The Limits of Nonprofit Urban Development in BostonRoundup
tags: Boston, urban history, urban renewal, Redevelopment
Claire Dunning is an assistant professor of public policy and history at the University of Maryland and the author of Nonprofit Neighborhoods: An Urban History of Inequality and the American State.
Under the leadership of two local nonprofits, the long-empty Blessed Sacrament church in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square is going to be redeveloped into mixed-income housing and a community performance space. Grass-roots organizing helped thwart previous plans to convert the church into luxury condominiums and helped ensure that the redevelopment includes affordable units in a city characterized by gentrification, racialized displacement, and a wealth gap.
There is much to celebrate in this news, including the fact that the Hyde Square plans continue a tradition in Boston of nonprofit-led urban development. Yet that history also reveals some troubling, perhaps uncomfortable, lessons about what happens — and what doesn’t — when we rely on private organizations to solve public problems.
The promises and perils of redevelopment are not new concerns in Boston. Following the bulldozing of Boston’s West End and the New York Streets neighborhood, in the South End, under the 1950s-era urban renewal program, Bostonians became wary of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s top-down redevelopment schemes. By the mid-1960s, when the BRA announced plans to renew parts of Lower Roxbury, residents recognized the potential upside of federal investment in areas with unsafe and dilapidated housing. They also understood the risk that such plans portended, including displacement of existing families with no possibility to return and the acceleration of blight that tended to get worse before it got better.
Such concerns were well founded, particularly among Black residents, who, given systemic discrimination, were likely to be at the bottom of the wage ladder and to live in areas slated for renewal. They were also the least likely to have connections in City Hall. Evidence was mounting in Boston for James Baldwin’s claim that urban renewal meant “Negro removal.”
In response, Black residents drew on their experience demanding equal access to housing, jobs, education, and anti-poverty spending in Boston. They organized to fight plans to clear the residential neighborhood for a new high school and highway. They also incorporated as the nonprofit Lower Roxbury Community Corp. in 1967, creating a legal entity able to accept grants, negotiate with the BRA, and, eventually, win development rights to “get the new housing built . . . the way we want it.”
It was a precedent-setting agreement that Puerto Rican activists in the South End replicated the following year. With the slogan “We shall not be moved,” 400 residents launched the nonprofit Emergency Tenants Council in 1968 in response to city plans to demolish housing on a plot of land known as Parcel 19. Sustained activism against the BRA won the group the rights to oversee the project, which they renamed Villa Victoria. The group built housing for families and the elderly, storefronts for small businesses, a community center, and a plaza reminiscent of those in Puerto Rico.
By the 1970s, nonprofits had gained a foothold in urban redevelopment in Boston. By the 1980s, the city had become a nationwide leader in the field.
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