Gentrification is not a new fad, in fact it has been ongoing for decades. Sometimes it takes a more lighthearted form like when my mother complains that a Chipotle has replaced an old record store in Harvard Square or when multiple organic juice bars begin popping up in Chinatown. However, beyond its novelty, it has had much larger ramifications on the Boston community. Gentrification is the process of rebuilding deteriorated and poor neighborhoods, causing an influx of affluent residents, while displacing poorer residents.
Last semester, I had the opportunity with my documentary production class to work with Brookview House to create a documentary for their website. Brookview House is a women’s shelter in Dorchester that helps families who have experienced homelessness by providing them temporary housing and working with the mothers to find them permanent housing in Boston.
While Brookview House provides an amazing service to the community, they are only able to help a small portion of the homeless population in Boston, which continues to grow each year. In fact, as of 2014, Boston has had the fourth largest population of homeless families. Yet, housing prices still continue to skyrocket.
Growing up not too far outside of Boston, Dorchester was a place I had actually been to a handful of times, as well as, a place I had heard a lot about. Unfortunately, due to biased news coverage and not so sage advice from parents–who lived in Boston during a different era–my perceptions of Boston’s largest neighborhood were less than flattering. However, after my first shoot in Dorchester, it was apparent that my preconceived notions were inaccurate.
First, the sense of community that I observed was a unlike any other I have experienced during my time in Boston. There was a clear sense of connection between the residents and to the neighborhood itself. This can be best illustrated through the number of small businesses and murals I discovered throughout my time there. Additionally, there was a clear sense of equal give and take, with people putting as much effort into their neighborhood as they were taking from it. To me, this seemed like a clear contrast to the rest of Boston. My second and maybe most unexpected observation was the gentrification that was starting to creep slowly into a very proud and cherished community.
Ubering back to campus, there was a jarring divide between Dorchester and the South End. One block over from low income housing with children playing outside was an organic coffee shop and a “yuppie”-filled sidewalk. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see the South End in its final stages of gentrification whereas Dorchester, on the other hand, is just beginning to feel its effects. If you asked me which block had a stronger sense of community or even just seemed happier, I would say Dorchester.
On the last day of our shoot at Brookview House, I asked our contact person there about the new, large and expensive-looking housing development that was being built less than a block away from Brookview House. She just sort of looked at me and sighed. Finally she said that it’s been happening for a while now and that housing developments like that one have been slowly creeping into Dorchester during the past few years. While Brookview House is established and not in danger of being driven out of Dorchester, it seems that the influx of these housing developments could eventually displace many people in the community and make Brookview House’s job a lot harder.
As a college student myself, I’m the first to acknowledge that we are one of the biggest contributing factors to driving up rent prices and causing gentrification. As ephemeral residents of Boston, it’s essential to remember how our presence impacts the community. Students create a greater demand for housing in all of Boston. And typically, a college student is able to afford a higher rent price than a single Mom or a lower working class family. Students only have have themselves to support on their paycheck, while a single Mom has to support herself, as well as her kids on top of rent. With students finding apartments beyond the traditional college neighborhoods, such as Allston and Jamaica Plains, they are putting additional pressure on the Boston housing market. By moving into areas such as Dorchester and Southie, they are taking away the already limited affordable housing there while also driving the prices higher.
When I interviewed both the employees and residents at Brookview House, a common narrative started to emerge surrounding the housing crisis. When discussing how she became homeless, one resident said, “I think we all share the same story. The rent and bills got more expensive [and] I had to decide to either buy food for my family or pay the rent. I chose buying food and that’s how I eventually ended up homeless and living in a motel.”
According to Harvard University for Public Health, the average price of a two-bedroom apartment in the Boston-Cambridge metro area is $1,454, which is a price too high for lower middle class families and single moms to afford. This was a common narrative told by the residents of Brookview House, as Boston has become too expensive for many long time residents to continue to afford a place to live. The number one source of the increased cost of rent in traditionally less affluent areas such as Dorchester: gentrification.
Gentrification is simply taking away a community’s essence, spirit or nuances that make them unique and replacing them with the pre-packed Starbucks and Walmart charm that has already affected many communities around the United States. It forces people out of their communities, while simultaneously increasing commerce and lowering crime.
By making Dorchester and other similar communities “better” or “more desirable,” they are forcing the people who have called it home to move out so that artists, students and “yuppies” can move in. After an organic and revitalized flair is put on their community, families will start to venture into the once “undesirable neighborhood.” These families are almost identical to theirs except for the class divide between them. This is how the cycle of gentrification continues. Or as I like to put it: “Hi, I’d like to live in your neighborhood, but only if you don’t live there.”
To learn more about how you can donate or volunteer at Brookview House, please visit their website. Brookview House is an organization that helps homeless mothers and their children find permanent housing, steady work and overcoming the trauma of being homeless. They provide a variety of services for the mothers and have a wonderful youth program.