Finding inspiration in Malden’s History: Inna Babitskaya

Inna Babitskaya (left) with Malden Mayor Gary Christenson after the publication of her book "Fellsmere: Park - Emerald of Malden" in 2013. Photo by Paul Hammersley.

In May 2020, Malden Reads planned to host the Malden Mass. Memories Road Show (MMRS), a statewide, event-based, participatory digital archiving program that documents people, places, and events in Massachusetts history through family photographs and stories. Due to the pandemic, the in-person event could not be held. So Neighborhood View, in collaboration with Malden Reads, is contributing photographs and stories online as part of the Malden Mass. Memories Stuck-at-Home Show. The following story continues the series of participant profiles, which focus on photographs and what they mean to that resident of Malden.

By Joy Pearson 

Although we all live in an historical context, our focuses differ. We are shaped by the places and cultures in which we have lived and in which we currently live. But only some of us have eyes that see history everywhere. Inna Babitskaya’s view of life is indelibly guided by historical and cultural lenses. She gravitates to and admires historic buildings. She seeks out biographical facts. When she writes, she writes from an historical point of view.

This developed from Inna’s childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, where she was surrounded by grand buildings and studied events of Russian history.

In 2001, Inna immigrated as an adult with her parents to Malden. Her already established orientation to history continued. She was impressed and fascinated by Malden’s past, starting from its incorporation as a town in 1649. Soon, Malden’s history came alive to her as she spent many hours at the Malden Public Library, an historical structure in its own right.

When she soon moved to an apartment in the former Malden Auditorium on Pleasant Street, she became even more immersed in the city’s history. For Mass Memories, she includes an old print of the auditorium, a formerly much-used and lively cultural center, now an apartment building.

Two photos of 157 Pleasant St, Malden, taken a century apart.

“I chose these photos of the building where I lived because they show its transformation,” she said. “At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th-century, there Maldonians attended operas with famous singers, plays, and dancing balls. When the movie era came, it became one of the city’s seven local movie theaters.” But decades later, “the interiors of this former place of vivacious entertainment changed into a rather ordinary apartment building.”

From her new apartment, Inna could also see Malden Center. Relatively close to her house were two places that she visited quite regularly – the Immigrant Learning Center (located in the Odd Fellows building) and the Malden Public Library.

Many people living in Malden and the Greater Boston area learned from friends and family members about the Immigrant Learning Center (ILC) – the non-profit organization that helps immigrants in Massachusetts. An early Malden acquaintance told her that, at the ILC, she and her parents could study English.

“I attended it as a student for a few days a week for a few months in 2001,” Inna said. The ILC “became a great place for many immigrants where they could not only learn a language free but also get the adaptation skills that are so necessary” for newcomers.

Although Inna and her mother arrived in Malden with good English speaking skills, at ILC they benefitted from getting acquainted with so many people, including other Russian-speaking immigrants. From 2009 to 2012, Inna worked there as a volunteer-ESL/ESOL teacher.

Immigrant Learning Center. ESL volunteer teachers. Inna Babitskaya, 2nd from the left in the 2nd row

“This work was very interesting for me, as it required a creative approach to explain to new immigrants from different countries, different ages, and backgrounds the problems of an almost unknown foreign language. With some of them, I talked about their past life, their problems,” she said.

Inna also remembers the synagogue Congregation Beth Israel, where the Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants also received significant socio-cultural and moral support.

“In the former Soviet Union, religion was practically forbidden and the religious life was very limited, which is why it was so important for my parents and their friends to get acquainted with the traditions and spiritual life of the Jewish people. The leadership of the synagogue showed great attention to the emigrants and gave them moral support.”

According to Inna, the synagogue’s Center for the New Americans helped her family and other immigrants adapt to their new lives. In addition, the Center helped Inna and her family learn some of the history of Greater Boston as well.

Inna enjoyed the literature-musical concert for the Russian-speaking community of Greater Boston, where her mother, a published poet, read her poetry.

The Malden Public Library became one of a few places in Malden where Inna and her family spent a lot of time. To her, the Malden Public Library was a very impressive building, an architectural “masterpiece,” designed by the famous American architect H. H. Richardson. Inna liked that she could borrow both English books and Russian novels there. She attended many musical concerts in the library galleries, and there learned of meetings of the Malden Historical Society, eventually becoming a member.

The exterior of the Malden Public Library. The building was designed by famed architect H. H. Richardson

Gradually, Inna became more passionate about the local history and began to write a regular series of articles in The Malden Observer and The Malden Evening News about what she learned from the library’s local newspaper archives, historical books, and Malden’s Historical Society’s register. Her subjects ranged from the Boston Rubber Shoe Company to the first woman judge in New England Emma F. Schofield to actor and singer Ed Ames. She also published From Maldon to Malden, a history book based on her research into Malden’s early history.

In 2013, Inna gave 30 copies of the book to a visiting delegation from Malden’s sister city, Maldon, England. Malden Mayor Gary Christenson wrote the preface. Inna said that she considered it a great honor to have been called the “unofficial Malden historian.”

When a new cultural group emerged at the library, Inna happily became involved with Malden Reads “One City, One Book.” A 2012 photo (below) is from Malden Reads’ opening celebration event and shows Inna with her parents near the presentation table. Inna was a member of Malden Reads from 2012 to 2015, and designed the group’s website.

(Left to right) Avrom Babitskiy, Svetlana Babitskaya and Inna Babitskaya near the presentation table during the opening of Malden Reads at the Malden Public Library, 2013.

Inna was also delighted to discover Malden Access Television (MATV), now Urban Media Arts (UMA). She attended workshops about video recording and show production. She volunteered at the annual all-day MATV Open House, interviewing local celebrities, elected officials, musicians, dancers, and other artists, and learning more about the city.

“It (MATV) tremendously helped me to learn more about the city community and to get acquainted with wonderful people. I liked the creative atmosphere of these events and their community spirit.” Inna said.

Inna Babistkaya (right) interviews Malden resident Candace Julyan on MATV’s Open House Showcase (2013).

Inna continues to be impressed by Malden’s beautiful historic parks – Bell Rock Memorial Park, Fellsmere Park and Pine Banks Park. She wrote articles on Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons (responsible for designing Fellsmere Park, Bell Rock Memorial Park and Pine Banks Park) and Malden’s most successful and generous benefactor Elisha Slade Converse (who donated land and money for Fellsmere Park and bequeathed Pine Banks Park to Malden and Melrose). Converse ties together so much of what Inna says represents Malden – the Auditorium, the Boston Rubber Shoe factory, the Malden Public Library, the Malden Hospital, the First Baptist Church, the historic parks, and the Malden Historical Society. She also wrote the book Fellsmere Park: An Emerald of Malden in 2012.

In 2012, Malden residents benefited from Inna’s knowledge of Fellsmere Park when she gave a presentation and guided tours of the park. UMA, then MATV, video-recorded and cablecast her tour.

Inna Babitskaya conducts historical tour in Fellsmere Park.

She continues to research Malden’s history and is now working on two more books, – one about Malden’s first mayor Elisha Slade Converse and the other about Malden women who have made significant contributions to the city and state.

“While living in the city for over 20 years, I fell in love with Malden and Maldonians,” Inna said. “I cherish its history and think it is very important to preserve the city landmarks for future generations.”

Read other stories in this series:

Linda Zalk: Places we’ll remember all our lives

Neal Anderson makes politics a family affair

Ron Cox stands up for history at a young age

Birukti Tsige on culture, family and community

2 Comments

  1. What a great story! When I grew up in Malden in the 50’s and 60’s post WWII the city was full of Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants. Most of the folks on my street spoke Italian in the Edgeworth section, and we had the best bakeries in town. We also had loads of Italian restaurants and a great little local market called “Spiritos” which may have been bought by the Spinetti family as we interchanged this name a lot. We would actually WALK to this store alone as kids and my mom would tell us to just ‘put it on the tab” which I never understood until years later. I just knew we never paid for anything. I guess in time she saw all the Devil Dogs I’d added as my own personal “tip” for making the trip there, but she never said a word to me about it!

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