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Marc Fried, 85; led key study on urban renewal

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Globe Staff / May 18, 2008

Fifty years ago, as bulldozers demolished Boston's West End, Marc Fried was at work on a study that would help change the view many held about urban renewal and the practice of leveling neighborhoods tagged with the label slum.

Leading a team that interviewed hundreds of West End residents before and after their neighborhood was razed and replaced with high-rise luxury housing, he turned their research into the paper "Grieving for a Lost Home: Psychological Costs of Relocation."

Among the residents, Dr. Fried found, losing their run-down neighborhood was akin to a death in the family.

"For the majority," he wrote, "it seems quite precise to speak of their reactions as expressions of grief."

Dr. Fried, a Boston College psychology professor and researcher for about 35 years, died May 11 in Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston of complications from cardiopulmonary illnesses. He was 85 and had lived in Brookline.

"It had an enormous impact in changing both the perceptions of policy makers and the policies that followed, as well as the general perception of the public, about the advisability of urban renewal as it was being practiced at that time," John Havens, associate director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, said of Dr. Fried's research on the West End. "But beyond that, Marc had an impact on the field of community psychology as well as environmental psychology."

The research later was expanded and published in 1973 as a book, "The World of the Urban Working Class."

"I think that study had a lot to do with deflating urban renewal," said Chester Hartman, an urban planner and author who is director of research for the Poverty & Race Action Council in Washington, D.C. "It was a very important piece of research, and there was a sense of social justice about it. I think it really was seminal in many ways."

Elliot Mishler, a social psychology professor at Harvard Medical School, said Dr. Fried's West End study "was not only the most important piece of research he had done, but it had an impact on the field of urban planning. That work affected ways in which urban planners began to think about what they were doing."

And for the thousands of West End residents who fought the demolition plans, only to be scattered throughout the Boston area and beyond, Dr. Fried's conclusions had a personal resonance.

"It legitimized our cause," said Jim Capano, a former neighborhood resident who is now president of the West End Museum in Boston. "People realized you can't do this stuff."

Abraham Fried, who went by Marc, was born in Newport, R.I., and moved as a child with his family to New York City, the South Bronx. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1940 and served in Europe as a medic in the Army during World War II.

Afterward, he graduated from City College of New York, then received a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University, where he shared a class with Joan Zilbach, who became a psychoanalyst. The couple lived together in communal housing for about five years before marrying 55 years ago.

"He was a rebellious, renegade spirit, probably from the beginning of his life," Diana Fried of Sandia Park, N.M., said of her father. "We used to say that he and my mother were hippies before there were hippies."

He was a polymath, too, friends and family said, both intellectually and artistically.

A pianist from childhood, Dr. Fried liked to say music was a respite from a low-income upbringing that had its share of miseries. Earlier in life he considered becoming a composer, and after retiring from Boston College he studied music and art at schools in the city.

Painting and sculpture became as much a home for him as psychology, though he didn't turn his back on that in retirement. He received a license to practice clinical psychology in 2001 and carved out a small private practice in his late 70s.

"I think that for some people, being in his presence was intimidating because the breadth and depth of his knowledge was unusual," Susana Fried of Brooklyn, N.Y., said of her father. "He had a vocabulary like no one I've ever known. He could be intimidating to people who didn't know him, but he was also someone who had a great sense of humor and a lot of warmth."

Diana Fried said her father shunned categorization, and "when we used to ask him: Are you a sociologist? Are you a psychologist? He would never say he was any one of those things because he saw them all as connected, and he didn't want to be under one label."

Devoted to social justice, Dr. Fried was pleased to pass that passion along as a legacy to his four children, his daughters said.

"All of my siblings and I work in social justice fields in one way or another," Susana said, "and I think that has a lot to do with how he taught us, the passion he had, and that we could make a difference."

Among Dr. Fried's musical loves was the Beatles. He was particularly fond of the lyric, "Because the wind is high it blows my mind," from the song "Because," which his daughters sang to him in the final hours of his life. His family had already planned to gather this month for the 50th birthday of his daughter Diana when he became ill.

"There was nothing he loved more than having the family together," she said. "We called it clumping. He was a clumper at heart."

On the day he died, she said, "he made it very clear to us that he had decided to go. He was able to tell everybody that he loved them, and at one point during the day he said, 'We're having a love-in.' That was so my father. It was a '60s word and he loved the rebellious nature of the '60s - that's who he was. He said we're having a love-in and you could see how much it meant to him."

In addition to his wife and two daughters, Dr. Fried leaves another daughter, Lise of Amesbury; a son, Alan of North Yarmouth, Maine; a sister, Rose Slavin of Cambridge; two granddaughters; and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. today in Harvard Hillel in Cambridge.

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