Business

East Boston health center tries to adapt to a gentrifying neighborhood

In the health center’s Wellness Garden, kids snacked on fruit and vegetable slices, part of the Neighborhood Health Center’s Let’s Get Movin’ program.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
In the health center’s Wellness Garden, kids snacked on fruit and vegetable slices, part of the Neighborhood Health Center’s Let’s Get Movin’ program.

For nearly five decades, the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center has cared for impoverished families and new immigrants, providing them with job training, English classes, and other social and medical services.

But for the newest residents of East Boston, the health center is considering altogether different offerings: spin classes, Zumba, and cooking demonstrations from local chefs.

They are an effort to accommodate a changing neighborhood that is experiencing a development boom and surge of young professionals drawn to its more affordable housing, authentic ethnic vibe, and proximity to downtown.

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The inevitable tensions that come with such change flared up during a debate over reuse of the now-closed Meridian Street Library, where the health center and several other agencies are planning to offer programs. Some residents complain that East Boston already has too many social services and called for a broader, brighter mix of businesses and programs that would appeal to a cross-section of the neighborhood.

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In the middle is the health center, whose large footprint has, to some residents, become too big.

“The health center at some point needs to have a finite amount of space in this community,” said Mary Berninger, a member of the Orient Heights Neighborhood Council who attended a recent meeting on the library redevelopment. “You can’t even get a parking space down in Maverick [Square] most days because of the health center. And it limits any other kinds of activities.”

Reusing a library is typically the kind of project that would unfold without much fanfare. But the East Boston project has been magnified in significance among those who argue that whatever ends up going in the building could dictate the identity of the rapidly changing neighborhood — and their place in it — for years to come.

The $2 million development plan calls for the century-old, two-story brick building to be converted into space for the health center, the Urban College of Boston, the East Boston Ecumenical Community Council, and the Veronica Robles Cultural Center.

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The college plans to expand its bilingual courses and day-care provider licensing program. The ecumenical council, which offers services for immigrants, and the Robles center, an arts and dance program, plan to relocate into the former library.

At various meetings, residents have argued that the library, near Maverick Square, would be underutilized if it only catered to low-income or immigrant residents, and that a building that was once open to all should remain that way.

Let people “have a reason to hang around,” Blythe Berents, a member of the Eagle Hill Civic Association, said in an interview after a recent library meeting. “So you’re going to go to spin class, and maybe you’re going to go downstairs, and you’re going to have some dinner.”

It’s hard to underestimate the impact of the health center in East Boston. It owns at least six buildings and leases space in several others, including in neighboring Revere and Winthrop. After Logan International Airport, it is the largest employer in East Boston, and averages 300,000 patient visits a year.

Its chief executive, Manny Lopes, was surprised by the pushback against the center’s plans to occupy space in the library building.

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“In an ideal world, we would be much smaller if there wasn’t any need,” Lopes said. “I think it’s a vocal minority and a minority that needs to have a better understanding of who we are and what we do.”

That said, Lopes is trying to respond to the residents who want something other than social services in the redeveloped building. Initially, the health center planned to locate its Let’s Get Movin’ program there, which teaches nutrition and exercise to low-income kids and their families.

After the criticism from residents, the health center said it would also include a community-wide wellness center featuring yoga, meditation, Zumba, and perhaps spin classes, with the possibility of adding a test kitchen for healthy cooking demonstrations by area chefs.

“When we heard at that first meeting that folks wanted things to be open and available to people who may not be using the health center or our programs, we said it would be open for recreation activity,” Lopes said. The new offerings, he noted, cross “all cultures, genders, and populations.”

But, Lopes emphasized, with East Boston still largely a working-class neighborhood where more than half the residents are Latinos, the health center’s core mission of helping the underserved is not changing.

A longtime redoubt for immigrants — first Italians, then Latinos, and now Arabic-speakers — East Boston is in the midst of a building boom. Nineteen large residential projects have been approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority since 2013, some $700 million worth of condos and apartments, many with stirring views of the harbor and skyline. Just steps from the former library and an office that provides immigration services is the nearly completed Seville Boston Harbor, a 66-unit luxury condominium project that promotes Eastie as “Boston’s hottest neighborhood.” Units range from $300,000 for a studio to just under $900,000 for a two-bedroom with a study, according to the brokerage firm RESIS.

That the library has emerged as a conflict point is not surprising, said Japonica Brown-Saracino, associate professor of sociology at Boston University and the author of “A Neighborhood That Never Changes: Gentrification, Social Preservation, and the Search for Authenticity.” Unlike a private condo development, the library is a public building about which residents have a voice, she said.

“It’s hard to fight over private ownership of a condo, but you can argue about who has claim to a . . . municipally owned building,” Brown-Saracino said. “These are moments that allow the neighborhood to take a step back in the midst of change, at least with this one instance, with this one building, and ask, ‘How do we want that change to happen? What do we want this building to look like?’”

Lopes, born and raised in East Boston and employed at the health center since he was 18, said he witnessed anxiety as the neighborhood changed from mostly Italian to mostly Latino. The health center adjusted then, and will do so again, he said.

“I think we’re going to be here for another 50 years,” Lopes said, “even if that means we’re catering to a new group or different population — that’s what we’re founded on.”

The health center and several agencies plan to offer programs at the former Boston Public Library branch on Meridian Street.
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
The health center and several agencies plan to offer programs at the former Boston Public Library branch on Meridian Street.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.