A neighborhood on the brink

Marshall Cooper waited all night to speak. He waited in his flimsy plastic chair as the presentation room in the Central Boston Elder Services building slowly filled with Roxbury residents. He waited as the Boston Planning and Development Agency representative introduced the meeting, one that would go over a proposed development in his neighborhood. He waited as the developers presented the packed room with their plan for Parcel 3, an empty lot in Roxbury that they hoped to turn into a retail and housing complex. He waited as his fellow community members, who know him as Mr. Marshall, asked question after question to the developers and the BPDA representative, each more piercing than the next.

“You consider that affordable housing?”

“This is the best y’all could come up with?”

“Where are all the people who live in that area going to go?”

Finally, the BPDA suit gestured to him. It was Mr. Marshall’s time to speak. He rose from his seat, cane trembling slightly, and adjusted a dark green beanie over his gray hair. He introduced himself. Then, he let loose.

“Y’all are just running the low-income people out so we can’t come back no more! You’re running us out of where we’ve been our whole lives!” he said. The developer looked down. The BPDA rep squirmed, tugging at his purple tie. Cooper pointed at them.

“You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

The meeting was originally supposed to be a chance for Roxbury residents to weigh in on the proposal, one that would involve more than a million square feet of apartments, shops and museums. Instead, it turned into an airing of grievances, a release of frustration for a neighborhood that is feeling the slow pressure of gentrification and outside development.

Roxbury has long been considered the center of African-American culture in Boston. Thousands of black southerners relocated to the neighborhood during the Great Migration, and for years, a black middle class thrived. When Martin Luther King Jr. came to Boston in 1965, he started his march in Roxbury, leading protesters down Columbus Avenue.

But now, it is at risk of losing its identity. Boston’s population has grown 14.2 percent since 1990 and the cost of living is nearly 40 percent higher than the rest of the U.S., according to census data. This combination has driven a storm of development to the neighborhood, with institutions and companies lusting after the cheaper real estate prices and relatively bountiful available lands. Northeastern University, perched right on the border of the neighborhood, has been one of the most aggressive intruders.

That pressure is rapidly raising property values to untenable levels. “We’re really at a tipping point, where if the market continues to heat up, a lot of people aren’t going to be able to live in Boston anymore,” said Helen Matthews, the communications manager for City Life / Vida Urbana, a local nonprofit that seeks to empower communities facing displacement.

Traditionally, Roxbury has been one of the poorest parts of Boston. The neighborhood has a median income that is roughly $20,000 less than the rest of the city, according to real estate tracker website Area Vibes. Combine that with the glut of developers eager to sink their teeth into the area, and you get a lot of residents who can no longer stay in their longtime homes. “A lot of the properties that have been bought, they’ve been displacing a lot of people,” said Steven Posey, a Roxbury resident. “We can’t afford to live here anymore.”

The neighborhood is fighting back, though. A community group called Reclaim Roxbury has been working to combat gentrification in the area, and in fact was at least partly responsible for the large turnout at the BPDA meeting. They sent out dozens of flyers, pleading for community residents to raise their objections.  Along the bottom of the sheet, in all bold, it was written, “COME OUT AND SAY THAT ROXBURY RESIDENTS WANT DEVELOPMENT WITHOUT DISPLACEMENT!”

And come out they did. After Cooper spoke, scores of residents gave their two cents. Whether spoken in a soft pleading voice or a booming yell, the message was the same: We’re tired of displacement, and we’re tired of losing our neighborhood. The BPDA representative tried to calm the crowd down, and assure them that there was nothing nefarious about what the developers were doing. Besides, he said, “this is just a proposal—we want to get your input on the matter, that’s what this is all about.”

A voice countered from the crowd: “You’re talking about changing our culture!” Without hesitation, Cooper piped up with his addition. “They did it with the South End, too. And now they’re trying to do it here.”

Roxbury’s roots trace all the way back to colonial times.

“The dregs of urban renewal”

Roxbury’s official history starts in 1630. That was the year the Massachusetts Bay colony made landfall on the East Coast, quickly making themselves comfortable by settling six towns. Roxbury was one of them.

The Roxbury of today, though? That history starts in the mid-20th century. Mostly due to the enormous influx of migrants from the South during that time, Roxbury’s demographics did a complete 180 during this time period, according to the Roxbury Historical Society. What was once a mostly white neighborhood turned into a mostly black one, as white residents fled for the suburbs.

With that population change came a culture change, as well. Roxbury become a hub for civil rights activism, with Malcolm X living in the neighborhood for nearly a decade and Martin Luther King preaching at the Twelfth Baptist Church.

Certainly, the neighborhood has dealt with its fair share of threats, perhaps the direst being the city’s plan to build an expressway that would cut right through the heart of Roxbury. If carried out, it would have irreparably torn the neighborhood in half.  But Roxbury residents would have none it, and protested throughout the 1960s to halt the plans. Their V-day came in 1972, when the city formally canceled any construction.

But the community’s victory was not complete. The proposed highway was just one part of a broader urban renewal program, one that put aesthetic desires over the needs of the community.

“They just came in and razed businesses,” said Bruce Bickerstaff, a Roxbury resident since the 1970s and the former chair of the Roxbury Neighborhood Council. “Coming here, you had the dregs of not only a depressed economy but the dregs of urban renewal.”

The fallout from this period brought heightened crime rates and poverty, two factors that burnished Roxbury a new reputation. It became one of those parts of town that you simply don’t go to. In the words of Charles Fountain, a longtime journalism professor at Northeastern University: “Around Columbus Avenue [in Roxbury], that used to be considered a combat zone.”

But Boston kept growing around Roxbury, both economically and in population. Before long, outside developers and institutions began encroaching into the area, eager to take advantage of the cheap property values and choice location. By the turn of the century, Roxbury was once again under threat. “When we first get a sense of outside interests, it was probably around 2000. That was when you really got a sense that a change was occurring, and the sense of gentrification has just gotten more intense every year [since then],” said Bickerstaff.

According to Japonica Brown-Saracino, a sociology professor at Boston University and the author of a book analyzing urban change in the city, there are early indicators of gentrification that can be easy to spot. “There are many signals, but one of the most immediate is that the racial and ethnic characteristics may change,” she said. Sure enough, between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, 1,180 white people moved into the neighborhood.

Another statistic is even more revealing: Between 2010 and 2015, Roxbury’s median housing costs saw the biggest jump of any neighborhood in the city, rising by nearly 70 percent, according to an Imagine Boston 2030 draft report. For comparison’s sake, the median housing cost in Boston as a whole increased by 36 percent. The rents in Roxbury are literally rising twice as quickly as everywhere else.

The question is no longer, “Is gentrification happening in Roxbury?” Instead, it’s, “Who is causing the gentrification and what can we do to slow them?”

International Village looms over Roxbury. 

Benefiting off of other’s sacrifices

The answer to the first part of that question is wide ranging. In the BPDA meeting held at the Central Boston Elder Services building, the culprit was Feldco Development, a real estate development company with projects in New York and throughout New England. The Boller Building, a shiny new structure in Dudley Square that houses several trendy cafes and businesses, was spearheaded by Mecanoo, a global development firm.

One institution, though, has been a particularly present force in Roxbury and serves as a microcosm of the gentrification threat: Northeastern University. The college has built a multitude of facilities in Roxbury in the past 20 years, slowly creeping into a community that is starting to resent it. The group Reclaim Roxbury made combatting Northeastern one of their main action points, and Tito Jackson, the city councilor for the district, has minced no words in describing the school. “They’re the absolute worst,” he said.

To understand that tension, however, you must first understand the history of Northeastern. Starting with its inception in 1898, the school earned a reputation for providing education to the working class. Small in size and nondescript, it was primarily a commuter school that served the city of Boston and its surroundings. “This was the ‘give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ campus,” said Fountain.

But then came the University of Massachusetts Boston. The newest addition to the state university system had a similar focus as Northeastern, in that it provided a shot at higher education for those who otherwise might not have gotten it. A noble pursuit, but one that cut directly into Northeastern’s corner of the market. “Once UMass Boston was built, we started losing students rapidly,” said Barry Bluestone, founding director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern.

Less students meant less tuition money, a formula that spelled trouble. On the verge of bankruptcy in the early 1980s, the school had a harsh reality to face: Adapt or die. Administration chose to adapt by going bigger.  “What was decided was to become a national university,” said Bluestone.

That moment marked the launch of a concerted effort to rise in the rankings and gain prestige. The vision of being a school for the people of Boston shifted to becoming a school for the intellectually elite. Forget UMass Boston. Northeastern wanted their company to be Boston University, Boston College and Tufts.

By all measures, they were successful. Northeastern is currently tied with Boston University in the U.S. News and World Report rankings at 39, and 70 percent of their student body now hails from outside of Massachusetts. But that growth didn’t come without costs. All of the out-of-state and international students meant that facilities had to be constructed at a rapid pace. Just since 1999, 14 new residence halls have been built. Some of the largest of those were built in Roxbury, including International Village. At 22 stories, it is the tallest structure in the neighborhood. Quite literally, Northeastern looms over Roxbury.

All that development has dramatically increased rents in the parts of Roxbury adjacent to campus. “If there’s an institutional involvement, rents will go up quickly. [Realtors will] use new developments as a sign to raise rent prices,” said Brown-Saracino.

That impact has been undeniably felt in the neighborhood. “It puts some fear in my heart,” said Posey. A graduate of a now-defunct youth program hosted by Northeastern called GearUp, Posey has long been a supporter of the school. But as the development has continued, he has seen more and more of his neighbors become disillusioned with the institution. “When you mention Northeastern, [Roxbury residents] have such a disdain in their mouth,” he said. “It’s disheartening, because I love the university. I just feel like sometimes they’re just not thinking. They’re just thinking about their bottom line and what’s going to be cost effective.”

Bickerstaff similarly believes that Northeastern has lost its connection with the community. “I think that the institution across the board thinks, ‘Oh, we’re doing them a favor for the neighborhood [by developing].’ Well, if you’re walling off the rest of the community, then you’re not doing a favor. You have to give us a larger access, more opportunities,” he said. “Not to say that Northeastern is an ogre, but if you look at their expansion over the last decade, they’re absolutely need to be a balance.”

Roxbury has found an ally within the school in the pursuit of that balance. Not from anywhere within administration, however. The support has come from a student group. The campus coalition Students Against Institutional Discrimination (SAID) has made combatting gentrification in Roxbury one of its top priorities, setting up a task force specifically designed to help address the issue.

Joe Tache, a third-year entrepreneurship major and head of the task force, is disheartened by what he perceives to be a misalignment of priorities. “I get the impression that to Northeastern, the priority is becoming this global university and having the most prestige. Whatever has to be given up in that process is fair game,” he said. “I can respect the growth, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up the identity of being in this community and having commitments to the community.”

Bluestone has noticed the same problem. From his perspective, the school has become fixated outwards. “It’s not paying as much attention to the community that it’s part of,” he said. “My greatest fear is that the current administration at Northeastern is so focused on globalism, on building, that we sometimes forget that we live right here.”

For its part, Northeastern administration does not seem to believe that a problem exists. University spokesperson Matt McDonald neglected to acknowledge the outward growth of the school. “The university is not expanding, but rather, is building on land that it has owned for decades, with the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and the Burke Street residence hall being examples,” he said.

The technical details of who owns what land is secondary, however, for many residents. It is the effects that development has had on Roxbury in terms of rising rent prices that are the most impactful. For many, Northeastern has failed to sufficiently address that concern. “You have to hold yourself on account to the community and mitigate costs. Some people might like the rise of property value, but there are a lot of people where that rise just makes their rent higher,” said Tache.

“We’re benefiting off of other people’s sacrifices. People had to give up their homes. To not care about that? It just doesn’t sit right with me.”

A sketch of the development currently planned for Parcel 3 in Roxbury.

Looking ahead

Going forward, an unavoidable dilemma is looming in the relationship between Northeastern and Roxbury. One of the largest fuel sources for gentrification in the neighborhood has been the increasing number of students moving off campus. Often from more affluent backgrounds than Roxbury residents, Northeastern students (or their parents) are generally able and willing to pay more for somewhere to live.

“The single biggest issue has been student housing,” said Gerald Autler, a senior project manager at the BPDA. “As Northeastern has undergone a transformation from a regional commuter school to a residential campus with an international profile, that’s meant that the number of students who are living at home has shrunk. That’s created an impact on the local housing market, especially in Roxbury.”

According to Bluestone, the college has “done a decent job in housing our undergraduates.” But many, especially in the higher grade levels, still opt to live outside campus borders. Bluestone estimates that about 40 to 50 percent of Northeastern students still live off campus.

The solution to keeping kids on campus, then, is to build more dorms to accommodate more students. But without much acreage to work with, one of the only options for administration is to build on land outside of campus. Meaning, build in Roxbury.

“What that means is that even when they’re trying to house their students, they’re still going to be putting a lot of people in the surrounding communities,” said Steve Meacham, the organizing coordinator at City Life / Vida Urbana. “It will transform Dudley from being the heart of a black community to a whiter, wealthy enclave.”

It’s a Catch-22 for Roxbury. Either they pressure Northeastern to stop building in their community, and thus risk students taking over crucial housing, or they allow Northeastern to build more housing to hold those students, which could very well end up aiding gentrification anyways.

There are other avenues through which Northeastern can help ease the injury being done to Roxbury, however. The first is simple—just be better neighbors. “It’s not like UMass Amherst,” said Posey. “You’re actually stepping into a community. You join my community when you join the school. You treat it at as your home, because really, it is your home away from home.”

For Posey, that means getting involved in the neighborhood and giving help what you can. “The students need to volunteer in the community,” he said. “If they made that a graduation requirement, [Northeastern] would get so much love from the community. It opens the [students’] minds to a whole new different world.”

Autler proposes investing educationally in Roxbury. “You need to increase educational opportunities for people in those neighborhoods. Northeastern should do everything they can to help you achieve a college education,” he said.

For Bickerstaff, who also serves on a Northeastern-created task force that aims to gain community input on institutional development, thinks that making the relationship more cooperative than imperial is critical. “I would like to see them become a partner in development. I think Northeastern could be a staunch ally of developing along Columbus,” he said. “We have models, it’s not like we’re inventing the turducken, you know?”

Bickerstaff hasn’t yet seen that, however, leaving him pessimistic about the years to come: “[Based on their] previous interactions with the community, [I don’t] feel warm and fuzzy about future negotiations.”

He is not the only one skeptical that Roxbury will be better off soon. Tache looks back on history and doesn’t see a precedent for development actually improving the neighborhood. “Maybe it’s hypothetical that gentrification can make a neighborhood safer and help businesses. But I’ve yet to see to an example of institutions expanding into communities of people of color without displacement and further marginalization,” he said.

Brown-Saracino is similarly conditioned to believe that Roxbury will have a difficult time warding off the clutches of outside development. “On the whole, most neighborhoods and most areas have been quite unsuccessful [in combatting gentrification.] We let the market do what the market wants to do,” she said.

The market has made clear what it wants to do. Build and profit. Rinse and repeat. If some residents are forced out, so be it.

Northeastern is just one developer. The wave of gentrification is sure to continue as long as the city keeps booming and Roxbury stays cheap. And right now, it might even seem like a boon for Boston. Every city wants to flourish economically, to have every neighborhood be a Beacon Hill or Back Bay.

It’s a nice principle, but an ill-fated one. “In the long term, this is something the city will have to grapple with and confront,” said Brown-Saracino. “What happens when you don’t have an economically heterogeneous population? There are real consequences for the place and culture and character of the city.”

Part of the development plan proposed for Parcel 3 is a museum. Massive and modern, it would be a center for African-American arts and culture. In an area with as rich a history as Roxbury, it would seem fitting.

But at the raucous BPDA meeting, a women named Stacy, adorned in pink and white glasses put it this way: “How about instead of having an African-American museum there, we build housing units instead so people can look at African-Americans who are still alive?”


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