Living Through Gentrification

Something kind of strange has been going on around here lately. Our neighborhood has been improving. I think there must be some city money going into beautification, because pretty randomly all of the shops along the main streets replaced their hand painted tarps with actual signs. It’s not just that though, in a few more months, a great big park that will connect the neighborhood to Airport T-Station will open along with an old industrial warehouse that is being converted into a brand spanking new YMCA. The MBTA will be remodeling Maverick Station as well, along with new landscaping at Maverick Square. And it seems like the demographics are changing as well. Taking into account that everyone in Boston moves in May and September, it already seems like there is a huge spike in the student population. These are the people that we know as the “risk-oblivious,” people without kids who can choose wherever they want to to live and have the money and support systems to leave if anything ever gets too bad.

My neighborhood is hundreds of years old. We started out as an island (Noodle Island) and the British had a garrison here. The island was slowly connected by landfill to the town of Winthrop-by-the-Sea and to form the south shore of the Chelsea River. We are surrounded by water on all sides, the Atlantic to the east, Boston Harbour to the south and west and the Chelsea to the north. Development was relatively slow compared to much of Boston, which sprawled south due to geographic constraints. In the eighteen hundreds East Boston became the center of the clipper ship building industry. Housing sprung up for the immigrants (mostly French-Canadian) who came to work on the ships. Development typically followed this pattern: industrial and warehouses two blocks deep along the shore line with housing (typically Victorian triple-deckers) filling up the inside. Over the next hundred years, the Canadians were gradually replaced by Italians and then by Salvadorians. The city used additional landfill on the east side to build Logan International Airport, but other than that, the fabric of the city has remained mostly the same over the last hundred years. At some point in the last ten years, someone realized, “holy crap, there are at least 20 square blocks of unused industrial sites (or brownfields, as it goes in the lingo) that have the best possible views of downtown Boston… and it’s only one subway stop from downtown and the financial district… and it’s cheap as yo mama.”

The city started a few years ago by replacing some old train tracks with parkland right on the harbour, and now the redevelopment is starting. The project that I described in my last post is only the beginning of the new work. One other big example is called “Pier One” (I can’t even write that without imagining Kerstie Alley yelling). It’s a development of 505 luxury apartments, 80 condos, 380 boat slips and 150,000 square feet of restaurants and retail and office space. It’s hard to imagine this without thinking of how it will change the shape of the neighborhood. Although, if anyone has an extra 50 million lying around, I’ve got some great plans for a fish gutting factory.

Gentrification is scary when it happens to your neighborhood. I know my landlords well, and I don’t see them doing anything to make it hard for me to live here, but you have to wonder if you are going to be able to afford to stay in your neighborhood when the professionals start moving in. There are, however, big winners as well. The Italian lady in the building behind me has had her place handed down to her from her grandparents. Her family has owned it for almost 100 years. In a few years she should be able to sell it for four or five times what it was worth a year ago (and in Boston’s housing market, we are probably talking a million.) Not bad for something that your poor immigrant grandma left you.

I think that is the thing about gentrification. Cities go through cycles. Neighborhoods will regenerate and decline. Right now, the inner cities seem to be significantly improving, but at the cost of first and second ring suburbs, especially ones that were built post-war and turned out poor places for communities. In the words of James Howard Kunstler, “To demand an end to these processes would result in the death of the city.” We just need to remember those that are being pushed out.


Anna 5:28 PM  

Doug is renting a half of a three bedroom duplex for like 900 dollars near Minneapolis. And you were talking about a two bedroom going for like $265,000 near Somerville? Life is crazy sometimes. I rememeber feeling a bit nerveous about the green live coming to Union sq, because I knew that then all the immigrants would probably not be able to live there anymore. Good for the landlords, bad for people with low income housing needs. I guess it's always like that when they spiff up a neighborhood.

onetenchelsea 6:45 PM  

no, no, $625,000, not $265,000.

Transit doesn't automatically raise the rents, it depends on how development goes around it, but with the way somerville has been going (and even moreso the way that cambridge has been more and more difficult to find housing in, Somerville would have increased anyways. It's already half students anyways, so it may not make that much of a change.

onetenchelsea 6:47 PM  

btw. Mass has a requirement that 15% of housing be low income in all cities. You have to know what programs to join to gain access, but it's out there.

Driver2165 10:07 PM  

i'd like to see some ideas other than large segments of cities planned by single development group. i'm thinking along the line of city-subsidized simple small business loans instead of large subsidies paid out to millionaire developers.

it's like the renaissance on east lake street in powderhorn that's not happening on the north side. i think the reason is misplaced welfare. if a community was built by a like-minded population like lake street's hispanic restaurants, taxi services, banks, real estate offices - just about everything you can think of, there's a small hispanic version on east lake street that's run by a family that lives nearby. of course that's happening there and not over north because of cultural reasons, but yeah i'm thinking some sort of push to get people to do it themselves is good for the city

or not

is this happening cityguru?

John 5:34 AM  


onetenchelsea 1:28 PM  

I know what you mean, for example, my building is a wood frame triple-decker hemmed in between to much larger brick ones, behind us, there is another street, which is really just an alley that happens to have buildings fronting it. All of the buildings front the street, but we all have small back yards. Over the past 30 or so years, when the neighborhood wasn't so good, a lot of trash got pilled in these small yards. So anyways, my landlords, who are a young childless couple in search of a cheap place to live, so East Boston as an improving neighborhood and buy my building. They put a great deal of effort into cleaning out thier yard, and it looks great. So now, a lot of other people on the block (even renters!) put in the work to clean out their backyards, and some even start planting gardens. So, people setting a good example start to make a differance in the face of the community. Here is the thing though, if my landlords hadn't heard that Eastie was improving they wouldn't have moved here. How do they hear things like that? Highly publisized big developments. Same with East Lake really, Projects like Honeywells expansion, Wells Fargo and the one insurance company moving into the neighborhood and the hospital's expansion give people a reason to stay, and it brings in more users during different parts of the day for the resturants, shops, ect.

The big developers are easy to bash, but really we need them. The reason that they are easy to bash is that in America we don't do enough to keep them accountable to communities. We have a tiny bit of zoning requirements (most of which don't make sence anyways) and beyond that they can do what they want, and they will almost always choose to build on previously unused land (greenfields) because it's just plain easier. That is where cities need to step in. Cities are, however, at a disadvantage in the US, mostly because there are so many small municipalities, Mpls can't make someone not build something in Northfield and vice versa. There are other ways to do things. In Berlin for example, the city buys all of the unused property that it can and then holds on to it until they want something to be built there. They dictate the terms of what can be built, and they make a steady profit for the city. It's one of the reason that the city of Berlin's art budget is larger then the National Endowment for the Arts for the entire US. Think of it like this. Anytime that anyone in the metro wants to sell property, the city gets first dibs, at market price (I'm talking farmers in Plymouth on down to vacant lots in Mpls) Then the city decides where development needs to go and sells it to a developer. That way they can force developers to fill the vacant lots in Mpls before sprawling onto the greenfields in the outer 'burbs or devouring rural property.

It's such a crazy uphill battle here, but we have to remember, most of our sprawl was created in the last 60 years, and we can undo it almost as fast.

Driver2165 9:33 AM  

i just mean the area near bloomington and lake that's starting to spread west. it's still a good distance from any of of the large developments, and i'm thinking the few upscale condos going up are because of this. it's mostly hispanic immigrants that live there. i don't think anybody has to move anywhere for this to happen. the poor neighborhoods can fix themselves by becoming self-reliant as a community like e lake st, as far as the small local service industry places. the areas that are already more up-scale make their neighborhoods more desirable when a few local residents open an arty cafe, or an upscale small restauraunt, or a boutique store. i just think that's the sort of thing that will more solidly develop an area in a way that's more natural, where the more large-scale development is reactionary and the people are revolutionary.

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