Brick buttressed, stain glassed, and pinnacled with a minaret of oxidized green brass, the church has been bought, and Ken Tangvik has the keys. Two Tuscan columns in front reach up at least twice the height of the wooden entry, framing a large compass design that probably once held a stained glass window, but now is neatly fit with plywood. This is the hulking centerpiece of the Latin Quarter in Jamaica Plain, vacant since 2004. Tangvik gestures toward the building.
“We want to build the church into an arts and cultural center, so we just bought it, and now we gotta raise a whole bunch of money to fix it up.”
Behind the church are the offices of The Hyde Square Task Force, which Tangvik helped establish. Their mission is to help youth who have disengaged from the school system. Now about 100 neighborhood teens do theater, dance, or music in their community programs.
“We have specialists in all of those areas teaching the kids. Then the kids perform all over Boston, but they also give back to the community. Like, the dance group will give free dance classes to different after school programs around the neighborhood.”
Tangvik also teaches full time at Roxbury Community College. He has worked at RCC (almost) since graduating with an MA in English from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
In 2011 he published a collection of short stories, “Don’t Mess With Tanya: Stories Emerging from Boston’s Barrios,” inspired in part by his experience teaching diverse groups about writing.
“I basically wrote a book that could be used in a community college classroom,” Tangvik says. “I’m spending a lot of time marketing, and visiting colleges where the book is being used, and doing those types of things.”
After two years of classes at the University of Rhode Island, and a hiatus traveling across Europe and the Americas, Tangvik visited UMass Boston for the first time in late 1979.
“I got a nice feeling from the campus,” he says. “I loved the ocean and so I started taking some courses.”
He started as a psychology major, and then took classes in the English department.
“I took some English Lit courses, and really liked the English faculty. I liked the courses, so I stayed on and got a Masters degree in English as well.”
He did some writing for the Mass Media, but he was also the Editor of the student magazine, Wavelength. At its peak, the magazine printed twice a semester with social commentary printed alongside fiction and poetry.
“We were a different staff than the Mass Media, but we were very friendly with each other. The Mass Media editors would write stuff for our magazine and we often would write for the Mass Media, so we had a good relationship back and forth.”
The layout process for text still included physical actions, as well as keyboard clicks.
“You had to literally cut with those razors. You had to actually use glue to paste up the paper in the magazine and make copies. We shared some of the same resources to put our publications together.”
Working with the English Department as a tutor, and then as a teaching assistant in graduate school, Tangvik can name a host of professors who influenced him.
“I’d say my favorite class was Linda Didmar’s Literature and the Political Imagination, because she kind of merged together two of my passions, which were politics and literature.”
UMass Boston's politically active student body inspired Tangvik’s studies and writing.
“We had the Three Mile Island meltdown right around then, and there was a huge student movement there against nuclear power. There was also a lot of US intervention in Central America, Ronald Reagan, El Salvador, Nicaragua. There was a lot of political activism around US foreign policy in Latin America.”
“I remember that the Sandinistas were a rebel group who had overthrown a right wing dictator in Nicaragua. They had overthrown the Samosa Regime that had been supported by the US government for decades, and these were young, radical, guerrilla fighters, and their leadership came to UMass.”
The Sandinistas were in town on business, so The Wavelength set up a microphone and a stage and invited the rebel group to a press conference.
“They had just taken power of a Central American country, and they actually were in Boston 'cause they had to negotiate some debt with the Bank of Boston, so they stopped into UMass, and that was a really big moment for all of the political activists to meet the Sandinistas at that time.”
The political awareness, and engagement of the campus community in international affairs prompted Tangvik’s community activism. He met all kinds of people in classes.
“You would have young intellectuals from the Dominican Republic who were probably here illegally or on a visa, and then you had some Cambridge leftists, and then you had some 19 or 20-year-old kids from South Boston who had brothers in the Marines and you’d be debating political issues,” he says. “You had single moms taking classes in all the classrooms. It was fascinating to get all these different perspectives.”
Many activists hung out in the second floor lobby of the McCormack building between classes. There were a lot of different places to hang out, including the Wavelength office and the cafeterias.
“You could always walk into the cafeteria and find a group of people that you could talk to,” Tangvik says, recalling his first encounter with hippies.
“I went to the Earth Foods Organic restaurant where they served all this food like lentils and hummus, and all that kind of stuff, vegetarian restaurant,” he says. “I remember people rolling joints at the tables, and someone introduced me, they said oh this is so and so, and he’s gay and I was like oh my god I’m sitting at a table with a gay person and it was the first place I had ever been where people openly said you know, I’m gay. They would look you in the eye and say that so that was a huge eye-opener for me and I’m someone who considers myself very progressive now, but as a 23-year-old it was pretty mind expanding.”