On Monday, August 18th, a group of over 60 Boston area residents came together to watch “El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem” at Villa Victoria in Boston’s South End. The event, organized by Inquilinos Boriquas en Accion (IBA), City Life/Vida Urbana (CL/VU), Right to the City, and Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), focused on the dynamics of gentrification in our city and how we could grow and strengthen the movement to prevent displacement.
The people at the El Barrio film screening were from a range of neighborhoods, backgrounds, and organizations. They came from East Boston, Jamaica Plain, Lynn, Dorchester, Somerville, the South End, Malden, Roslindale, Roxbury, Chelsea, Cambridge, Brockton, and Newton. Many community-based organizations, including the Chelsea Collaborative, Neighbors United for a Better East Boston (NUBE), Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA),the Brazilian Immigrant Center, Roslindale Village Main Street, and the Somerville Community Corporation (SCC) were represented by staff, members, and volunteers.
Eliza Parad, a Community Organizer with DSNI, and Darnell Johnson, the Right to the City Boston Coordinator, introduced Andrew J. Padilla and his “El Barrio Tour” project. Andrew, a photographer and independent journalist, made this award-winning film in 2011 to tell the story of gentrification in his East Harlem neighborhood. The film was intended to kick off the evening, but some technical difficulties sidelined the screening and led to our first discussion of gentrification in Boston. While tech-savvy event organizers worked to play the movie, Eliza and Andrew asked the group how we recognized gentrification and what it meant to us.
A man stood up in the back to talk about the signs of gentrification in his East Boston neighborhood; “now people are talking about how there are families living in East Boston, there are people pushing strollers and raising kids. There were always families here, just not white families. It’s like we weren’t real families.” This striking comment kicked off a string of stories and questions about how the processes of gentrification made people feel like they weren’t “real.” A woman from Bridgeport, Connecticut described how highways were built through her city, around working class neighborhoods so that folks traveling from the suburbs or New York wouldn’t see the vacant homes and dilapidated storefronts.
An activist from Lynn described how her city, which has been a largely immigrant and working class community for generations, is being “discovered” by white people who can no longer afford to live in Boston. “We have the commuter rail, we’re right on the ocean, we’re not so far from Boston, and now people are saying that we need to fix the schools, that it’s the immigrants’ fault the schools are bad. We were already here!”
The “El Barrio Tours” film, only 27 minutes long, was an engaging and personal look at the socioeconomic changes in East Harlem over the past 60 years. Andrew had interviewed resident-owners of cooperative buildings, tenants who had been evicted or lost rent control, politicians who saw the shifting demographics in their district, and newcomers who were building successful businesses in the neighborhood. Although these stories were about buildings we hadn’t seen and families we hadn’t met, themes of rising rents, evictions, neglect, and neighborhood instability felt familiar to the group gathered at Villa Victoria. After the screening, the event facilitators encouraged us to split up into small groups and address questions about how the film resonated with us and what solutions we had heard of that felt exciting. In my group of 6 people, Lousie Baxter (a resident of the South End since the 1970s) described how her neighborhood had followed the path of gentrification that the film described – from arson, vacancy, disinvestment and abandonment to luxury developments and skyrocketing housing costs. We also discussed how the story of rent control in New York resonated with some folks who had seen it end from their homes in Boston, Chelsea, and Cambridge.
As the group expanded again and Eliza, Darnell, and Andrew called on organizers from DSNI, City Life/Vida Urbana, and IBA to share their mission and work, we began to reframe our gentrification conversation. Instead of the destructive dynamics of unaffordable living costs and forced displacement, we talked about creating a city-wide network of land trusts. Let’s stand with City Life to prevent evictions and buy our homes back, and let’s rally behind Somerville Community Corporation’s Community Benefits Agreement, protecting residents’ homes and jobs from the gentrification and development that’s been moving through the city.
**Many thanks to the event organizers and facilitators. If you’d like to learn more about the local groups represented at the film screening, please follow the links included in the text above. Our conversation before and after the film was translated into Spanish, and the film had subtitles in both Spanish and English. “El Barrio Tours” was also screened at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry church in Roxbury on August 16th, and Andrew is currently in the middle of a 15-city tour of the United States, visiting other neighborhoods at various stages of gentrification. Please visit http://elbarriotours.tumblr.com/ to learn more about the film and upcoming screenings, Andrew and his work, and opportunities to take action to prevent displacement in East Harlem, Boston, and other gentrifying cities.