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‘It’s about our civic life:’ Photographs document teardown of homes in Newton

Anne Marie Stein’s before and after photograph of a teardown that was on display at Newton City Hall.Emily Stevenson

During long walks around Newton in the midst of the pandemic, local photographer Anne Marie Stein started capturing the teardowns of some houses she passed along the way. While Stein was taking pictures, her walking companion, Tatjana Meschede, a professor of social policy at Brandeis University, said she was thinking about “the data” and how it could give context to the photos.

The two Thompsonville residents collaborated to create “UpScale,” a collection of photos and data documentation of teardowns, which was on display at Newton City Hall’s community gallery space earlier this month.

In her personal statement displayed with the photographs, Meschede said she and Stein hoped to create a more “informed conversation” about what they observed as “the loss of naturally more affordable rental and ownership homes.”

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“What does it really mean? How can we document it?” Meschede said in an interview.

Still in the works is an online database based on the existing Newton Assessor’s database that looks at different aspects of teardowns such as sales and lot sizes, created by Stein and Meschede to supplement the photographs.

“It’s interesting to do this as an exhibit,” Stein said in an interview. “It offers a different way of having the conversation.”

Most of the photographs are of houses before they are torn down, Stein said, but some are images showing the new home being built.

Stein said when she started photographing she was “really interested in the old houses.”

“I didn’t care about the new houses,” she said “The new ones, they all look pretty much the same. They don’t have the same level of character.”

Meschede said she focused more on documentation and data around what happened after the teardowns. She said questions she asked herself during their walks inspired her work on the project: “Who are we really enabling to move into Newton?” “Who are we keeping out?” and “What does that mean to our communities and the makeup of Newton?”

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Jerry Reilly, a resident of Newton Upper Falls, said the visual impact of “a seemingly endless wall of identical pictures” helped to illustrate the number of teardowns in Newton.

“I had no idea these many houses were being torn down around the city,” Reilly said. “You see a house here and a house there, but when you put them all together in one wall it’s kind of startling.”

Stein, longtime art, education, and small business administrator, said they chose city hall’s community gallery space because it felt like the “perfect place” to start the conversation.

“It’s about our civic life, our community, and if there is any place I would choose, this would be it,” she said.

Stein and Meschede said they had a chance to display the project in the summer, but Stein said she “wanted it to be up in the fall” when the city council is in session and there is “more political activity.”

Throughout the project, Stein said they learned Newton’s current structure for housing and zoning makes it so “you really can’t do much about” the teardowns and associated discussion around the loss of middle-income housing.

Susan Albright, the president of Newton City Council, said the issues “UpScale” addresses aren’t new.

“The issue of teardowns has been around for years, I mean years,” Albright said in an interview. “People are concerned that we’re losing our modestly priced housing and it’s being replaced by very expensive housing.”

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Albright said city zoning is the best way to address these issues. However, the topic of residential zoning has been tabled, she said, because it is a “complicated problem” and “politically radioactive.”

“There are ways we can work on this, but we have to all pull our oars in the same direction,” she said. “We can’t be yelling at each other as we try to get it done.”

Albright said residential zoning will not be discussed until the city council has finished addressing village-center zoning, which she expects to take the rest of their current session.

Stein and Meschede said there needs to be more cooperation and understanding when discussing zoning. They hope “UpScale” “allows people to have a clearer idea of what’s going on.”

“Part of it is offering another point of view that hopefully will reframe the conversation,” Meschede said.

Reilly said what he liked about “UpScale” is that it shined light on the issue of development without directly addressing it, therefore avoiding the usual disagreement.

“It was a photographic exhibit about development issues, but it wasn’t clearly taking strong sides,” he said. “It was documenting it all and then letting people react to it.”