Finding the new up-and-coming neighborhood in and around Boston is great sport for prospective residents and real estate professionals alike. What used to pass for criteria to move in —
The other word for the phenomenon is gentrification, or, less euphemistically, the removal of poor people from an area (see the South End). But what if “success” wasn’t measured by the length of time it takes for the first homemade whoopie pies to arrive at the neighborhood bakery? How about, instead, the rise of the location’s status lifted everybody who lived and worked there, while still attracting new crowds?
Welcome to Chelsea, Massachusetts.
Much has happened to Chelsea since it was placed in state receivership in 1991. But most importantly, Jay Ash happened. Chelsea’s longtime city manager — now Governor-elect Charlie Baker’s pick for housing and economic development — has presided over a remarkable change of his hometown these last 20 years.
Now Chelsea is on the move, but, quite remarkably, without leaving behind its poor people. Chelsea’s history as a gateway city is worth noting and preserving. For decades, the city has welcomed waves of immigrants, offering affordable housing nearby to Boston’s jobs. Beginning with European immigrants 100 years ago, continuing with Latinos, more recently refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq, and now those unaccompanied children who arrived here from Central America.
Today many of its residents are staying in Chelsea for work. As recently reported by the Globe’s Shirley Leung, Chelsea received high marks from a recent look by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern. The report identified “working cities” as municipalities that were above the state average for poverty and below the state average for family income. It calculated employment growth from 2001 to 2013 — the state average for this period was 0.73 percent — and found Chelsea to be the number-one fastest growing “working city” at nearly 11 percent.
Within this tiny city of 1.8 square miles is an unprecedented level of development over the last two decades. Thirty-three major projects have been developed, as well as what will eventually be a total of six hotels. New parks, sidewalks, and roadways dot the landscape. A $100 million FBI headquarters is set to open in 2016. Over half a million square feet of new commercial development and a 10 percent increase of the residential base are planned. The relocation of the commuter rail next to new Silver Line connections by the Mystic Mall will set the stage for a thriving mixed-use marketplace on the scale of Somerville’s Assembly Row.
Development alone is never enough. Nonprofits like Roca, which focuses on reductions in crime by micro-targeting the highest-risk group of young men, have operated for 27 years. Their efforts, and others, have resulted in a steady decline of violent crime to the lowest of levels, as well as a significant reduction in incarcerations.
Meanwhile, the soaring ceilings and gleaming concrete floors of the brick-and-beam lofts in the Box District beckon young transplants priced out of nearby Boston neighborhoods. Barry Bluestone of the Dukakis Center thinks that drawing young people is imperative for Chelsea’s continued success. Yet doing that without displacing others is what he calls “a mean trick.” Meaner still when the whoopie pies arrive.
Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.