Story By: Ivanha Paz
Video By: Aya Minami
China Altman was born in Waycross, Georgia in 1935. She has a kind face, a shock of blonde hair, and a wide smile. Even before adolescence, she knew she was destined to be a journalist. She was born Mary Helen, but decided to change her name.
“I knew that with a name like Mary Helen or Elizabeth or Harriet, any lovely female name, that the instant an editor saw it, if it were regarding something you call ‘serious’ they were going to throw it in the trash, that’s just the way it was,” she said. “So, I thought I’m going to change my name, not to a man’s name because that would be ridiculous, not to an initial, but into something that will confuse the editors about what I am.”
She was 16 when she legally changed her name and enrolled in Georgia Southern University. After completing college she was one of the first women to be hired by United Press International, the worldwide wire service. At 20 she packed her bags and moved to Boston.
“When I came to Boston it was a dream and I fell in love with the city instantly,” she said. “I had read about Boston, many nineteenth century novels and I had this kind of romantic concept of Boston in my head, and then I had this real realization of Boston as a place where there were many many many universities and I’ve always been a kind of nerd and that really appealed to me.”
The Public Garden is her favorite place in this city that she now calls home.
“That very first day I walked around in Boston as a newcomer and I walked into the Public Garden and I was just enchanted, I can still remember it,” she said. “It was early spring time and I walked around and I loved it. I loved it more than any sort of public place I had ever seen.”
Her enchantment with the Boston Public Garden began then and there, and it has remained undiminished down through the years. She always made sure that whenever she came back to Boston, her apartment was close to the BPG. In 1988 she started an organization which she called the “Rose Brigade” whose mission it was to lovingly care for the garden’s beds of roses. This is the main reason the Friends of the Public Garden decided to honor her with a bench, right in front of one of those rose beds now under the care of her Rose Brigade.
The Rose Brigade was not actually Altman’s idea. She says that in the mid-Eighties the politicians had decided to stop cleaning up the garden, “It sounds insane,” she said. “So I founded a group that came in and started cleaning up. We did that for five years, until we got the state to come back in and clean up the garden some more.” After that, one of her volunteers told her she wished they could keep on working in the garden. “She said the roses look really bad right now, so maybe we can go in and take care of them,” Altman explained. She said that the roses were not easy. There was a lot of politicking involved, a lot of rejections, and a lot of bureaucracy that she had to deal with . At first the group had to operate in secret to avoid conflicts with the gardeners hired by the state.
Eventually they gained recognition and were allowed to work publicly. The Rose Brigade meets every Tuesday from 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm. Jackie Kagey has been an active member since 2009. She says that in her five years working with the roses there has not been a Tuesday that Altman hasn’t been there, even after knee surgery a few months back. Kagey, a retired teacher, said that the Brigade is a diverse group of all ages which fosters friendships. They take turn hosting parties. Kagey met three women whom she now meets for coffee and a chat on a regular basis. Altman is their leader, “China is not a wimp, she is not a pacifist, she is very determined, very attuned to protecting the green spaces in the city, ” she said. “So when she needs to be forceful she will, and deal with the government or the city, she will. She never backs down.”
Besides devoting her efforts to the garden, Altman now spends her time writing about what issues she considers deserving of greater attention. She has always been an activist. She was a protester, wearing a hard hat as she covered the discontent of the Vietnam War in the 60s in the Boston Common. She describes this period as the most difficult and the most frightening in her career, “I wasn’t just standing around, the police with those night sticks could kill you,” she said.
Currently, she mostly writes about animal rights. She wishes she could do more, “If I were a younger person I would devote my life to animal rights entirely and I would be able to do more,” she said. “There are some people who infiltrate laboratories and do all kinds of investigative work. They have a very hard time and sometimes it can be extremely dangerous.”
Altman never says how old she is, and rails against “ageism.” She stops and talks to musicians on the street and is not above striking up a conversation with any kind stranger on the street, including panhandlers. “Those who are on the same wavelength about going for an entirely different world,” she said.