Nov. 17, 2020, was a momentous day in Kendall Square. Moderna — a little-known Cambridge biotech built on the long-unrealized dream of using the technique of mRNA insertion to create new drugs — announced that its coronavirus vaccine was 94.5 percent effective, joining its biotech behemoth neighbors Pfizer and BioNTech in the global race to end the pandemic. The triumph reaffirmed Kendall Square’s enviable reputation as a hive of innovation and opportunity.
That same day, just one block away from Moderna’s headquarters, 83-year-old Wilma Allston-Hughes arose in the neighborhood she had lived in for over six decades. For much of that time, The Port, long known by its planning designation, Area Four, was considered among the least desirable spots to live in Cambridge. Now, gleaming office buildings and state-of-the-art labs have sprung up in all the vacant lots east of the neighborhood, making the maze of brick three-story walk-ups where Allston-Hughes lived an island within a sea of silver and glass.
She had moved there with her foster mother as a teenage polio survivor, becoming a matriarch in the mostly Black and brown community over the years. But on Nov. 17, Allston-Hughes lost her footing and fractured her rib. Tests at Mass. General revealed she was also infected with the coronavirus. She stayed in the hospital another month, in and out of intensive care, until she died on Christmas Day.
The two events unfolded within 2,000 feet of one another but worlds apart. The Port neighborhood, home to Washington Elms and Newtowne Court, two of the oldest public housing developments in the country, has long existed in the shadow of its thriving high-tech neighbors.
“It’s the tale of two cities. People look at Cambridge and they see Harvard and MIT, Moderna and Pfizer, but they don’t see the other side,” said 26-year-old Niko Emack, a lifelong resident of The Port.
The gulf between the two communities has perhaps never been wider than at the start of 2021 when the quest to defeat COVID-19 with vaccines went into high gear. The biotech firms develop groundbreaking technologies to manipulate nucleic acids in human cells, while Newtowne Court residents struggle to access basic broadband. Families living in Washington Elms report an average annual income of $29,833, while some Kendall Square CEOs rake in seven-figure salaries. Moderna board members received their first jabs in late December, but it wasn’t until February that a public vaccination clinic appeared in Cambridge, four miles away from The Port. And whenever the vaccine is made available to them, many Port residents said they likely won’t accept it, skeptical about safety even though the vaccine formula was concocted in their backyard.
For a long time, The Port sat on the literal wrong side of the train tracks in Cambridge, occupying a 191-acre plot extending west from Kendall Square to Prospect Street in Central Square. But in the past decade, with nearly every square foot of Kendall Square occupied, companies like Pfizer and Moderna have edged closer. The neighborhood — a melting pot of lower-income immigrant communities since the 1940s — found itself surrounded by the sounds of jackhammers. The housing developments remained but beloved barbershops and corner stores were reborn as coffee shops and microbreweries catering to the newer arrivals.
“I have a love-hate relationship with it all, because on one hand, growth is important,” said Ty Bellitti, who grew up in The Port but moved away because he couldn’t afford to purchase a home in the neighborhood. “But it sucks when the people aren’t empowered to grow with it.”
Up until a few years ago, the city of Cambridge still called the neighborhood Area Four, a name designated by the Planning Board in 1953 and irksome to residents who argued it sounded like a police sector. Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan and City Councilor Denise Simmons — both raised in the neighborhood — pushed to rename it in mid-2015. Ultimately, 85 percent of neighborhood residents favored a switch to “The Port.”
The neighborhood is one of 13 in the small city that consistently ranks as one of the three most expensive in the country. In January 2020, the average rental cost in Cambridge was $3,189 a month. Tenants of Newtowne Court and Washington Elms are required to put 30 percent of their income toward rent, which equates to roughly $750 a month for most families.
Many tenants make their living working at places like CVS, Target, Whole Foods, and Shaw’s. Of the 342 adults in Washington Elms and Newtowne Court who listed their employer on housing documents, just one reported working at one of the city’s 10 largest biotech employers, according to data provided by the Cambridge Housing Authority.
Some tech giants have extended support to the neighborhood. Google donated a computer lab to the Margaret Fuller House, a social services provider, in 2019, and BioMed Realty made a $2 million donation to the house last December, the largest in the organization’s history. Biogen, Novartis, and Sanofi have also been reliable partners with neighborhood groups over the years.
But many community advocates see the efforts as fleeting and superficial. MIT and Google collaborated to create free high-speed Internet that services Kendall Square. But the early 20th-century brick walls of Washington Elms and Newtowne Court block residents from accessing the wireless network, unless “they hang their computer out the window or stand in the middle of the street,” said Mike Johnston, executive director of the Cambridge Housing Authority.
Several companies commissioned artists from the Cambridge Community Art Center to paint a mural celebrating Port institutions like the Margaret Fuller House and Izzy’s, a storied Puerto Rican joint across the way from Washington Elms. But the painting is hardly a conspicuous neighborhood presence, located as it is in a rear alleyway of the office park, along the wall of a Cambridge Athletic Club that requires a $74 monthly membership fee (but offers discounts to employees of nearby biotechs).
“I used to do fund-raising [at the American Repertory Theater] and it was plentiful,” said CAC executive director Erin Muirhead McCarty. “There were big fancy functions and money was flowing. And then, you know, now I am over here in The Port, trying to raise money to fuel art programs for students of color who really need these programs. It is like pulling teeth.”
A spokesman for Pfizer said the company has provided financial support to eight community organizations in the past year and recently partnered with MassBio on a social media campaign to further vaccine knowledge and trust within communities of color.
A spokesman for Moderna did not provide comment on outreach efforts to The Port community.
Wall Street analysts project the two companies will generate over $32 billion in COVID-19 vaccine revenue in 2021 alone.
“Look, people are dying. This is an opportunity to look at a crisis of great proportions in what is deemed a science mecca and wonder why the wealth and resources of that mecca aren’t touching the residents of the neighborhood it exists in,” said Tony Clark, chair of My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge, a nonprofit focused on empowering vulnerable youths in the city.
The exact toll of the pandemic on Cambridge’s most vulnerable residents is not officially known. Johnston oversees the housing authority, which functions separately from the city of Cambridge. He has asked the Public Health Department repeatedly to release data on how many of his residents have tested positive or died from the virus. But the department has denied the request, citing privacy issues.
Anecdotally, residents report losing a number of Port residents to the virus. Clark said two of his aunts, both longtime neighborhood residents, died from COVID-19 last year. Wilma Allston-Hughes often outfitted herself with multiple masks and a face shield. But, ever the advocate, she worked the election polls two days before her 83rd birthday. She was admitted to the hospital 12 days later.
The pandemic has also wrung from the neighborhood the cultural bastions that remain. Port Cafe, a monthly neighborhood potluck, is on indefinite hold. The St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest Black church in Cambridge, has been relegated to Zoom sermons. The familiar smile of Giovanna Huyke, the head chef at Izzy’s since the 1980s, is hidden behind layers of glass and a mask.
“I hope one day this is over, and we can sit on the benches and socialize again. But even when that happens, there are faces that won’t be there because they’re gone,” said Anna Bellitti, 63, who’s lived in Newtowne Court for 45 years.
The vaccine has been slow to reach the residents of The Port. Only a handful work in professions deemed essential by the governor. The early vaccination rounds have catered to those with Internet access and private transportation. Cambridge now has two public vaccination sites, both at CVS pharmacies with no appointments currently available.
The state expanded its list of eligible residents Feb. 18 to include the residents and staff of affordable senior housing. But while Newtowne Court and Washington Elms are home to 227 residents over the age of 60, they are not designated as senior housing, so those residents do not fall into the expanded criteria unless they are 65 or over or living with two or more diseases.
Whenever the vaccines are made widely available, it remains to be seen if Port residents, whose distrust of the biotech firms and the local government runs deep, will accept the vaccine at all. According to a Globe/Suffolk University poll published in December, only 11 percent of Black people in Massachusetts said they wanted to get vaccinated as soon as possible compared with 59 percent of white respondents. The Globe spoke to 11 residents for this report and all expressed hesitation.
“In order to get Black and brown folks to be OK with taking the vaccine, it is going to take a huge Herculean effort. You have this serious distrust where either folks don’t want it at all, or they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it, but I’ll only take it in Wellesley next to white people,’” said Clark.
Allston-Hughes, however, was eager to receive the vaccine. She wanted her son to visit from Seattle, and to hug her twin great-granddaughters and return her famed Bingo nights to their former glory. At 83, she would have been eligible in the first group of Phase Two; she died nine days after the start of Phase One.
For months, the vaccine had been sitting in freezers some thousand yards away from her apartment inside a white brutalist building in Technology Square. The virus crept into her lungs before the approved vaccine could be injected into her arm.
Before she was placed on the ventilator, she spoke with her son Bobby from an intensive care bed. She was terrified and confused. One morning she was starting her day in the familiar streets of The Port and the next she was hooked up to tubes at Mass. General Hospital.
“They’re going to kill me, Bobby,” she said to her son in Seattle. “I want to go home.”