controversy of 2001, the new owners, Roosevelt Hill LLC and partner Joe Molter (not his real name) revived the proposal, with one hitch: project developers politically connected to Mayor Mike Albano petitioned the City Council to make the proposed private way, Lemnos Lane, into a public street. If approved, the city would have been obligated to assume the $40,000 cost for paving Paving Lemnos Lane and installing a storm drainage system for $20,000. Skeptical city councilors pointed out that it was an unprecedented proposal in a city that had 694 private ways that should have been considered as public streets—long, long before Lemnos Lane.

“It’s an awful conflict-of-interest,” said City Councilor Timothy Ryan, noting that Molter had sold investment property to Tom Ambrosi (not his real name), the mayor’s chief of staff. Armbrosi’s brother, Charles (not his real name), a police officer, co-owned the Worthington Street bar the Pour House with longtime Albano campaign contributor Mike Catarina (not his real name), owner of Roosevelt Hill LLC. Catarina was on leave from his position as business retention coordinator for the city’s Community Development Department. “Incestuous” is how Ryan described the relationship.

“I’m not asking for anything any other developer couldn’t ask for,” said Catarina. “The just didn’t know to ask.”

Albano happened to support the subdivision. Surprise, surprise. “If the project makes sense we move forward,” he said. “I’ve had 3,000 [campaign] contributions, and I’m not influenced by them. The development of these new homes is indication that the city is moving in the right direction.”

There were fireworks in the April 9, 2001 City Council meeting. Ryan suggested the Law Department backing the legality of the Lemnos Lane proposal was one of several recent department decisions that were politically influenced by Albano. That prompted City Solicitor Peter Fenton, watching the meeting on a cable access channel, to jump in his car and drive to City Hall and defend his department. Ryan apologized to Fenton. The apology was accepted, but they didn’t kiss and make up, and the council was bitterly divided. But in the end it voted 5-4 in favor of changing Lemnos Lane into a public road and letting the city assume the cost and liability of the project.

Councilors voting yes were William T. Foley, Daniel D. Kelly, Timothy J. Rooke, Brian A. Santaniello and Bud L. Williams. Voting against changing Lemnos Lane to a public way were Carol J. Lewis-Caulton, Angelo J. Puppolo Jr., Ryan, and now-mayor Domenic J. Sarno.

But the resolution was in jeopardy: Councilor Bud Williams soon said he was reconsidering his support of the change, pointing to a boatload of public opposition to using taxpayer funds for the project. The council scheduled a reconsideration vote a month later and a Williams vote reversal hung in the balance, threatening to reverse the outcome.

And the developers left a veiled threat hanging in the air: if the city assumed the cost of the road, they would gladly build nine upscale homes valued at about $150,000 each. But without the city’s help, they said they would have no choice but to build significantly less expensive homes.

While there was some neighborhood outcry to the proposed housing in The Gully in 1993, in 2001 most were resigned to the fate that it was a done deal this time—until cries of a sweetheart deal reached a fever pitch during a public meeting that drew more than 150 residents to the Greenleaf Community Center two weeks before the reconsideration vote.

“I don’t know how you guys can sit there and give our money away,” complained one resident to city officials. Said another to the developers: “You don’t need taxpayer money. What you are doing is holding the city hostage.”

Councilor Williams, saying he heard the neighborhood’s anger “loud and clear,” announced a week later he would switch his vote.

Roosevelt Hill LLC and Joe Molter, seeing that their scheme was doomed, dropped their request for the city to pay for Lemnos Lane the day before the reconsideration vote. “We will still do the best quality homes we can,” said Molter. “I think everyone will really be satisfied when it is completed.”

This is Lemnos Lane in 2012:

Now let’s take a drive down the Fairlawn Street side of The Gully, which was where the houses stand on the right in the video below.  Then I go up Pineview, take a right on Wilbraham Road, and bang a right on Lemnos Lane, the street that was built on the rest of The Gully in 2002. The song is called “Follies” (of the Taylor Street Mardi Gras kind) by the great Sixteen Acres band The Snortones.

It turned out that fairly “upscale” homes were built, with the houses being sold in the range of $164,000 to $182,000 in 2002. But I wonder if the project would have ever gotten off the drawing board if it were not for the original presumption that taxpayers would foot the $62,000 bill for road construction and related costs.

In 2007, the Ambrosi brothers, both from Sixteen Acres, were sentenced to one year in federal prison, and Catarina, also from the neighborhood, received an 18-month sentence after a federal tax evasion investigation. The probe was part of a broader investigation of Mayor Albano’s administration and touched on, among other things, the Ambrosis’ hidden ownership in two downtown bars. The indictment also listed Tom Ambrosi’s lobbying the City Council to use city funds for Catarina’s Lemnos Lane project without disclosing their relationship.

Why do I use pseudonyms in this case? Well, I don’t know. Maybe because during the investigation, Charles Ambrosi was accused of confronting Channel 40 reporter Jim Polito downtown and saying, “It’s a good thing you own a gun because you are going to need it they way you reported last night.” And Catarina, according to his indictment, flashed a pistol at a witness and told him to keep his mouth shut, and urged another to “plead the fucking Fifth [amendment].” So I’m not using their real names. Got it?

Even though The Gully’s ultimate death in 2002 didn’t really affect me, because I was long gone, I still maintain that it would have been great to preserve a small patch of woods in the suburban sprawl that is Sixteen Acres. Places like The Gully and the Monkey Trail, now vanished, can’t be compared to such large green jewels as Forest Park, but they do give kids a glimpse of the natural world right in their own neighborhood.

The Gully Gladiator

Yes, I know I wrote in The Gully Rules, Part 1 that the “Little Gully Guys” (the teenagers who started partying at The Gully when we were still hanging around there in our early twenties) stopped coming to The Gully because of all the housing that went up on the Fairlawn Street side.

That’s not entirely true. The site continued to draw young people. However, the next generation of Gully kids eventually abandoned the area partly because of The Gladiator. It all began one night when a car full of “Little Gully Girls” drove alongside my car at The Gully and struck up a conversation with us. They were the friends of The Little Gully Guys, who weren’t around that night. The Little Gully Guys sometimes annoyed us by leaving their beer bottles and crap all over the place, but we maintained a cordial relationship with them—especially because the Little Gully Girls came around once in a while. And we didn’t mind THEM. No, not at all.

Were we in danger of becoming David Wooderson (pictured above), the Matthew McConaughey character in Dazed and Confused—getting older but still leering at the high school chickies? No comment. Actually, we didn’t have the chance, because a pickup truck came out of nowhere and pulled up alongside the Little Gully Girls car. Some heated words were exchanged, but we couldn’t tell what was said. All we knew was that the girls were freaked out and they drove away quickly. What the fuck?

“Do you know them?” asked the driver, a man in his forties. We glared at him, not answering. What the fuck?

“I asked you a question,” he continued.

“Well, I’m asking YOU a question,” I said. “Who the fuck are YOU? And what are you doing HERE?” Whoops, I guess that was two questions.

“I’ve been living in this neighborhood for 20 years, that’s who the fuck I am,” he replied. “I was walking down Fairlawn today and those bitches almost ran me over. They missed me by a couple of inches.”

There was an awkward silence and a mutual stare-down. And then he drove away. What the fuck?

We began referring to him as The Gladiator because we had recently seen a stupendously lousy 1986 movie by the same name about a vigilante, played by Ken Wahl, whose brother is killed by a crazed motorist. The dude then drives around in his pickup truck avenging his bro’s death by ridding the streets of dangerous drivers.

“What a freak,” we said. “Is this guy going to start patrolling the side streets around here?” we asked. “Is he going to make the mistake of showing up at The Gully again?” we wondered. “Because if he does, The Gladiator is going to get gladiated.”

The Gladiator never came back, but neither did the Little Gully Girls and their male counterparts. They were sufficiently spooked.

As I wrote before, my friends continued to sporadically party at The Gully for about a year after I left the area in 1986, but then they moved on to other things. The Gully that we knew was history. How could The Gully be handed down to another generation when there was no more Gully on Fairlawn Street? And then there was The Gladiator.

I insisted in The Gully Rules, Part 1 that my friends and I owe it to ourselves to have at least one beer at The Gully site in homage to the old times, but there hasn’t been much interest. Maybe it’s the thought of drinking in public that makes everyone a little uncomfortable. I don’t know. But I’m going to go down there one of these days, and the open container law can just kiss my ass—and so can The Gladiator:

“I ain’t afraid of no Gladiator. Wait. Who the fuck are you?”