Gentrification, Urban Planning

Activism and Land Control in a Changing Boston

Reflections from the Mandela Initiative

Saleh Ismail

April 30, 2023

On November 3rd, 2021, Michelle Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, became the first woman and person of color to be elected mayor of Boston. A Democratic political strategist proclaimed that “the old Boston is gone, there’s a new Boston in terms of political power.” Her campaign promises were wide and ambitious, including pledges to “reapportion city contracts to firms owned by Black Bostonians; to pare away at the power of the police union; to waive fees for some public transportation; and to restore a form of rent control.” Her election saw the formation a new coalition of Black, Asian, and Latinx voters in an increasingly diverse Boston. 

Most notably, Wu called for the abolition of the Boston Development Planning Agency (BPDA), an agency accused of displacing poor and low-income residents through its “urban renewal projects,” mainly by encouraging a luxury housing boom. Urban renewal refers to a program of land redevelopment in which marginalized and blighted areas are cleared out to make space for higher class development. In a report published by her campaign admonishing the BPDA, Wu quotes a 1965 ruling in which the judge warned: “economically powerful private interests, shielded by [the court’s decision] and working behind the facade of a public authority which has the power of eminent domain, will be enabled to become the real beneficiaries of the exercise of [the government’s urban renewal] power.” The residents of Roxbury, however, were determined to prevent the realization of the judge’s prediction.

Gentrification in a Post-Mandela Roxbury

Though the Mandela initiative failed to make headway, it sparked new discussions and activism surrounding the need for community control in an increasingly gentrifying Boston. In a post-Mandela Boston, the growing diversity of the city, brought forth by an influx of new immigrants from West and East Africa as well as Latin America, forced politicians to take note of the issues surrounding land and gentrification echoed by the Black activists of 70s and 80s. 

Often, the word gentrification has a negative connotation and elicits impassioned responses from those who care deeply about low-income communities. Boston was recently declared the third “most gentrified city in America”, where Roxbury was labelled as “in significant risk” of gentrification as 81% of residents are renters. However, gentrification, itself, is not always the problem. “Public dollars are a huge reason gentrification has happened for good” argues Clinical Professor Eloise Lawrence of Harvard Law’s Legal Aid Bureau, “the problem is once that investment happens, you need to put stop-gaps and wind gates [for] what happens after.” Often, residents do not get to enjoy the benefits that come with gentrifications as a result of the rapid rise in rents in the area, resulting in displacement.

Map of the boundaries of the proposed Mandela.

Map of the boundaries of the proposed Mandela.

Lawrence notes efforts by Boston Mayors to drive investment in low-income communities, “former Mayor Menino built a beautiful new government building in Dudley, Roxbury, that drove a lot of gentrification in the area…but what are you going to do to ensure those same people who the new government building was created for enjoy the benefits of that investment?” Long-time Roxbury resident and congressional staffer Sophia Abdi agrees, “I like the change. I appreciate the change, I don’t mind having healthier grocery stores, but it becomes ugly when the folks that were there previously are being kicked out and its being built for new people.”

Abdi points to the rapid changes she’s seen first-hand, and through the eyes of her father in Roxbury. “My dad came here in the 1980’s and he’s shocked at the changes he’s seen. Back then crime rates were really high, he did not think it was a safe environment to raise children, but now he’s like it’s becoming perfect, but the same underlying issue of displacement remains.” 

“My dad came here in the 1980’s and he’s shocked at the changes he’s seen. Back then crime rates were really high, he did not think it was a safe environment to raise children, but now he’s like it’s becoming perfect, but the same underlying issue of displacement remains.” 

Though rhetoric around gentrification has often focused on housing, Abdi sees the issue as one that goes beyond housing, “it’s not always about housing. It’s the small things. The grocery stores being closed because the environment is changing. Young professionals coming in so now we have the Whole Foods, the Starbucks, while small grocery stores and bodegas are closing. So, you see this whole transformation of the environment.” 

She notes Mr. G’s Plaza as a prime example of this displacement. Mr. G’s Plaza is a center for small minority-owned businesses and restaurants in Dudley Square, Roxbury. In recent years, as developers have declared Roxbury a new, up and coming zone for development, small businesses that cater to the mostly Black and immigrant community have begun disappearing. Bintimani, a West African restaurant profiled by Eater as a pillar of Boston’s West African dining scene that was recently forced to relocate to Rhode Island is just one example of the economic displacement occurring in the area. “That neighborhood is changing, and the developers came in and their goals were to convert that building into luxury co-living. They actively evicted my dad, one of thirteen other small businesses, and most of them were women-owned, and the majority West and East African-owned” says Aiyah, the son of Sahr, the owner.

For Abdi, this issue is similarly personal, “my dad ran a halal meat shop and had to sell it in 2018 because he predicted that it would be bought out by a developer. He ended up passing the shop onto another Somali member of the community with the hope that the shop would live on.” Given this trend, gentrification may soon push out Boston’s key communities that make it one of the most multicultural cities in the US in service of corporate interests.