Why the People’s Yellow Pages, a relic of the 1970s counterculture, still resonate today

It is 1971 in Boston and the revolution is in the air. A group of women occupy a Harvard University building for 10 days. Blood splatters the sidewalk where Boston police disrupted an anti-war rally downtown. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young perform “Ohio”, their song about the Kent State massacre, at Music Hall in Boston.

“There were a lot of liberation movements that started, certainly [the] Black power movement, women’s movement, gay liberation movement, ”says Devon Davidson, who was a graduate student living in Cambridge at the time. “And it was all in the middle of [an] an increasingly active anti-war movement and draft resisters and young men burning draft cards. “

It is in this context that the People’s Yellow Pages were born. The nearly 100-page book was a modest proposition, at first: a regional directory of activist resources and mission-oriented organizations. But the project met with huge success in left-wing (largely white) circles, spurring similar efforts in other cities and throughout the decade.

From left to right: The cover of the 1971 edition of the Pages Jaunes du Peuple; a page from the 1976 edition listing black-owned businesses in the Boston area; a page from the 1971 edition with lists of advice on pregnancy and access to abortion. (Courtesy of Brian Coleman)

Over time, the people’s yellow pages fade from memory. But it has made its way into the archives of Harvard and UMass Boston, an original relic of a bygone era. Fifty years later, it is a testament to the popular ingenuity and radical idealism of the 1970s counterculture.

It all started when Davidson and another young activist named Larry Casalino attended an anti-war meeting.

“A man stood up and said, ‘You know what we need? We need a directory of places where we can keep our money out of the war economy, ”Davidson recalls.

It gave the couple an idea. What if local activists had a resource like the Yellow Pages – that big book the phone company delivered to your door every year?

“There was no Internet,” Davidson explains. “If you wanted to know where a shoemaker’s shop was in your neighborhood, all you had to do was look it up in the Yellow Pages.”

They moved into the Cambridge offices of Vocations for Social Change, a counseling center that Davidson helped found in 1970 under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker activist organization.

“We were working there at night… going through flyers and posters, brochures, anything we could get our hands on that would give us information about countercultural businesses and services in the Boston area.” , explains Larry, co-founder of People’s Yellow Pages. Casalino.

The People’s Yellow Pages have become more than an anti-war resource. It listed everything from women’s awareness groups to free legal aid to yogurt recipes.

Left to Right: A 1971 People's Yellow Pages cartoon explaining the rights of a citizen when approached by the FBI;  A page from the 1976 edition with gay release lists;  A yogurt recipe in the 1971 edition. (Courtesy Brian Coleman)
Left to Right: A 1971 People’s Yellow Pages cartoon explaining the rights of a citizen when approached by the FBI; A page from the 1976 edition with gay release lists; A yogurt recipe in the 1971 edition. (Courtesy Brian Coleman)

“Yes, we were all making yogurt! Davidson said, laughing. It wasn’t very good, she adds.

As bizarre as it may sound now, the People’s Yellow Pages filled a void unique back then, when certain resources were much harder to come by – such as where to get a safe abortion or how to join local human rights groups. homosexuals. And it was a runaway success. The first edition sold out so quickly that the group started working on a second edition before the end of the year. They even created an instruction manual for activists in other cities to create their own counter-cultural repertoires.

The resource had its limits, of course. “We were trying to be aware of being anti-racist,” Davidson says. But, as the creators of the People’s Yellow Pages were predominantly white, college graduates, and young, so were its audiences.

In subsequent editions, the group has been careful to include more resources serving communities of color. An editor’s note in the 1976 edition describes the difficulty of this task. “Many people involved in alternative movements to effect change in their work, life and social communities of African Americans, Spaniards, Asian Americans and Native Americans had never heard of the Pages. Jaunes du Peuple, ”writes the editor. “A number of people involved in important issues did not want to be on the list … They felt they needed more time to better understand the motivations and priorities of the People’s Yellow Pages.”

A list of an anti-racist organization in the 1973 edition of the People's Yellow Pages.  (Courtesy of Brian Coleman)
A list for an anti-racist organization in the 1973 edition of the People’s Yellow Pages. (Courtesy of Brian Coleman)

Davidson keeps a hardcover book containing the first three editions of the People’s Yellow Pages in his Cambridge apartment. Looking at it now, she notices that the social causes of the day are very similar.

Racism. LGBTQ rights. The destruction of the environment. These questions, listed in the People’s Yellow Pages, still resonate today, as urgent as ever.

Some of the entrances look a bit strange now. There were instructions on growing your own mushrooms, advertisements for hippie towns, poems and inspirational quotes.

Davidson says these entries reflect the idealism of the time.

“I felt like there was a lot of hope among a segment of young people coming out of college,” she says. “There was less feeling of unhappiness.”

Davidson says young people have not faced the economic pressures they are currently under. Rent was cheap and jobs were plentiful. Young activists could afford to be idealists. They saw drastic possibilities in living together and in homemade yogurt.

“A lot of people thought there was a sharp divide between what you might call counter-cultural hippies and die-hard political activists,” says Casalino. “And we didn’t believe it. We thought both were necessary.”

The group saw activism as a way to change the world. But they also believed it was important to create alternatives to existing systems – to actually try to build the utopia they envisioned.

“At the time, we really thought we were creating a new world,” says Casalino.

The People’s Yellow Pages were brought down by a more prosaic consideration: money. Davidson says the project ended when the Friends Service Committee stopped funding it in the late 1970s. By that time, the two co-founders had left to seek new employment opportunities. Casalino eventually became a doctor.

The People’s Yellow Pages remain one of his proudest accomplishments, even if some of his entries make him cringe. “We were naive,” he says. “But I think it’s a beautiful thing. And I would still support a lot of what we had to say in the book and a lot of what the book was supposed to do.

You can see more of the People’s Yellow Pages entries here.

Calvin W. Soper

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