The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
For years, residents have come to know Dorchester’s Fields Corner as a place where newcomers can find a home. From Vietnamese to Haitian Creole to Spanish to Portuguese, signs in the store windows and chatter on the street reflect a kaleidoscopic neighborhood like few others in Boston.
Yet a few years ago, when the Boston Planning & Development Agency launched a process that could reshape this part of Dorchester, it hung signs inviting people to public meetings in just one language: English.
It was a galvanizing moment for residents like Angelina Hua. She worried that the vibrant cultural mix of Fields Corner could be at risk if the planning effort — which aims to rezone 86 acres just north of the neighborhood — didn’t include enough voices of the people who live there now. Hua, whose mother came to Boston from Vietnam, sees pressure mounting, with people being pushed out of the community where she grew up.
“Dorchester and Fields Corner need new development. But what does that look like, how do you do it without displacement?” she said. “People have already started moving out.”
It’s a conversation taking place throughout the neighborhood, which stretches along Dorchester Avenue north and south of the Fields Corner MBTA Red Line station. Largely a middle-class, Irish-Catholic neighborhood until the 1960s and ’70s, Fields Corner became a magnet for Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War. Through the 1980s, Catholic churches and resettlement agencies helped them find homes in what was then a relatively affordable pocket of the city. Gradually, social service agencies and small businesses catering to the Vietnamese community followed. An enclave was born.
It’s still the hub of the city’s Vietnamese community; as many as 9,000 Vietnamese people call it home, and a 2018 survey found 149 out of 259 small businesses along Dorchester Avenue were Vietnamese-owned. But it also has sizable Cape Verdean, Latino, and Irish populations, along with a longtime Black community, and a growing number of professionals drawn to the Victorian homes of neighboring Wellesley Park.
“On my block, you’ll hear five languages just walking down the street,” said Bianca Ortiz-Wythe, who grew up in Lower Mills and has lived in Fields Corner for several years. “It’s a beautiful community.”
It’s also a community that, so far, has seen relatively little of the high-end development that has transformed other once working-class parts of Boston. There are no fancy new condo buildings, wine bars, or spin studios on this stretch of Dot Ave.
A Target store just opened, and clothing retailer EbLens expanded into a flagship store on the prime corner of Dorchester Avenue and Park Street. Some newer restaurants ― including Reign Drink Lab and 50Kitchen ― have settled in alongside stalwarts such as The Blarney Stone and Anh Hong.
But much of the Dot Ave. strip looks as it has for decades. The side streets are packed with three-deckers and other older, still somewhat affordable, small multifamily buildings that house multi-generational families who’ve built a life here.
“This is one of the last places in the city that doesn’t feel shiny and new,” said Jackey West Devine, executive director at Fields Corner Main Streets. “It feels worn-in a bit. It’s comfortable, and the sort of place where people can have their needs met.”
Still, change is coming.
From the 488-unit Dot Block apartment complex up in Savin Hill to a cluster of apartment buildings down around the Ashmont MBTA station, higher-end housing has started to crop up relatively close by. Farther afield, planning is underway for Dorchester Bay City, a 34-acre complex of lab and research space at the old Bayside Expo Center site, promising to bring thousands of good jobs to the neighborhood. Draft versions of the Glover’s Corner plan ― the study that worried Hua, and has since been expanded to numerous languages ― outline blocks of large-scale development on old parking lots and industrial buildings east of Dorchester Avenue.
That has some in Fields Corner concerned that what is coming will inevitably force out people like Markeisha Moore. She has lived in Dorchester her entire life, raising her children in Fields Corner when the neighborhood was no one’s idea of desirable. Now, Moore worries she’ll have to move out.
“We made this community. The new immigrants, the old ones, the Black population, the Irish,” Moore said. “They said ‘This is trash. You keep it.’ And we kept it. Now it has become this great commodity, and we’re no longer needed.”
Preventing displacement, and making sure residents can stay, is increasingly top of mind for social service agencies in the neighborhood as well, said Lisette Le, executive director of community development nonprofit VietAID.
Her group is one of eight local agencies teaming up to create Fields Corner Crossroads, which aims to better handle the neighborhood’s diverse housing, health care, and social service needs. They also want to advocate for the people they serve as new development arrives.
“If we’re committed to the working-class core and racial diversity in Fields Corner, what will that mean?” Le said. “The impact of DotBlock or Bay City is going to affect this particular core. How do we come together to ensure that they can stay?”
Real estate pressures also weigh on the neighborhood’s small-business community, and on opportunities for creative and public space. The Dorchester Youth Collaborative, which had served local teens for four decades, recently closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and plans for a new arts center had to be scuttled.
Last fall, the Dorchester Arts Project opened a storefront in Fields Corner to showcase the work of local artists. But it’s an at-will tenant, and national chains have been looking at the space. Developers have been reaching out to learn more about the community, said program director Sam Potrykus, but none have offered financial support. He worries about his group’s ability to hang on.
“I would love to see Fields Corner as a hub for multiculturalism, not only for the Vietnamese diaspora, but a place where the Vietnamese community can share space with the Black community, the Latinx community, the community of people of marginalized groups,” said Anny Thach, 22, a lifelong Dorchester resident who works at the Dorchester Arts Project. ”Solidarity is very powerful in terms of feeling welcomed.”
It can make for powerful politics, too, said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at UMass Boston who has studied the city’s immigrant communities, including those in Fields Corner. He sees them allying with longer-established Asian groups based in Chinatown, and with housing advocacy groups across the city, to push together for policies that help prevent displacement as new investment courses through the neighborhood.
“The battles that have been fought for decades over gentrification in Chinatown will help people fight those same battles in Fields Corner,” he said. “There’s more a sense now of a community to draw upon.”
That community already has drawn together people like Moore, who is Black, and Hua, whose mother came here from Vietnam. Both are active with Dorchester Not for Sale ― a group that was formed largely in response to the BPDA’s Glover’s Corner plan — and both are pushing for the same thing: a Fields Corner that includes space for people like them going forward.
Hua came back to Fields Corner after college to work in the community. She’d like to build a life there, as her mother did. But she doesn’t know if that’ll be possible for her generation.
“Will I still be able to hold this place with pride 10 years from now?” she said. “I want to buy a home here, to build roots here. I don’t know if we’ll be able to.”
Read more about Fields Corner and explore the full On the Street series.