Peter Valentine, colorful artist, is reported dead; His home is a landmark, the city was his canvas
Peter Valentine, the artist and eccentric whose Cambridgeport home became a landmark for its bright colors and otherworldly wisdom, died Tuesday within its walls, according to Michael Monestime, former executive director of the Central Square Business Improvement District.
“Our beloved Peter Valentine has transitioned to the cosmos,” Monestime said.
Valentine, 80, has literally colored Cambridge’s culture for years – not just by maintaining his Franklin and Brookline streets home as a public art project known as Moose and Grizzly Bear’s Ville, but by his presence, appearing around the city in patchwork homemade clothes of clashing hues, fabrics and patterns on various missions: One day setting up a fake wooden laptop to work on, blessing the merchandise in Cambridge Bicycles on another, as residents recalled on a 2020 thread on Reddit.
He attended City Council meetings regularly, speaking during public comment with abstruse messages such as “we need to stop using numbers” or “we are at the moment of the birth of the immortality of the United States of America – if what I just stated wasn’t true, I couldn’t have thought of it.” (As mayors came and went, he was the only person allowed to speak on topics not on a given night’s agenda.)
Among the memorials appearing online Wednesday were those from Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who said Valentine was “a bright light in Cambridge” and said City Hall would be lit up pink in his honor; councillor Marc McGovern, who bid Valentine to rest in peace, “Travel the stars, my friend, and keep an eye on us from above”; and former councillor Jan Devereux, who called the death sad news. “I always thought if anyone was going to prove immortal it would be Peter. He will be greatly missed and fondly remembered,” Devereux said. The Central Square Business Improvement District tweeted in acknowledgment of losing “an inspiration,” and residents mourned as well.
Calls to the council by Valentine to rename Central Square “Starlight Square” were made reality by Monestime, who adopted the name for the BID’s Covid-era outdoor entertainment complex in 2020.
“A huge shoutout to my friend, Peter Valentine, for the inspiration and the creation of Starlight Square. Without your energy none of this would be possible,” Monestime said at an Aug. 7 opening ceremony that year.
Valentine also suggested a photo mural in Central Square’s Graffiti Alley that also became reality, councillor Quinton Zondervan noted in a February birthday resolution. A resolution in 2017 from councillors Nadeem Mazen and E. Denise Simmons Peter noted his hundreds of submitted communications “working to keep us safe … and in balance with his electromagnetic arts, intentional thinking and breathing and constant vigilance,” an allusion to offers painted outside Moose and Grizzly Bear’s Ville to educate all on his ethos of “Electromagnetic Kung-Fu.”
The house is a story in itself, of course: In the early 1990s he convinced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to give him the Blanche Street house that would become his “metaphysical laboratory”) to get him out of the way of the development of University Park. MIT relocated the three-story house to Franklin and Brookline streets, setting it at the precise angle he prescribed.
When a cold snap burst a radiator pipe in February 2021, flooding the home’s first and second floor and sparking a crowdfunding campaign by the Central Square BID to raise money for repairs, supporters added more to the story:
Valentine built the fence in 1991 to present what he was interested in and provoke passersby to contemplate not what he considered “the boring news media and advertising images and designs that are projected at people as they go about living their lives.” It features wildlife, including the moose – so big and awkward and rich in cosmic knowledge. What especially captures visitors are the philosophical morsels that adorn the fence, along with spiritual insights and universal aspirations.
The site put Cambridge on the map with Atlas Obscura, a compendium of worldwide curiosities worth visiting. The site praised Valentine’s “unstoppable will to create [a] burst of inventive punk rock spirituality in an otherwise bland neighborhood landscape.” Virtual visits from Seen Around Boston are online here and here. Others have filmed it extensively as well.
At Valentine’s request, the Cambridge Historical Commission met in 2012 to consider landmarking the fence – tabling the request because it would have frozen the work in time; Valentine would have needed to consult the commission each time he wanted to change it. But during the process, support for recognizing its importance was heard from Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Rebecca A. Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. In 2014, Cambridge Arts celebrated Valentine’s fence at the annual River Festival.
It was unclear what would happen now to the house, Monestime said Tuesday.
Valentine leaves family in Amherst. Sister Adrienne Bemak and her husband Rob Okun traveled to Cambridge in 2020 for the opening of Starlight Square, when Okun took to the stage to extol Valentine as a “magician of the soul, alchemist of the heart, deep thinker, problem solver, psychic healer.”
“Peter Valentine loves Cambridge,” Okun said. “In many ways, he personally personifies the city’s creativity. Its quirkiness, its brilliance.”
This post was updated Aug. 11, 2022, to correct references to “Brookline Avenue” to the correct “Brookline Street.”
Saddened by his passing. Pessimistic about what comes next.
Peter was indeed a colorful part of Cambridge life. His creative energy will be missed. We should not gloss over the impact and history of his deal with MIT some 30+ years ago. As a participant in the tent city demonstrations there were many who sacrificed a great deal to try to force MIT to commit to more affordable housing as part of their hotel/university park development. There were other individuals in rent control units who were forced out because they would not accept MIT “bribes”. Peter, a rent control renter took care of his own personal future when he made a deal with MIT giving him a three family house for $1 and having it moved to its present location as per Peter’s instructions.
Other displaced renters received nothing nor were they invited by MIT or Peter to share the building. MIT expansion continued and affordable housing opportunities for the community were drastically limited. This unfortunate outcome made possible by personal and corporate selfishness speaks to the culture of Cambridge just as clearly as did Peter’s creativity. I too, as the previous commentator suggests, am pessimistic about what comes next.
I would like to set the record straight about the actual extent to which the virtue signaling community falsely claims today that it saved Peter, who then allegedly ungratefully betrayed their exemplary devotion to the downtrodden. I knew Peter for nearly forty years, was his neighbor for a decade when the house was on Blanche Street. There has never been a shortage of flights of fancy about him made up by people who did not know him at all, or who saw him as a useful pawn. Peter was always clear about what he wanted. Others chose to momentarily help (or exploit?) him because they had agendas of their own, but it was Peter’s persistence and courage fighting two long decades of eviction attempts that won him the house. He made it explicit to MIT’s real estate department that he would rather be dead than be coerced out of what he thought was the locus of his survival energy. MIT, always so very sensitive about its precious corporate image, was terrified of the horrible publicity that would come from forcibly evicting a man whom the empty, unfeeling suits despised and dismissed as merely a madman. In the end, a thirty million dollar hotel deal hinged on having the building site cleared by a certain date, and that is how my intrepid old friend finally beat the devil.
Another three-unit building was moved by MIT from the Simplex site that same summer for the hotel project, the former 38 Green Street, now located a few doors from Peter’s at 188 Franklin Street. MIT vengefully fought allowing those tenants (also friends of mine) to return, lost, sold the house as soon as Rent Control ended, so the new owner could evict them, and now it’s market rate housing. Where was the vaunted “community support” for these three souls?
Peter and I had many discussions about local and national politics. I think we agreed that the smug self-righteousness of the kind so prevalent in our city has made the word “liberal” anathema to so many decent, struggling Americans who would otherwise be our natural allies. This will not serve us well in the storm that is coming.
Ownership of his house now reverts to MIT. I wonder who will be next to try to use it as a prop to wow us with their selfless commitment to social justice.
Simpleximus, my title examiner self was intrigued by your claim of the state of the title to Peter’s house, so I looked. I see nothing to corroborate your claim that it will go back to MIT. In fact, the deed to him, dated exactly 31 years ago today, gives a consideration of $100,000 and has no reversion of any sort mentioned in it. Last year, he conveyed it to a trust, the Peter Z. Valentine Family Realty Trust (the deed was signed by his sister under a durable power of attorney dated in early 2020). If you have other information, please feel free to share it.
He entered into a tax deferral agreement with the City in 2013, so there will presumably be a pretty hefty tax bill due, but there’s no mortgage that I could find.