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Fixing a Highway-Shaped Hole in the Heart of Black Boston

In Dudley Square, residents are organizing to ensure that the next round of urban renewal benefits them.

Final Touch Fashions, Dudley Square
Final Touch Fashions, Dudley Square.
Inside Tropical FoodsShoppers select produce inside Tropical Foods. Bruce Bolling Building
The Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building.


Dudley Square Volunteer and Business Awards

Mayor Martin Walsh met with Roxbury residents in Dudley Square to present Boston Main Streets Small Business of the Year Award to Catherine Hardaway of Final Touch Boutique at 17 Warren Street and Volunteer of the Year Award to Jeanne Richardson of Blue Dynasty Entertainment and Travel. The awards were presented for their services to the revitalization of the Dudley Square business district.

(l-r) Haris Hardaway, Jeanne Richardson, Mayor Walsh, Catherine Hardaway, Danny Hardaway.

Fire Code Design

Fire Code Design's Ronnette Taylor-Lawrence charts a path from trades to entrepreneurship

As an entrepreneur and a tradeswoman, Ronnette Taylor-Lawrence has been a trailblazer. Starting as a young single mother in the 1980s, she worked her way up from laborer to journeyman plumber, becoming the first woman of color to receive her plumber’s license from the Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 12 Boston union. Today, she is a master plumber and fire sprinkler contractor running her own business, Fire Code Design, a Boston-based full-service fire extinguisher and fire safety company offering sales, repairs and service to commercial and residential clients.

Formed in 2006, her company today has 12 employees and serves about 170 clients a year. Clients have included the MBTA, Amtrak, the Reggie Lewis Center and Hanscom Air Force Base. For Taylor-Lawrence, a West Medford native who lives in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood, a primary goal is to build FCD’s reach within the surrounding community.

“Every commercial establishment that has a sprinkler, fire alarm or fire extinguisher system has to be inspected a minimum of once a year,” Taylor-Lawrence points out, speaking to the Banner recently in FCD’s Roxbury office. “I’d like to have at least 70 percent of our work in this community, and be able to offer jobs and training to people coming from the community.”

FCD’s team today includes specialists in sprinkler design, fire suppression systems and fire extinguishers, as well as bookkeeping, scheduling and operations staff. Taylor-Lawrence’s oldest son, Anthony, is director of business development and the youngest, Julian, is assistant project manager and apprentice sprinkler fitter. Their vision includes expanding FCD’s work in fire and life safety education and training.

As part of its local connection, FCD hires interns from Roxbury Community College, typically students who are advancing their skills in business administration or accounting.

Moving up

Taylor-Lawrence was a warehouse worker at a plumbing company when she enrolled in a pre-apprenticeship training program that had been formed to encourage women considering trades. Then her employer sponsored her to join the plumber’s union and begin the four-year union apprenticeship. In 1990, she passed the test to become a licensed journeyman plumber.

After amassing years of expertise working for others, the plumber and sprinklerfitter started Fire Code Design from the basement of her home in 2006. She participated in the Small Business Association’s 2008 Emerging Leader Initiative, and in 2009 was able to move her business to its current location at 195 Dudley Street. The space provides an office area, room for equipment storage, and a display window for a more visible street presence.

Women make up only a tiny minority in construction trades, but the numbers are starting to climb in Massachusetts, according to Susan Moir, director of research for UMass Boston’s Labor Resource Center and co-founder of the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues. Statewide, the proportion of female union apprentices has nearly doubled in 10 years, rising from less than 3 percent up to 7 percent. In the Plumbers Local 12 union, women’s participation rose from 2.1 percent in 2012 to 5.6 percent in late 2016. Half of all women entering the trades are women of color, Moir noted, so in this field increasing gender diversity also strengthens racial diversity.

A pioneer in the field, Ronnette Taylor-Lawrence credits a strong support system and her faith in helping her make it, starting back in the apprenticeship days when she attended classes three nights a week while holding down a full-time job and caring for three children ranging in age from 11 to 2.

“For any woman with children, you have to have a support system,” she says, “ Just think about it, having to get to work before 7 a.m. with little kids. I surrounded myself with my family, my elders, and my church. I would drop the youngest one at his grandmother’s house the night before, and the oldest one would help with some cooking and cleaning,” she recalls. And, she notes, she finished with perfect attendance

Growing pains

Persisting and succeeding in a male-dominated trade may be daunting for many women; adding entrepreneurship into the mix can bring new challenges along with the satisfaction of ownership.

One challenge in business growth is the amount of expensive insurance coverage required to bid on certain types of projects such as inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) for large property management companies. The insurance barrier becomes a chicken-or-egg problem for many contracting entrepreneurs: without strong cash flow, it’s nearly impossible to afford more insurance — yet without that extra insurance in place, small and mid-size businesses can’t even bid on the projects that could ensure steady revenue.

And even as the number of women in construction trades inches up, an old-boy network’s habits die hard.

“Guys want to talk to guys,” Taylor-Lawrence says. “Being a woman of color, I’m not expected to know things. Men will talk right past me to my sons.”

But she is tough, independent and proud of what she’s accomplished, including how she proved her mettle to various doubters along the way. Mastering a trade has enabled her to support her family and own a home. She would not hesitate to recommend the same to girls and women today.

“Plumbing changed my life,” she says. “There’s a lot of single parents out there, and it can change your life. In the pipe industry, there are all kinds of avenues to grow — if you become a fire extinguisher technician, you can work ‘mothers’ hours.’ It’s a good job, and it will always be needed. It’s mandatory. We need to make sure the buildings are safe.”

She adds, “Everybody should have a trade. You can get all the education in the world, but you never know when you’ll be at a point where you need some kind of side job. You’ll never go hungry with a trade.”

In Memory of Kenneth Guscott

Kenneth Guscott was more than a developer. He was a pioneer in Roxbury.

Ken Guscott was a successful Roxbury developer at a time when many people in Boston didn’t know there was such a thing.

But the sadness so many felt as the news of his death spread Monday was only partly about material accomplishment. He was also a major force for equality and racial justice, a man who never wavered in his commitment to opening doors that had long been closed to black Bostonians.

When he launched a major downtown project— the skyscraper at One Lincoln Street — he made it a point to recruit African-American investors.

“Part of his dream was to do downtown development,” his daughter, Lisa, said Tuesday. “To show young black boys that black men could do something, that they could be a force in this world.”

Guscott, who was 91, died in a house fire in Milton Monday morning. His father-in-law, Leroy Whitmore, 87, also perished in the fire. His wife and son miraculously made it out alive.

When people think of Guscott, they think of more than one person. His brothers George and Cecil were business partners, and the three were inseparable. George died a few years ago, but Cecil, 93, is one of two older siblings that survive him.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, Guscott was a product of vibrant, pre-World War II Roxbury. One of his buddies growing up was Gene Wolcott, who would later become famous as Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.

Guscott was a nuclear engineer by training. In the 1960s, he served as president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. He and his brothers went into real estate in the late 1960s. At that time, Roxbury was rapidly becoming less populous and poorer. The Guscotts were alarmed by the lack of jobs and economic opportunity in the neighborhood. So they founded Long Bay Management Co., which daughter Lisa now runs.

“At the time our young black men were standing on the corner,” she said. “They didn’t have any access to jobs, but there were all these trucks rolling in from New Hampshire and Maine.”

To say Ken Guscott was a strong personality would be an understatement. The person he turned to for counsel throughout his life — some would say the only person he really listened to — was his older brother Cecil.

“In that culture, when your older brother spoke you had nothing to say,” Lisa Guscott said. “You just shut up and listened.”

One of Ken Guscott’s driving passions was the redevelopment of Dudley Square. He wanted to see its glory restored and often waxed eloquent about the community center it had once been. It’s fair to say he also thought it had been abandoned by the city’s power structure after white people left the neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. He wanted to see the rebirth of black Boston’s downtown.

To some extent, he did. But the last great project of his life was in the heart of Dudley Square. There he envisioned a 25-story retail and residential development. His daughter vows that the project will get done, in Guscott’s memory. There couldn’t be a more fitting memorial.

Even as they reached advanced age, the Guscott brothers never lost their visibility. To the end, Ken and Cecil would hold court on Thursday nights at Darryl’s Bar and Kitchen in Lower Roxbury, dispensing business advice, listening to music, or reminiscing about the neighborhood they had always called home.

Ken Guscott leaves a large and loving family, a couple of generations of proteges, and a legion of admirers. But I think part of his legacy is that he relentlessly pushed Boston to become a better, fairer, more inclusive city. When doors were closed, he kicked them open.

“There was a proverb that I think embodied my father’s life,” Lisa Guscott said. “Care more than others think is wise. Risk more than others think is safe. Dream more than others think is practical. And expect more than others think is possible.”

Kenneth Guscott

Kenneth Guscott leaves a legacy in Hub real estate development and civil rights issues.

One of Boston’s most prominent black developers, Kenneth Guscott, died early Monday morning in a fire in his Milton home. He was 91.

In 1972, along with brothers Cecil and George, Guscott founded Long Bay Management, a business that included property management, development and construction. By 2000, the firm owned or managed 3,000 units, primarily in the greater Roxbury area.

The genesis of Long Bay, Guscott told the Banner in a 1993 interview, was an influx of tax breaks and other incentives that brought white developers into the predominantly black Roxbury community in the late 1960s and early ’70s. While buildings like the Area B Boston Police substation and Roxbury District Court were built, few blacks received contracts or jobs.

“We didn’t care if we made money,” Guscott told the Banner. “We just wanted to help rebuild our community.”

The brothers started with a 17-unit apartment building and expanded from there, employing 63 people and contracting with dozens of minority-owned firms.

Over the years, Guscott developed a reputation for supporting other minority-owned businesses.

“You knew that if he had work, there would be an economic benefit to people of color,” said John B. Cruz III, president and CEO of The Cruz Companies. “He definitely understood that for black people, the way out of their problems was through empowerment and building wealth.”


Guscott often credited his mother, Rubina Guscott, with instilling in him an ethic of black self-reliance. He named the Grove Hall building housing Long Bay’s main office after her.

“He had the most minority hires, not only with construction workers, but also in terms of subcontractors, architects, suppliers and other professionals,” said Dudley Square Main Streets Director Joyce Stanley, a former city Public Facilities Department staffer. “His projects were always at least 80 percent minority workers and services. He didn’t just talk about minority hiring. He made it happen.”

Guscott was widely credited with spearheading the One Lincoln building, a financial district skyscraper built by a team of black, Chinese and Latino developers. The team completed the building in 2003 and sold it to State Street Bank.

That same year, Guscott sold off a portion of Long Bay’s portfolio to a team of black entrepreneurs and property management professionals who formed United Housing Management.

Guscott’s most recent project, a planned 25-story residential and office tower on property he owned in Dudley Square, is still in the works.

“Ken Guscott was a shining prince of Roxbury,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson. “He showed us all how to be proud, how to lead and how to pay it forward. He is the most significant figure in the development of the community in my lifetime.”

Roxbury boy

The descendant of Jamaican immigrants, Guscott was raised on Shawmut Avenue in Roxbury. He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II before attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, where he earned a degree in marine engineering.

Upon returning to Boston, Guscott became involved in the city’s civic life.

He served as president of the board of Action for Boston Community Development,, was a president of the Boston Branch of the NAACP, served as a Class C Director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and a vice president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and was a former director of both the Provident institution for Savings in the Town of Boston and Unity Bank and Trust Company.

“I am shocked and saddened by the sudden and tragic loss of Ken Guscott,” said Mayor Martin Walsh in a press statement. “Ken served Boston and its people in so many ways — as a veteran, an advocate and a lifelong builder of a better city. His vision for Dudley Square and the transformation of Roxbury was bright and vibrant, and he pushed every day to create jobs, support business development and bring greater opportunity to the neighborhood. Boston has lost a true leader, and we will continue to work together to bring progress to all our neighborhoods in his memory.”

He is survived by his wife Valerie, brother Cecil, four daughters — including Lisa Guscott, who heads Long Bay Management’s commercial division — and a son.

Also killed in the fire was Guscott’s father-in-law, Leroy Whitmore, 87

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Fire Code Design's Ronnette Taylor-Lawrence charts a path from trades to entrepreneurship