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Greetings from Allston! Wish you were (still) here.

A love postcard to one of the most diverse and eclectic neighborhoods left in Boston, even as many worry that it will lose its edgy quality as sleek new lab spaces replace the grunge.

Ted’s Diner (a.k.a. The Breakfast Club) in North Allston, taken by photographer Edward Boches for his “Postcards from Allston” exhibit at Harvard University’s Ed Portal gallery.Edward Boches

The Bus Stop Pub. Stadium Gas. Ted’s Diner (a.k.a. The Breakfast Club). These once-familiar spots in North Allston, lost or threatened by development, sit just a few doors away from Harvard University’s Ed Portal gallery, where the exhibition “Postcards from Allston” opened last week. There’s something wistful about these colorful images of Allston nightspots, apartments, and skateboarding teens being displayed in what is essentially a museum — as if they already belong to the past. And there’s something cognitively dissonant about this celebration of Allston’s “weirdness” being hosted by Harvard University, which is partly responsible for its erasure.

Photographer Edward Boches, a self-described “creative activist” who documented these scenes, was wary at first, but he wanted to spark a conversation between Harvard and the creative types who are rapidly being priced out of Allston, where the university now owns roughly a third of the land. “I don’t feel they are appropriating my work in order to endear themselves to the community,” he said in an interview.


The exhibition — on view until Sept. 9 — is a love letter (well, a love postcard) to one of the most diverse and eclectic neighborhoods left in Boston. Allston is home to bohemians, body artists, cheap eats, and garage bands. It has more Asian residents than Chinatown. But it also has one of the lowest home-ownership rates in the city. “Postcards” includes portrait-interviews with long-term residents such as Annie Mazzola, whose parents were born in Allston but who fears that her own children won’t be able to “work, play, live, and love here.”

Beyond rising rents, many worry that Allston will lose its edgy quality as sleek new lab spaces replace the grunge. “There’s a tension between the artists, musicians, and creatives who help energize and rejuvenate a neighborhood and the developers who then see an opportunity and appropriate the vibe and turn it into a marketing idea,” Boches said.


Since Harvard first secretly purchased 52 acres in the 1980s, its development plans for Allston have shifted, from building new facilities for the schools of public health and graduate education, to a performing arts space and museum, to the current mega-build of science and engineering labs, including the forthcoming 900,000 square-foot Enterprise Research Campus. (Disclosure: I teach a half-semester “module” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.)

Brent Whelan, a 40-year resident (and Harvard grad) who serves on the advisory Harvard-Allston Task Force, says it’s hard for the community to keep up. “These plans come and go,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a consultative process, but we’re the last to know.” The neighborhood is also increasingly buffeted by buildouts from coattail developers riding in Harvard’s slipstream, who may not be as sensitive to community concerns.

Mayor Michelle Wu’s Office of Arts and Culture has released a useful inventory of arts spaces in Allston-Brighton, identifying 120,000 square feet of cultural space at risk. The city is advocating for “no net loss of creative sector workspaces” as the neighborhood redevelops. But there’s a limit to what the city can demand when it doesn’t own the land.

Harvard has made some gestures toward making the “new Allston” more than a soulless tech park. The Ed Portal is one good development, as are plans to relocate the American Repertory Theater to a site on North Harvard Street. Recently Harvard negotiated a long-term lease with the Artisan’s Asylum, a popular Somerville arts collaborative and maker space, which will relocate to two sites in North Allston totaling 52,000 square feet.


It should be noted that Harvard and other North Allston developers are primarily building on formerly vacant or industrial land, not razing whole neighborhoods. But it’s still institutional expansion, and it’s unnerving for residents to see streets with names like “Science Drive” and “Academic Way.” Rents for a two-bedroom apartment in the Continuum, built on Harvard-owned land across the street from the Ed Portal, start at $6,093 a month.

Allston is like a petri dish, where benign artistic bacteria are fermenting. If it becomes too sterile, little will grow there. Scattered live-work units aren’t enough. Artists need to percolate their craft where they can inspire and challenge each other, no less than innovators in life sciences want to work in a creative cluster to invent new drugs.

Allston is one of the most dynamic districts in Boston. But “dynamic” can mean both “vibrant,” and “changing.” Those who love the neighborhood for its very eccentricities are working hard to make sure one definition doesn’t overwhelm the other.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.