Saturday, July 20, 2024

A Tot Lot event in 2017. (Photo: Cambridgeport Children’s Center via Facebook)

Residents in the Cambridgeport neighborhood may be familiar with the toddlers and preschoolers from Tot Lot who visit Fulmore Park, affectionately known as Chicken Park, on Sydney Street. What people may not know is that origins of this long-standing child care center go back to 1970, when it was a summer program at the Morse Community School. The program was funded by the city, housed in the then newly formed Department of Human Services and staffed by a rotating group of mothers and Youth Corps girls. A new oral history project aims to uncover the history of the institution through stories with parents, teachers and students.

“It was decided that each mother would contribute one day a week to help take care of the children,” read an announcement in the Cambridge Chronicle of Sept. 24, 1970. “There will be 3 mothers in attendance every day. To handle the initial cost of equipment and supplies, a $10 registration fee will be charged.” Mothers were given membership cards. They elected officers – treasurer, secretary and program coordinator – and met every Wednesday evening to manage business.

After a year, a group of parents assembled to expand the program to be year-round and to have a trained educator.

When she was hired as Tot Lot’s first teacher in 1972, said Sally Benbasset in an interview for this project last month, she couldn’t have known she’d have a grandchild in the toddler room more than 50 years later. Benbasset moved to Cambridgeport because she’d heard that this program was starting and that they were looking for a teacher.

Tot Lot was the first child care center in the neighborhood. It was designed with a family cooperative model, and parents were expected to work in the classrooms alongside the teachers. The co-op structure helped to minimize costs significantly. In addition to time in the classroom, parents were responsible for running the center’s operations, from planning the curriculum to coordinating the schedules to paying the bills. “Adding staff meant raising tuition,” Benbasset said.

Sally Benbassett in 2023. (Photo: Luba Feigenberg)

Day care wasn’t yet a mass phenomenon. There was a need during World War II, when more women entered the workforce, but the need receded when the war ended and women were pushed back into the home and domestic responsibilities. Most children were cared for by their mothers or in informal child care arrangements, like with a grandmother, aunt or small playgroup.

When Tot Lot was forming in the early 1970s, Cambridgeport was a working-class neighborhood with a new wave of a professional class moving in, due in part to low property values. The neighborhood had been redlined, which means banks wouldn’t give mortgages. The proposed Inner Belt Project threatened to bring an eight-lane expressway to circle Central Square and cross over the Boston University Bridge. (This project was defeated and is heralded today as an example of the power of community organizing.) 

Space was a priority, as is often the case with early childhood education. The program first used the basement of the church at 35 Magazine St., now home to First Korean Church. Then, for two years the program was housed in the Chestnut Street living room of Anstie Benfield, one of the leading activists in fighting the Inner Belt from Cambridgeport. (A mural on the back of the Micro Center store on Memorial Drive includes a likeness of her shaking a broom at a construction vehicle.)

The Tot Lot’s Class of 1974. (Photo: Cambridgeport Children’s Center)

In 1973-1974, the program ran out of the Cambridgeport Teen Center, housed in the rear of a Polaroid factory office at 350 Brookline Ave. Built in 1948 for Stone & Forsyth, paper distributors who relocated from Boston, the building is now owned by MIT. (Interestingly, the Teen Center address, 70 Henry Street, does not appear in any surveyed atlas of the time. The only known record of its location is an inspection report from the city noting “crayon scribbles on the wall because of daycare.”)

Benbasset laughed when I told her this. “Every morning we’d set up an entire preschool classroom, and then every afternoon we’d pack everything back into crates,” she says. The program had access to the facility until the teen programs began.

Finally, in 1975, Tot Lot was able to secure enough funding from grants to renovate a garage at 65R Chestnut St. The owners of the property in front, Roger and Louise Rice, had agreed to loan Tot Lot the space for as long as they lived there. Years later, a conflict over the property with a future owner threatened the child care center’s presence, but the situation was resolved with mediation.

The Tot Lot now. (Photo: Luba Feigenberg)

Noel Clark, physics professor at Harvard University and Tot Lot’s parent coordinator at the time, designed the building and managed the demolition and construction. Parents worked day and night through the summer. “It was six-days-a-week, dawn-to-dusk kind of work,” Clark said. They took one day off in four months: Aug. 2, 1975, when the temperature hit a record high of 102 degrees. “We were working on the roof deck that day and we just quit,” said Arthur MacEwan, another founding parent I spoke with. “We got on the train, and there were parties on the subway because it was air conditioned.”

Work continued until the night before the kids came. “They kept telling me ‘Go home, go home,’” Benbasset recalled. “I finally did. When I came very early the next morning to set up, they’d painted a rainbow on the front wall.”

There is now a different mural where the rainbow once was, and another on the wall of the building that once housed cars. The roof play area is still there – and still causing leaks.

Though parent responsibilities have evolved to meet the changing needs of working families over the past 50 years, Tot Lot remains committed to the cooperative model and families still participate in a variety of working groups at the center, organizing or participating in teacher appreciation activities, attending community events and meetings and leaf and snow removal.

Diversity and a commitment to social justice and antiracist teaching was baked into the curriculum early. Children were taught about the issues their parents struggled for in the civil rights, women’s rights and worker’s rights movements. They talked as a community about how to be inclusive and affirming and welcoming, and they had moments when their deep community values were challenged.

The fall of 2025 will mark Tot Lot’s 50th year in its home at 65R Chestnut Street. The Tot Lot Oral History project aims to document the stories of this neighborhood institution in collaboration with History Cambridge’s focus on the Cambridgeport neighborhood in 2023. The project is looking to interview people involved with the center’s founding during the period 1970-1976. Audio and transcripts of the interviews will be made available on History Cambridge’s website by the anniversary.

We need your help! If you are interested in contributing a story or a memory, share your information on this form. Thank you for your help in preserving these important stories.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission.

We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone.

Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.


Luba Falk Feigenberg is a volunteer for History Cambridge. This post was updated March 14, 2023, to correct that Roger and Louise Rice were owners of 65R Chestnut St. and that Noel Clark is affiliated with Harvard University.