The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
CHELSEA — It was January when the leaders of about 35 community groups and social service agencies gathered for a seemingly innocuous City Hall meeting. There was no clear agenda for the session, called by the city manager. It was just a get-to-know-you session for people who take on the city’s myriad challenges ― from housing to hunger to mental health ― often fighting from their own little silos.
To some, it felt like a distraction from the work. Cara Cogliano, a social worker who runs Chelsea Community Connections, an agency that works to prevent child abuse, chafed a bit, wondering why they were there.
“It felt like it had no purpose,” she recalled. “But we’d never actually sat in a room together and talked.”
But a couple of months later, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged through the largely immigrant and working-class city, many of those same people were talking daily, trying to figure out how Chelsea would get through it.
The call to action started with a phone call.
On March 11, Mimi Graney, the city’s civic design and engagement strategist, and Roseann Bongiovanni, a former city councilor who now leads the environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots, sent a shared conference line to several people who had attended that January meeting. Soon, others joined the call. (“It was a glorified party line,” Graney said.)
For the next 78 days, dozens of leaders and volunteers from throughout the city would join a 4 p.m. call to triage Chelsea’s most pressing needs.
“At that point in the pandemic, what was true in the morning was no longer true by the end of the day,” Graney said. “We went with the assumption that there is no cavalry.”
So they did what they could on their own.
For Cogliano, whose agency has long run a free clothing closet out of its storefront office, that meant negotiating with BJ’s Wholesale Club to buy pallets of diapers to give away each week. For staff at GreenRoots, it meant diving into complex state housing programs to help renters stay in their homes. And for La Colaborativa, it meant launching a food pantry that began on the executive director’s front porch and now fills an old warehouse near City Hall where more than 1,500 boxes of food are packed and delivered daily.
That operation does more than just feed people, said chief operating officer Dinanyili Paulino. La Colaborativa staffs it with onsite immigration lawyers and housing counselors, uses it as a command center for community organizing, and this week was gathering donations ― from struggling Chelsea residents ― that will be sent to Honduras to help it recover from Hurricane Iota.
Like other groups on the front lines in Chelsea, Paulino said, La Colaborativa is trying to sustain a community amidst a pandemic that’s pushing people apart in so many ways.
“People come here and they connect with one another,” she said. “We see people. We maintain communications. There’s a safety net here.”
Now, as a second wave of the pandemic rises, many people in Chelsea are starting to think about how this network can build more than just a safety net, how it might steer the city through the recovery that will someday come, and ensure that any rebound benefits those who most need support.
From rising rents to pollution to immigration crackdowns, Chelsea faced its share of challenges before the pandemic. Those haven’t gone away, said GreenRoots executive director Roseann Bongiovanni. If anything, COVID-19 has made them worse. But it has also given everyone a road map for how they might work together to tackle the city’s problems.
“We’ve really broken down the silos,” Bongiovanni said. “I think post-pandemic you’re going to see a lot of collaboration, and this might give us an opportunity to think about the larger structural issues. Like why are so many people in Chelsea food insecure? Why is it that Chelsea was so sick?”
To Cogliano, the crisis has highlighted just how fragile people’s work and home structures can be. Chelsea has a large population of newer immigrants, some of whom are undocumented, which makes them especially vulnerable to an economic downturn. Many lack bank accounts and credit cards. When restaurants and hotels and even warehouses closed this spring, a whole informal economy that sustained the community evaporated.
“All those jobs washed up,” she said. There was no money to pay a baby sitter, or to sublet a room. “And [now people] don’t have access to cash. This is a hugely cash-based community.”
That filters out to the small businesses that line Broadway, the shopping district at the heart of Chelsea where you can buy $1 pupusas or a prepaid cellphone or a whole bedroom set. Those shops serve the residents of nearby blocks, who often don’t have the cars or the credit cards needed to shop elsewhere.
“The community has always been very supportive of itself,” said Carlos Matos, chief executive of the Chelsea Business Foundation, a nonprofit launched by the city’s Chamber of Commerce. “In part because it’s been isolated from the mainstream.”
That isolation took a toll during the initial onslaught of the pandemic, Matos said. Business at many stores fell by half. But because their owners didn’t trust government loan programs run by agencies they weren’t familiar with, they didn’t seek help until Matos encouraged them to apply for assistance.
“For a company to feel trust and value it has to be on public display, and there is not a statue, not a street, not a public homage to the 70 percent of the population in this city that is Latino,” Matos said. “No one at City Hall or any high-level position speaks Spanish. All those things don’t engender trust.”
Over the last few months, Matos has tried to build bonds, working with the city to create a need-based metric for business aid. So far, he’s signed up 150 companies for Chelsea’s new $1 million grant program, which will provide small-business assistance for the next three months.
Sustaining businesses, large and small, is essential to Chelsea’s future, said City Councilor Damali Vidot. If the city is going to rebuild into something sustainable, people need good jobs that can support their families.
Getting to that point will take outside help, Vidot said. Chelsea’s needs exceed what any small, poor, city can meet on its own, she said, so she’s looking to Beacon Hill or Washington. Eighty percent of Chelsea’s workforce is employed in essential industries, many in neighboring Boston, from restaurants to hotels to warehouses. They just want the chance to be self-sufficient, Vidot said.
“We’re an immigrant community, people who came to this country to do better for themselves,” she said. “They didn’t come here to stand two hours in line for a box of food. No one wants to live like that.”
Some outside groups have already stepped up.
Last month, the Shah Family Foundation ― the nonprofit started by Wayfair cofounder Niraj Shah and his wife, Jill Shah― announced plans to offset some of the pressure on food banks by seeding Chelsea Eats, a $3 million program that supplies preloaded debit cards for purchasing groceries.
Many are calling it an experiment in universal basic income. But only 2,000 of the 3,500 applicants gained access to the program, so organizations such as the nonprofit Project Bread have been encouraging the other 1,500 to overcome the fear that many undocumented immigrants have of of signing up for federally funded programs like the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“People just stayed away from the program, they stayed away from any government program,” said Erin McAleer, executive director of Project Bread. But it “relieves their budget so they have money to pay their rent.”
Ultimately, Chelsea will take the lead in tackling its challenges, whether that’s social service agencies assuming new duties in a crisis or neighbors simply helping each other out. That’s what Sara Arman is doing.
The 23-year-old Chelsea native, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning at Harvard University, is working on health issues at GreenRoots as part of a neighborhood wellness group, coordinating grocery deliveries, filling out applications for aid programs, even setting up Wi-Fi. In a city where many people are stressed, where worries about immigration status mean “people might not always feel comfortable talking to their neighbors,” she says, those human connections can go a long way.
“Most people in the community recognize that if we build strong infrastructure now and strong communications and having a sense of community in Chelsea, it will be beneficial to everyone in the long run,” Arman said.
But also, she said, it’s important to find ways to celebrate the city’s strength. After all, COVID-19 is just the latest crisis Chelsea has faced. It will survive this, too, and years from now, people will want to know about how it went from the dark to the light. So Arman is collecting their stories, recollections of what life has been like these last eight months ― details that go beyond the raw numbers of infection rates and eviction stats.
She’s hoping the narrative of Chelsea that emerges from the pandemic is not just one of struggle.
“Joy and resilience,” Arman said, will also be part of the story.
Read more about Chelsea and explore the full On the Street series.