Emerald Necklace Transect – Housing in Boston



Lucas Di Cugno and Brendan Phelan

Professor Nicholas Brown

ARCH 1370

10 December 2020

Emerald Necklace Transect - Housing in Boston

Boston is a city that, to outsiders, seems rather progressive-minded. However, in truth, the city is still riddled with discrimination and racial inequities. One of the main forms in which this discrimination has materialized and continues to develop, throughout the city and nationwide, is through housing, or rather lack of affordable housing. In our tour, we follow different sites across various neighborhoods in Boston which narrate the story of housing discrimination and gentrification in each respective area. Whether the story being told is one of success, failure, or somewhere in between, we strive to encompass the whole account of the problem, from its origin to its status today. Furthermore, we will demonstrate how this issue relates and to the Emerald Necklace, intertwining directly in political and social matters.

Primarily, it is important to depict what exactly the problem is. As stated in the Boston Globe Spotlight series from 2017 “ A People's Guide to Greater Boston”, the average black family in Boston has a net worth of 8 dollars, a stark contrast to the average white family’s 247,500 dollars. On top of this, the city has a blatant lack of affordable housing and a habit of dispersing countless communities in the process of creating higher-value properties and touristic areas. Consequently, black families and other minorities are continuously mistreated and grouped into poorer neighborhoods. This modern phenomenon, as described in “The Color of Law”, originates from racist policies in the 50s that prevented Black families to move into white communities. Moreover, areas distinguished as predominately Black were “redlined” and mistreated to separate “hazardous” and “declining” from “desirable” and “best.” Property is one of the major factors towards long term wealth over generations, and since most black families were grouped in areas of declining property value, even after the affordable housing act was passed the racial discrimination remained, now clearly defined by the wealth gap.

Our tour begins in the Arnold Arboretum, in which you can find probably the most direct connection between the housing problem and the emerald necklace: groups of homeless people looking for a place to camp out. Later in our tour, we chose to also use the phragmites at the fens, another location on the necklace which often tends to serve as a shelter for the homeless, but in reality, this is a problem that is widespread across the park system and the entire city. We selected these spots which we are familiar with as a representation for the people who have been displaced, ignored, and left destitute by the city. In a similar fashion, we saw it as crucial to demonstrate different locations across the city which in one way or another have and continue to deal with gentrification and the displacement of people. Some fairly straight forward examples we found were the surge in Air B n B’s in the south end as it slowly morphs into a higher class touristic neighborhood or the increase in white-owned businesses in Chinatown, disrupting the cultural integrity of the area. However, it is important to note that there is a multitude of ways in which people can be affected or indirectly forced to move apart from the common story of predominantly white wealth moving in and raising the property value. 

An example of a different kind of situation that negatively affected poor neighborhoods and potentially caused housing problems is an MBTA budget cut that occurred this year. Due to the cut, countless people from communities like Dorchester that relied on the T to get to their jobs in the city are facing a major problem. Once again, this problem mainly affects low-income families. Another example, which is far more common, is when there is a certain government project, anywhere from the city to federal, for which they need to make space by tearing down homes. Coincidentally, throughout history, the homes they select tend to always be predominately inhabited by poor minorities. Examples of this from our tour consist of Mass General Hospital in West End, and Southwest Corridor Park, which can in some ways be seen as a success. The original plan for the long stretch of land was to build a highway as part of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, but through a series of demonstrations by the black communities of Boston, the land was turned into a long thin park for the people. This park, which can be considered as an extended part of the Emerald Necklace or if not a shortcut through the city connecting different parks in the system, can be seen as yet another example of how a seemingly unrelated subject such as housing is relational to the Necklace. Likewise to Southwest Corridor Park, our tour includes a couple of other success stories, as it is as important to show the solution as it is the problem. These successes include standing low-income housing in gentrified neighborhoods, such as tent city, and the oldest extant black church in America, which stands proudly in the middle of one of the most expensive areas in the city. Another example we chose as a success story was Blackstone Square in the South End. The reason we chose this park is that when visiting it, it was clear to see the Hispanic culture that remained in that heavily gentrified part of the city.  Regardless these few cases of progress should not shift focus from the clear housing crisis that plagues the city. 

To conclude, using the ideas from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to be an anti-racist,” our tour attempts to show how during the 1950s racist ideas that turned into racist policies led to racial inequities in today’s housing situation across the nation. We use sites from across Boston to demonstrate the various ways in which these racist policies have developed. We aim to reveal how contrary to people’s opinion, even if the racist policies have been retracted, the racist ideas which cause housing discrimination are still alive and acted to this day.