John Rosenthal is active on gun control, homelessness, and the environment — and in his spare time is a developer
John Rosenthal’s Blackberry lit up. Media requests poured in from NECN, WCVB, and WBUR. MSNBC wanted to talk. Even the Arabic-language network Al Jazeera found its way to his door. The crush of attention was not a pleasant development. News outlets call Rosenthal when terrible things happen, and a very terrible thing indeed had happened. Twenty-seven people were dead after a shooting rampage in a Connecticut school, and grim commentary on the malignant spread of high-powered weaponry was in demand. It has become a shockingly familiar routine, and Rosenthal answered the bell once again, his pain visible.
He looked shaken as he sat on the news set at NECN, parsing the specifications of the guns that a loner named Adam Lanza had allegedly just used to massacre 20 first-graders. Asked whether anyone could go out and pick up the assault weapons Lanza had employed, Rosenthal replied that a would-be gun buyer could, but could do even better: “You could pick up a grenade launcher attachment in New Hampshire for $190.”
For Rosenthal, the founder and chairman of Stop Handgun Violence, these media blitzes have become semi-regular events. They’re almost always coupled with some dreaded event: a shootout at a Colorado movie theater, a Wisconsin temple, an Arizona supermarket, or a Virginia university. It’s during these spasms of violence that news anchors tend to ask where guns are coming from. They call up Rosenthal, the Newton businessman and staunch gun control advocate, and he obliges by unloading a barrage of statistics about lax gun laws (33 states host cash and carry, no-background-check-needed gun shows) and endemic gun violence (an average of 83 Americans die from gunshots every day).
Shooting sprees are usually followed by calls to tighten federal gun laws. The last time Washington followed through on those calls was 1994; since then, Congress has ducked any action on guns, leaving advocates like Rosenthal shouting into the wind. Gun massacres break through this inertia because they make the consequences of gun violence real, but then they fade away. That’s why, for the past 17 years, Rosenthal has been working to bring the same immediacy to the grim, numbing, overwhelmingly ordinary, daily gun violence that fills the space between shooting sprees.
John Rosenthal isn’t a household name, but anyone who’s ever been to Fenway Park, or driven down the Massachusetts Turnpike, knows his work, and his politics. Rosenthal owns the most famous billboard in Boston. It stands 20 feet high and is 250 feet long, sandwiched between the Turnpike and the Green Monster, urging local and national lawmakers to toughen the laws surrounding gun access. That’s enough to jam up Rosenthal’s phone whenever a gun tragedy strikes.
The iconic Fenway billboard has been just one piece of the whirlwind of activity surrounding Rosenthal. He founded, and chairs, a major anti-homelessness foundation in Boston. He’s a solar power developer and an environmental activist. And one more thing: Rosenthal is an affordable housing advocate who’s trying to pull off a $450 million development, Fenway Center, that would be the first project built above the Turnpike in three decades.
Rosenthal’s world is one big matrix of interconnected issues and pursuits, so when the gun issue did find him, it came by way of his role in real estate. When he acquired the Lansdowne Street parking garage in the early 1990s, he soon realized a billboard on top of it gave him a perch to reach tens of thousands of people each day. With the scourge of gang-fueled gun violence tearing at American cities, he found a message to preach. He has become the issue’s most prominent local crusader. However, Rosenthal is the first to concede another grim truth in the war on guns: It’s a battle he and his allies have been losing badly. The country’s powerful gun lobby has racked up one victory after another in recent years in loosening restrictions on gun sales and ownership, leaving Rosenthal increasingly pessimistic about the ability to get through to those in power.
How it will all shake out is unclear, but there are early signs that this time could be different. The White House has promised to file broad gun control legislation early in the new year, and a few of the NRA’s staunchest Democratic supporters are signaling a new openness on the issue. If something tangible comes of it all, the timing may serve as a hopeful coda to the tenure of Boston’s prominent gun control billboard. Rosenthal is embarking on the biggest real estate development of his career, a project that will likely spell the end for the billboard. But any misgivings Rosenthal might have about giving up his outsized platform would be more than made up for by finally seeing the country take action on the message it has been sending writ large.
RESTLESS AND OBSESSIVE
John Rosenthal is a real estate developer, but real estate isn’t the extent of his full-time job. When Rosenthal joined the real estate firm his father founded, Meredith Management, nearly 30 years ago, he did so on one condition: “I had to be free to spend as much time as I needed on social issues, to nurture my soul,” Rosenthal says. He was coming to Meredith after spending several years as a full-time activist who worked construction jobs to pay the bills, and he continued his activism after joining the development firm. So now, as Meredith’s president, Rosenthal is driving efforts to construct a massive apartment and office complex over the Turnpike in Boston, even as he remains enmeshed in the two nonprofits he founded and chairs, Friends of Boston’s Homeless and Stop Handgun Violence.
In Rosenthal’s world, there are no clean lines separating his organizing from his business. He’s pushing several issues in different directions at the same time. He’s involved in developing affordable housing, and in building solar panels, and in organizing against the nuclear power industry, and in maneuvering for gun control, and in raising money for Boston’s homelessness prevention programs. The walls of his Newton office are plastered with posters of old Stop Handgun Violence billboards. Wiley, his Portuguese Water Dog, who ambles freely through Meredith Management’s hallways, sleeps underneath a sign protesting the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. In conversation, Rosenthal leaps rapidly between the Fenway, the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and the mass movie theater shooting at Aurora, Colorado. On one November afternoon, Rosenthal was fielding phone calls from the pension fund that’s sinking $450 million into his Turnpike development, and waiting on the publication of a WBUR op-ed column attacking the National Rifle Association.
“I think my wife would say I have ADD,” Rosenthal says. “But I don’t know anyone who’s been really successful that isn’t restless and somewhat obsessive and imbalanced, you know? How could you be good at anything unless you focus to an obsessive point? So I obsess about a lot of different things.” And in Rosenthal’s mind, the things he obsesses over most—guns, affordable housing, the environment, homelessness, and the influence of money in politics —are all connected. They’re all related strains of an overarching justice agenda. “I can’t tolerate injustice, and I can’t tolerate dishonesty,” he says. “Those given a lot need to give a lot, or they get isolated and crazy.”
Rosenthal, 56, doesn’t fit neatly within Boston’s insular real estate community. He prefers wearing button-down shirts with no tie to designer suits and power ties. Rosenthal’s social circle consists of neighbors, hockey buddies, and people who operate in the same political and social activist circles he works. Mark Erlich, the executive secretary-treasurer of the New England carpenters union (and board member of MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth), says Rosenthal is the only developer he trades reading lists with. He doesn’t spread political contributions around as the cost of winning development approvals; in the past decade, former state senators Cheryl Jacques and Steve Tolman have received more of Rosenthal’s money than Boston Mayor Tom Menino. His office, in a refurbished sail loft, is furnished with couches that feature a fading, seriously dated fabric pattern. It contains a dusty TV-VCR combination set that looks like it hasn’t been touched in a decade. Developers steering half-billion-dollar Boston projects typically don’t operate out of such environs. And all things being equal, Rosenthal would just as soon take his meetings outside, to a picnic table along the Charles River.
Rosenthal is unsparing in his critique of his political foes, like when he calls the NRA “racist, classist, paranoid, and undemocratic.” But he also speaks with a disarming gentleness. Kevin Burke, the former state public safety secretary and Essex County district attorney, and an old hockey friend, says that Rosenthal is “zealous without being a zealot. He has an obvious passion for [gun control], but he does it in a thoughtful, decent, humble way.”
“John is persistent about what he believes in,” says Michael Ross, a Boston city councilor who has been working on issues connected to Fenway Center since his election in 1999. “He comes from a place where he believes we have a larger responsibility than just putting up buildings, that there’s more that binds us.”
Rosenthal, who grew up in Newton, traces his activism to a Holocaust film he watched while in high school. He struggled with the realization that, had he been born a generation earlier in Germany, instead of in suburban Boston, he’d be dead. “I have no tolerance for injustice, whether it’s social, economic, or political, partly because I can’t reconcile why I’m so lucky, why I wasn’t thrown into some concentration camp and exterminated,” he says. So, since he’s been a teenager, Rosenthal has been “chomping at the bit to get out and try to change the world.” He and his wife, Maureen Berkley, who works with him at the development company, have no children, which has left Rosenthal with lots of time for making change.
He enrolled at Syracuse University, but dropped out after less than two years. Rosenthal was disillusioned by the Vietnam War and terrified by the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. “I didn’t think I was going to live to be 30 because of the nuclear threat,” he recalls. “So college lost its importance.” He volunteered as a full-time anti-nuclear organizer, and worked as a carpenter on the side. He was arrested protesting outside the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire in 1977. Rosenthal spent two weeks in jail, and then went back for another three weeks, rather than pay a $100 fine. His jailers cut his hair and shaved his beard; while in jail, Rosenthal survived an attack by a neo-Nazi, and befriended a Moonie car thief. His parents, Rosenthal says, “were horrified.”
The Seabrook protests emboldened Rosenthal. He became convinced that the anti-nuclear movement needed a precedent-setting victory. The lowest hanging fruit, he decided, was the Diablo Canyon plant. The southern California complex was being built less than three miles from an active earthquake fault. So Rosenthal moved to California. He organized against the plant and built homes on the side. Anti-nuclear activists staged a massive protest at the plant in 1981; Rosenthal was arrested while storming the beachfront nuclear site from the ocean. But Rosenthal took his activism against Diablo Canyon past civil disobedience. He kept his hair cut close, wore a sport coat, and courted hundreds of local businesses. He then used anti-nuclear sentiment in the business community to press Gov. Jerry Brown, who eventually came out against the plant. He courted the media, debating an official from the plant’s builder, Pacific Gas and Electric, live on the Today Show. And none of it was enough. Rosenthal saw the writing on the wall when President Ronald Reagan began stacking his administration with executives from Bechtel Corp., the large nuclear contractor. “It was a slam dunk,” Rosenthal recalls. “They were getting their license. I knew I didn’t want to live next to an operating nuclear power plant on an earthquake fault. I had to get out of there.”
Rosenthal accepted an offer to come home and work in his father’s real estate business. Development, Rosenthal says, boils down to organizing and construction, and he’d just spent several years enmeshed in both. His family, once horrified by his activism, had come around to his side after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. “They said, ‘Oh my God, he was right!’” he recalls. “And rather than going to cocktail parties and having people say, ‘Oh, I’m really sorry to hear about your wayward son who dropped out of college and got arrested,’ it’s like, ‘Wow, my son’s on the Today Show!’”
Rosenthal didn’t set out to become a gun control activist. The issue found him, through the Lansdowne Street garage that bears his billboard.The garage was a victim of the banking crisis that swept through New England in the early 1990s. Rosenthal scooped the garage out of foreclosure, and soon after, he says, leased a billboard on the garage’s roof to “a bank that was willing to pay a ridiculous amount of money for that visibility on the Mass. Pike.” Rosenthal hadn’t known what a prime location he had acquired until he cut the bank billboard deal; once he knew tens of thousands people were looking at his new garage every day, he began brainstorming ways to use the property’s visibility to make an impact on public policy. He didn’t know what that policy would be, until a friend mentioned to him that 15 American kids were dying every day from gunfire. That tripped Rosenthal’s outrage wire, and the deeper he dug into guns, the more worked up he got.
“One-hundred-six families were burying family members every day,” Rosenthal says. “Imagine if hamburgers caused 106 deaths a day. You don’t think we’d regulate meatpackers? The deeper I got into it, the more unjust the situation became to me. It was just so obvious the special interests controlled things, that Congress allowed 106 people to be massacred every day, by choice.”
At the time, Boston was emerging from a period of severe gun violence. The federal assault weapons ban, passed in 1994, had opened up a nationwide debate on gun control. Rosenthal dove into that debate head-first. As a gun owner himself, he believed it should be relatively easy to slash gun accidents and violence without impacting lawful gun possession. He created Stop Handgun Violence as a vehicle for making this argument.
Rosenthal co-founded Stop Handgun Violence in 1995, alongside Michael Kennedy. The two were old friends with complementary skill sets. Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy, was the political door-opener with a family history of gun-related tragedies, while Rosenthal was the seasoned activist with the prime real estate. Together, they jumped into a simmering gun control debate on Beacon Hill. And, thanks to Rosenthal’s garage along the Pike, they dragged the gun debate off the hill, and into the streets.
The billboard Rosenthal stuck on the side of his garage is an enormous thing. Whether you’re walking up Brookline Avenue on the way to Fenway Park or stuck in traffic on the Pike, Rosenthal’s billboard is inescapable. It’s designed to stop you cold. Stop Handgun Violence’s first billboard debuted in October 1995, with the faces of 15 dead children smiling out over the Pike, under the words, “The cost of handguns keeps going up. Fifteen kids killed every day.” Doug Houston, the advertising executive who had just generated a series of brutal anti-tobacco television ads for the state Department of Public Health, directed creative efforts on the billboard. He took the statistic that had jarred Rosenthal into action, and put 15 young faces on it. “I love how unique every picture is. Every picture had its own personality, just like those kids,” says Rosenthal, speaking only days before the Connecticut shooting and the gut-wrenching coverage that would follow with photos of 20 eager-eyed first-graders.
The billboard created a sensation. It put public momentum behind an ongoing conversation about gun control in the State House. And it made Stop Handgun Violence the public face of gun control in Massachusetts. Soon, Rosenthal was appearing at press conferences alongside Scott Harshbarger, the state’s attorney general. Harshbarger was marshaling a coalition of law enforcement and victims’ groups and pressing for tighter checks on gun access, and he was directing a controversial effort to regulate gun sales and manufacturing through the attorney general’s sweeping consumer protection powers. And there was Rosenthal, standing nearby the AG, waving a gun in one hand, a teddy bear in the other, asking why the teddy bear should be more heavily regulated than the gun.
Massachusetts passed the nation’s toughest handgun law in 1998. Harshbarger argues that Massachusetts was able to push the law through a Democratic legislature, and have it embraced by a Republican governor, in part because Stop Handgun Violence mobilized citizen activists in a way that didn’t exist in other states.
“John put together a pretty broad-based coalition,” Harshbarger says. “They were pioneers.” Rosenthal’s billboard, Harshbarger says, “was a brilliant piece of showmanship. It was vivid. It was a major educational tool that helped make the case.”
Harshbarger compares Stop Handgun Violence to the citizen coalitions that helped score a string of victories over tobacco firms in the early 1990s. For Rosenthal, though, the model is anti-nuclear activism. The Diablo Canyon protests taught him that “it’s businesspeople, with their influence and resources and clout, that can really move the needle on public policy.”
Anti-nuclear activism also taught Rosenthal how to mount a campaign: Focus on winning one victory, establish a precedent-setting model, and then scale it up. The 1998 gun control law Gov. Paul Cellucci signed was Stop Handgun Violence’s model. It was a success that could be replicated in state houses across the country, and in Washington. There’s no doubt that the strict Massachusetts gun laws worked. Mandatory trigger locks and safe storage requirements all but eliminated accidental gun deaths by children in Massachusetts, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 1999 and 2010, the last year for which data was available, the state’s overall gun death rate was one-third the national average and second lowest only to Hawaii.
The state has cut its gun fatality rate simply by requiring that gun owners lock up their guns when leaving their homes; by requiring gun dealers to operate out of stores, and to perform background checks; and by requiring manufacturers to build in safety features that prevent accidental shootings. “It’s just not that difficult,” Rosenthal says. “It’s the politics that are ridiculous. It’s special interest politics, and spineless members of Congress that refuse to put public safety over special interest campaign contributions.”
Washington, DC, was the city where Rosenthal’s activist playbook—find a model that works, score a victory, and then scale it up—hit a wall. Stop Handgun Violence’s political connections still held. Michael Kennedy provided an introduction to the Clinton White House, via his brother-in-law Andrew Cuomo. Victoria Kennedy took Michael’s place on Rosenthal’s board after his 1997 death; she and Rosenthal pressed Hillary Clinton on gun control, and they had Ted Kennedy’s muscle in the Senate. It wasn’t close to enough. Democrats blamed Clinton’s assault weapons ban for their 1994 loss of the House of Representatives, and ducked votes on guns thereafter. The Bush years saw the assault weapons ban sunset out of existence, the enactment of a legal shield law for gun manufacturers and sellers, and the passage of restrictive legislation that prohibited federal officials from disclosing where crime guns were coming from. George W. Bush inspired some classic Rosenthal billboards, including a gigantic AK-47 labeled, “Coming to a home near you,” in honor of the assault weapons ban’s 2004 expiration; a cut-up mock ransom note from the NRA bragging, “We have your president and Congress”; and a bitterly cheery faux-neon number advertising gun shows without ID requirements or background checks where criminals and terrorists are welcome. As Rosenthal’s Fenway billboards got bigger and badder, though, the cause they promoted sank deeper into the political wilderness.
Rosenthal expected Bush to line up strongly behind the NRA. But he was deeply stung when the Obama White House ducked legislation on assault weapons and background checks, even as Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. Rosenthal saw it first-hand, during a trip to Washington he calls “one of the most depressing days of my life.”
Rosenthal and Burke, the old hockey buddy who was then Gov. Deval Patrick’s public safety secretary, flew to Washington in early 2009 to sell the White House on Massachusetts-style gun legislation. David Simas, a former Patrick aide working for Obama, lined up a meeting with Tino Cuellar, the president’s special assistant for justice and regulatory policy. According to Burke and Rosenthal, Cuellar agreed with their critique of federal gun laws, but the White House had been chased off any gun fight. “There was sympathy and the desire to do something, but the time wasn’t right,” Burke recalls. “It clearly wasn’t going to be a first-term issue.” Rosenthal points to a March 2009 letter that 65 Democratic congressmen sent to Attorney General Eric Holder, urging the administration to back off a renewed assault weapons ban. The implicit threat, Rosenthal says, was, “Don’t touch guns if you want health care.”
It’s a cold, rainy Monday morning in December, but John Rosenthal is outside, trampling through the woods in Belmont, taking Wiley on his morning walk. The bleak weather matches his mood—he’s still shaken by the scale and brutality of the previous Friday’s school shooting. “The sadness is unbearable this time around,” he says, “the thought of 20 babies, scared children, being individually assassinated with an assault weapon.” The concentrated outburst of violence shocked the country and cracked open a discussion on assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips, but the killing didn’t start or end with Connecticut. Over the past decade, an average of eight American children have been shot to death every single day. So, the odds were that, when Rosenthal walked his dog that Monday morning, random gunfire had killed more children since Friday than the Connecticut school shooter had.
“Where do we place the blame? It has to be with us,” Rosenthal says. “Shame on us for allowing Congress to be bought by the NRA.” Rosenthal’s heart tells him that the attitude he and Burke ran into in Washington—that background checks and assault weapons were politically toxic —can’t stand forever. Even before the Connecticut shooting, billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was pledging to use his fortune to start a conversation on guns, and incoming Sen. Elizabeth Warren was telling Rosenthal he could count on her to push federal gun curbs. The Connecticut shooting represents a possible watershed moment, since it shook previously solidly pro-NRA senators and congressmen into saying they were open to at least talking about assault weapons. Those are small openings, but they’re more than the folks on Rosenthal’s side have seen since 1994. If the watershed moment has actually arrived, it’s happening at a time when Rosenthal’s day job is bringing the last days of Rosenthal’s famed billboard along the Pike into focus.
Rosenthal has been chasing down Fenway Center for 15 years now. Like Stop Handgun Violence, the project sprang from Rosenthal’s parking garage on Lansdowne Street. Prior to Fenway Center, Rosenthal’s development company had focused on developing affordable and mixed-income housing in the suburbs, and in cities like Springfield. But when the Turnpike Authority put development rights for a swath of roadway between Brookline Avenue and Lansdowne Street out to bid, Rosenthal bit. He figured he could get a leg up over other developers by rolling the acre of parking he already owned into any development over the Turnpike. “The garage’s highest and best use really was with the air rights behind it,” Rosenthal says.
Air rights development projects in Boston are notoriously difficult undertakings. The Prudential Center, opened in 1964, and Copley Place, completed almost 30 years ago, are the city’s only two Turnpike development successes. Most efforts end in spectacular failure. Two projects have blown up in the time Rosenthal has been pushing Fenway Center. His own is still alive, in part because Boston Mayor Tom Menino brokered a deal between Rosenthal and the Red Sox that moved Fenway Center across Brookline Ave., away from Fenway Park’s Green Monster, to a triangular parcel running along Beacon Street. The current Fenway Center site incorporates a new, expanded Yawkey commuter rail station into a 27-story complex that will include 550 mixed-income apartments, office space, and an organic grocer. Rosenthal plans on topping the project with a huge solar panel installation. He has lined up an investor to sink $450 million in cash into the project, and hopes to break ground in the spring.
Fenway Center is a capstone project for Rosenthal. It’s not just that the project will change the face of the Fenway and put construction cranes over the Pike for the first time in three decades. Fenway Center is being built around smart growth and transit-oriented principles. It’s incorporating green energy and creating affordable housing. It is, in many ways, the embodiment of Rosenthal’s social philosophy. And it also will likely spell the end of Rosenthal’s iconic billboard.
The Red Sox, who are now Rosenthal’s partners in Fenway Center, have been eyeing Rosenthal’s Lansdowne Street garage for years. The advent of Fenway Center will make the garage expendable. Rosenthal expects the team, which has been aggressive about controlling the real estate around Fenway Park, to snatch up and redevelop the parking structure.
The garage has driven much of what Rosenthal has done over the past 20 years. Its Turnpike frontage spurred the creation of Stop Handgun Violence, and turned Rosenthal into a national voice on gun control. Its location turned him into an urban developer on the biggest scale. Now, the ambitious urban development is spelling the end of the garage, and the billboard, that started it all. Rosenthal is looking for a spot on Fenway Center to place a new Stop Handgun Violence billboard. It might go on the side of the complex’s parking garage, underneath Rosenthal’s solar panels. It could go on the end of the garage, facing inbound drivers. It will definitely not be as big or as visible as the current one.
“President Clinton used to tell me he’d change his entourage route into Boston to see the sign,” Rosenthal says. “It helped change the debate in Massachusetts. We helped change the debate nationally. It’s like a family member. It really is. I don’t have kids. But we made that happen. It became a national icon.” Nothing would be more satisfying to Rosenthal than to see his iconic billboard come down, while being able to say its message was finally received.