With last week’s defeat of the Suffolk Downs casino, who can help but wonder what the future holds for our city’s island neighborhood? Many had pinned their hopes to the proposal to create jobs, investment, and redevelopment.
But East Boston’s future is strong, guaranteed by a diverse citizenry, unique geography, and a spirit like no other Boston neighborhood. The challenge won’t be to find people willing to move in and invest; it will be making sure that future investments leverage what makes this community so special. The hope for a big, one-time payoff may be gone, but the chance for a sustained revitalization is as great as ever.
Still, it must build on what’s already here:
The block party on Montmorenci Avenue in Orient Heights could just as easily be occurring in the 1950s. The song “Sincerely,” by the Moonglows, plays. Grills sizzle with sweet Italian sausage, and tables are piled high with macaroni, veal, potato, and eggs, prepared by families with recipes that have been passed down for generations. At one table sits the mayor of the city and the former Senate president. They sit and talk, about nothing and everything. But mostly they just bust each other’s chops. Kids and dogs dart along the manicured lawns in front of the ranch-style homes that line the street, and on this day you can’t help but wonder if any other city in America does this.
In Jeffries Point, first came the yuppies, later the hipsters, both in search of lower rents and proximity to the city. Many met in passing along the street. They soon realized there weren’t many places to go at night so they began organizing “house crawls” in the evenings and potluck Sunday brunches through Google Groups. In a short period of time everyone got to know each other. Eventually, Guac-fest was created. Now in its fifth year, 200 people, mostly newcomers, fill a backyard and compete to take home the vaunted trophy and bragging rights for best guacamole.
La Hacienda opened in 2008 and has been serving the best papusas and ceviche around. Here, soccer streams on TV all day connecting the many Spanish-speaking customers to their countries of origin. Owner Jose Callejas came from El Salvador in 1981. Today, his son Aldo, who trained at Johnson and Wales, manages the restaurant. At night the bar is filled with a mix of cultures and languages that isn’t found in most neighborhoods throughout the city.
Just 25 years ago, people were running from East Boston. Abandoned railroad tracks were strewn with garbage and filled with rats. Cars were burned beneath the highway ramps, and the neighborhood was failing. Sal LaMattina, now the district city councilor, joined with his neighbors in starting a group called Eastie Pride, to begin the long journey of rebuilding.
Today, new parks line the water, and and a verdant greenway cuts through the core. The neighborhood boasts a new YMCA, library, and MBTA stations. The former Maverick housing project has been rebuilt. A gleaming mixed-used development is underway along the waterfront that will include 400 condominiums, new restaurants, and shops. Behind it, several new large-scale developments are queued for construction.
With the improvements come understandable fears. About 70 percent of the neighborhood are renters who are at the mercy of a market that may be on the verge of exploding. They warily eye the new development, knowing that only 8 percent of their existing neighbors would even be able to afford the new luxury rents. Gentrification concerns these families, but also brings pause to the relatively affluent newcomers as well — people like Boaz Sender, an open-source programmer, whose technology company serves customers such as Disney, eBay, and Intuit. He told me he lives in East Boston because of its diversity, and he doesn’t want to see that go away. He is convinced that happiness is based on a sense of community and place, and he worries that the changing neighborhood could threaten that.
Boston has been here before. Neighborhoods like the South End, Mission Hill, Allston, and Brighton — all have grown and thrived. But they also suffered the effects of gentrification, pricing out many of the people who helped make those neighborhoods great to begin with. But progress doesn’t mean that people need to move. With enough housing creation, planning, and deliberate efforts to create on-site affordable opportunities, neighborhoods like East Boston can find a new way forward.
Now we know that it will be a way forward that doesn’t include a casino. But it needn’t. While some might have seen the vote against the casino a setback, I believe that retaining and growing neighbors, both new and old, is a far better bet.
Mike Ross is a district city councilor.