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Article from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, April 30, 1999
Reformatted by Eric Gulliksen



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Congress Alley
Born of a Dream


'60s music, artistic scene
an experiment in freedom


                           by James Dempsey


There's no street sign at either end of Congress Alley (there is now - ed.). You can still find it in city directories, though, and a street map will show it as a short path parallel to Pleasant Street on the brow of the hill where Pleasant meets West.

The whole length of Congress Alley can be walked in a minute. From the Crown Street end it changes quickly from crushed rock to dirt to a mere footpath flanked by weeds and trash, before dipping steeply into Newbury Street behind a bar. It's so out of the way a person could live a lifetime in the neighborhood and never set foot there.

But about thirty years ago, Congress Alley was the place to be. It was a sort of communal back yard for the young artists and musicians who had settled in the neighborhood. The band Orpheus, whose Can't Find the Time to Tell You is the only national hit song to come out of Worcester, bloomed on Congress Alley. Guys from the J. Geils Band lived on nearby West Street. Political activist Abbie Hoffman would drop by. Nationally known folk musicians playing at the Y-Not Coffee House were regular visitors.

On weekends, curious teenagers from the suburbs drifted in to taste the bohemian lifestyle enjoyed by the bell-bottomed, long-haired easygoing denizens of the alley, where marijuana and music drifted in the air, conventions andconformity were forgotten, and all you needed was love. Telegram columnist Jack Tubert called Congress Alley a "psychedelic playground."

Stephen Martin, singer with Orpheus, was the creative force behind Congress Alley. In 1967, the Summer of Love, Martin had gone to San Francisco (yes, with flowers in his hair). He came back to Worcester inspired to recreate Haight-Ashbury here and, when he found a cheap apartment on pretty Congress Street, he persuaded his musician and artist friends to join him.

"I said we can perhaps cause some change," he said, "the idea being that everyone was united by a spirit of creativity."

And by a taste for the excesses of youth. Many of the new residents used marijuana, LSD or the more exotic mushrooms, and shared the kind of free-wheeling lifestyle that probably wasn't appreciated by their straighter neighbors.

"Overall the neighbors were extremely tolerant, and we were pretty outrageous," Martin said. "One night we dragged down the Congress Alley street sign, pole and all, and put it on my back porch. The neighbors shook their heads and smiled. Then Charlie Brink painted the fire hydrant red, white and blue. But we never had any trouble from the neighbors.

There was unwanted interest from the police, though. And when Worcester's finest made unexpected visits to one house, word was quickly passed to others via walkie-talkie. A rope pulley that was stretched between two homes was used to transfer drugs in a little bucket.

But Congress Alley wasn't just about getting messed up. Martin's dream was to bring together artists who could enjoy "absolute freedom of expression." They wrote up many of their artistic and political ideas in the Worcester Punch, an underground newspaper. Soon, "Congress Alley" meant not just a back street but a group of artists and musicians and their lifestyle and philosophy.

"My warmest memories are of afternoons sitting at my desk overlooking the alley and writing," Martin said. "It was during the beginning of the alley, and feeling good about what we were doing. We had a lot of hope and idealism."

Norman Schell, who went on to form the folk-rock band Clean Living, moved to Congress Alley in 1968.

"It began to take on a character of its own," he said. "All we were trying to do was live in close proximity with people who loved the same things. We never thought of ourselves as part of anything, but then we began to see similarities with what was happening around the country."

Worcester writer David Nader remembers visiting Congress Alley as a 15-year-old. The place has always fascibated him, and he has written a spoken word piece called "Congress Alley" that he will perform at 7 p.m. May 14 at Coney Island Hot Dog on Southbridge Street.

"It was a low-income, working-class neighborhood that was a cheap place to live," Nader said. "The majority of people who settled Congress Alley were folkies. They wanted a place where they could live, play and work together. It's the same as what people are speaking about now, an area for the arts. People said, 'Here's a gray, dull city. Let's liven it up and inject it with culture and the arts.'"

The former bohemians of Congress Alley now include executives, musicians, producers, businessmen, a market research director and a college security chief. Nader organized a reunion of some of the residents of Congress Alley a couple of weeks back, and about a dozen showed up.


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