Whose Seaport is it, anyway?
The question of who belongs in the city’s posh playground has lurked beneath the surface for years — and it has been raised again, this time by the Conservation Law Foundation, a public interest group deeply invested in the city’s newest neighborhood.
A newly completed survey that asked 953 Boston residents their attitudes about the neighborhood found that, overwhelmingly, black residents feel less comfortable in the Seaport than white people do. Specifically, 24 percent of black respondents said they find the place unwelcoming, compared with a mere 6 percent of whites.
That pretty much mirrors the reporting of the Globe Spotlight Team in 2017, in a piece that proclaimed the Seaport perhaps the city’s whitest, most exclusive, neighborhood.
By any measure, diversity has been a foreign concept there. Only a handful of the mortgages in the Seaport have gone to people of color. Few of the employees of either its old-school law firms or the new biotech firms are black. After dark, it becomes a playground for professionals, but the same patterns hold. To be fair, much of this could be said of other neighborhoods — in Boston, and other cities — as well. But the Seaport could have been different, a better reflection of the city we claim to want to become.
The Conservation Law Foundation is the group that filed suit to force the cleanup of Boston Harbor — a move that ultimately paved the way for the development of the waterfront. It’s kept a vigilant watch on the neighborhood’s evolution ever since. It surveyed residents about a range of harbor-related issues, but the findings on who felt welcome and who didn’t were the most striking.
“Given that every resident contributed to the billions of dollars it took to clean up the harbor, we think it’s important that everyone have access to the use of and enjoyment of it,” CLF president Brad Campbell said in an interview Tuesday.
Indeed many billions of public dollars made the Seaport possible — much of that, though not all of it, tied to the harbor cleanup ($4.7 billion). We all paid for the Seaport.
There are multiple reasons why the Seaport became the rich enclave it did. The most obvious is economic. Building in the Seaport is expensive, and developers successfully pushed for high-end, super-expensive housing. It’s hard to get to by public transportation. Developers were allowed to get around requirements to build affordable housing by putting it in other neighborhoods.
So in the past 20 years we’ve managed to create a new community that feels — to many people, but especially to people of color — like a place that wasn’t built for them.
For its part, CLF has been campaigning for years to maintain public access to the waterfront. Its contention has been that developers treat public property as though it were a private domain. Sure, there’s a Harborwalk, but how many people even know where it goes?
“It has been clear that not everyone feels welcome on the waterfront and even places that are public seem forbidden or privatized,” Campbell said. “There’s a perception that can be as forbidding and as exclusive as fences.”
(Thursday, CLF is organizing a mass public event on Marina Park Drive, in the public space it says the public doesn’t know it has a right to use.)
It isn’t too late to change the perception — and the reality — of the Seaport. Housing is still being built, so there’s still an opportunity to force developers to make more of it affordable. The public areas can be more clearly delineated, with activities that will attract more diverse audiences. Its transportation woes have to be addressed, and better access from Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan has to be part of that conversation.
All of us built the Seaport. And every Bostonian should feel that it belongs to us.