DigBoston by Erin Nolan
Mireya, an immigrant from Colombia, loves living in East Boston, her home of more than 20 years. She knows the neighborhood well—the bustle of Maverick Square during rush hour, the smattering of Latinx-owned shops and businesses, the low rumble of airplanes overhead.
It is home.
About two years ago, Mireya started to notice some new faces in the area. They were younger, and whiter than she was used to seeing in East Boston. She welcomed the newcomers, who she said were friendly and looking for an affordable place to live.
But these fresh faces were followed by less welcome changes to the neighborhood. As the story often goes, soon after these millennials moved in, so did developers who built huge luxury apartment complexes blocking the waterfront views that residents enjoyed for years. Landlords began raising rents by hundreds of dollars without warning and favoring leases with less commitment.
“They are moving in and pushing us out,” said Mireya, who asked that only her first name be used for privacy reasons, in Spanish. “We pay less rent, but landlords know that they can charge students more.”
Many of these newcomers are students from universities downtown like Emerson College, Northeastern University, Fisher College, and Suffolk University. Others are graduate students or young professionals.
“It was the pricetag, mostly. It’s the last cheaper place in Boston,” said Dante Flores, a recent Emerson graduate, on why he chose to move to Eastie during his last two years of undergrad. “Also, it’s just a quiet, family-oriented neighborhood, mostly immigrants. It reminds me of where I grew up in Dallas.”
East Boston has been welcoming to new residents dating back to the mid-1800s, when Irish and Canadian immigrants made it their home and worked mainly in the shipyards or later as carpenters, construction workers, and clerks. It was primarily Irish immigrants who drained the swamps and built the wharves, connecting what was once five separate islands and defining the landscape of East Boston as we know it today.
In the early 1900s, Irish and Canadian immigrants began to be outnumbered by people from Russia, Portugal, and Italy. After World War I, ethnic Italians began moving to East Boston in droves, both from within the United States and from Italy, transforming the identity of the neighborhood. Pockets of Italians remain in East Boston today, many of them with roots dating back to this time.
Latin American and Asian immigrant populations, meanwhile, many of whom were fleeing war, genocide, economic troubles, and drug-related violence, began to take root in the area during the second half of the 20th century.
“I moved into Eastie 15 years ago, and the neighborhood was already at that point half Latino, mostly immigrant, and my husband and I are both Latino, and so it was very comfortable for us,” said Neenah Estrella-Luna, an East Boston community activist and expert on urban planning and issues related to social inequality. She currently teaches classes about racial and social inequality at Salem State University.
“Mostly working-class folks, both the Latinos and the remaining white population that were there, mainly Italian heritage people because it had been an Italian enclave since the early 20th century,” Estrella-Luna continued. “Fifteen, even 10 years ago, that’s what you would see. The only difference really between maybe 20 years ago and 10 years ago is that the Latino population has increased significantly.”
Roy Antonuccio Jr., the owner of Roy’s Cold Cuts on Marion Street in East Boston, said this wave of newcomers is just more of “the same old same old.”
“Right now, there’s a lot of young people coming in, but right before that there was an influx of Spanish people,” Antonuccio said. “Before the Spanish people, back then, it was the Italians [who] were the Spanish people. It was Irish people before that. So when I was a kid, if there was going to be any kind of racism going on, it was against the Italian people. It’s always the same thing. It’s just a different cast of characters every time. It’s just the same stuff gets rehashed. But as far as neighborhoods go, it’s always been a melting pot here.”
Lydia Edwards, the Boston city councilor who represents East Boston, noted that while Eastie has always been “an immigrant haven,” there is a different flavor this time around.
“It’s a neighborhood that changes in waves. It is made for newcomers,” Edwards said. “But I think the difference is that our newcomers have always come and stayed in East Boston. They laid roots there. We had Russian Jews, and then Irish. We had Italians. Now we have a lot of Central Americans, and we also have a wave of Japanese. But what’s different now is, at least with the final wave, people are feeling they’re being pushed out.
“The wave isn’t permanent,” Edwards added. “They’re not here to pick up roots in East Boston. A lot of them are paying exorbitant rents, at levels that are just not sustainable for 20-30 years. They’re going to rent for a couple years, have a beautiful view of Boston, and then go someplace else.”
“Students are a massive gentrifying force,” she said. “But they’re not a permanent gentrifying force.”
Naomi Rodriguez, who has lived in East Boston for seven years, said this wave of university students and young professionals is changing how the rental market operates in the neighborhood.
“It affects us so much,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “Our kids are here and we feel like this is our home. It affects our kids and makes us feel like we have to migrate again.”
Four years ago, Rodriguez moved into a small, run-down four-room apartment with an open lease, meaning there was no specified amount of time which she had to live there.
“[Landlords] give these open leases so they can take advantage of that and take advantage of all of us. They took advantage of us when they needed us, but now they don’t need us anymore, so they want to kick us out,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what happened to me four years ago; they gave me an open lease. I could leave whenever I wanted to. They made it look like I had the position of power, where I could leave whenever I wanted, but in reality, they knew what they were doing.”
Rodriguez said her landlord increased her rent from $1,900 per month to $2,100 per month only seven months after she moved in.
“I couldn’t pay the increased rent,” she said. “So they sent me a notice and wanted me to move out.”
Open leases are increasingly common, according to Rodriguez, which worries her. She sought help with City Life/Vida Urbana, a Jamaica Plain-based organization focused on promoting tenant rights and preventing housing displacement.
“They [landlords] are not going to want the families that used to live here, or the workers that used to live in East Boston. They’re going to want the students,” Estrella-Luna said. “Because students come in and come out, because they’re so [transient], you don’t have to worry about, What if somebody actually wants a two-year lease, and then I can’t kick them out. You know, and take advantage of a rapid change in the market.”
Dramatic rent increases not only affects the renting market for those looking to settle down in East Boston, but also the businesses that many of these people own.
“For those of us who have lived in the neighborhood a long time, especially the Latinos, particularly for the undocumented community, having your own businesses is really one of the few safe ways to be economically stable and have some kind of roots in the community,” Estrella-Luna added. “With all of the displacement that’s happening because of the city-supported gentrification, we are actually at risk of losing even those businesses. So it would not surprise me if five years from now, even some of the Latino-owned restaurants are shutting down and being replaced by something else.
“The businesses that are going to do fine … Kelly’s Pub is going to be fine. Roy’s Cold Cuts is going to be fine. The larger Latino-owned restaurants are going to be okay. But you’re not going to see these students—particularly international students, but definitely not the white American students—going into any of these Spanish-speaking barber shops to get their hair done, right? Even though they would spend less money and get a better haircut. They’re going to lose clientele. So they’re going to end up closing because the students don’t go to those places.”
“They [students and young professionals] don’t consume the same things we consume,” said Mireya, who noted that smaller grocers and international shops are already struggling. “Some businesses are slowing down—places that only sell hispanic foods, those shops that bring specific products from our home countries.”
Flores, the recent Emerson grad, said he has had some interaction with nonstudent residents in corner stores and restaurants.
“As a college student, I don’t really have a lot of time to do a ton of community organizing and stuff like that,” he said. “Obviously some people are able to do that, but I never was able to do that. The extent of my interaction with the rest of Eastie was shopping locally and eating out, because that’s what I had time to do.”
The other students
Rodriguez said the number of short-term residents moving into East Boston is also impacting grade schools, as less people overall are raising children in the area.
“We don’t have enough students,” Rodriguez said. Last year, she reported, more than a dozen children left the James Otis Elementary School district primarily because their families were displaced. She added, “They will cut the budget for our schools. We won’t have enough resources and funds for our kids to have everything they need for a good education.”
According to Lydia Edwards, in just one year, there was an approximately 20% drop in students at East Boston High School primarily due to displacement.
“We just got our budget cut $1.2 million just from the high school,” the councilor said. “We lost 13 teachers just at East Boston High School. That was just one year. … We lost 200 students in one year. So they’re projecting that we won’t have the students, and they budgeted for that and cut us $1.2 million. So displacement is hurting our schools. It’s hurting our businesses. It’s hurting our housing stock.”
Edwards said the East Boston population is very aware of what is going on.
“I think for a lot of them, they wonder how much the city’s really invested in their school succeeding. They’re not dumb. They know why their friends aren’t going there anymore. … They were very cognizant.”
Rodriguez said her son, who has special needs, has directly felt the impact. He regularly saw a behavioral specialist at James Otis Elementary School until funding was cut.
“Now I have to find a therapist to help my son, because he is behind now since he lost this resource,” Rodriguez said. “These are just some of the consequences [of students displacing long-term residents] I mentioned before. They are cutting staff because they don’t have enough money to pay staff.”
‘Now we suffer’
Despite young people moving into East Boston having a variety of effects on long-settled communities, most don’t seem to harbor negative feelings toward the new arrivals.
“I’m not upset that they’re moving there. We didn’t plan for them either. We should have,” Edwards said about how the city never made proper accommodations for the rising numbers of students flocking to Boston and living off-campus. “We should demand more from the schools [universities]. They should be building more for their students. I mean, I’m not going to get upset at some 20-year-old who is just looking for a place to live.”
“I can’t blame students for taking advantage of the opportunity to find housing that’s less expensive off campus,” Estrella-Luna said. “They don’t know that what they’re doing is actually having this other negative effect. That’s happening because the city created and made decisions 20 years ago, and then kept making those decisions in the last 10 years, that now we have to suffer.”
Antonuccio, the owner of Roy’s Cold Cuts, said he thinks that overall, the students are having a positive effect on Eastie.
“Some people just don’t like [change],” he said. “But that’s the way it goes. Everything changes. … I’m just glad that it stayed a good neighborhood with really no crime to speak of here. I love it here.
According to Antonuccio, newcomers have inspired the city to make necessary changes to places that were once considered dangerous.
“To be honest, I don’t think I could afford to live here if I wasn’t already living here,” he added. “I own this house. But it is tough. … When I was a kid, Piers Park, you been down there? There was nothing down there. It was like something you’d see in the movies where the mafia would drop dead bodies, like a mess down there. It was nothing. … They’re making it better for everybody coming in now.”
“We will lose the connection, the tight community we have in our neighborhood,” she said of more transient renters. “We won’t get to know our neighbors.”
According to Edwards, her office is working to try and prevent the rapid gentrification of East Boston and the dramatic rent increases, but she worries about all of the developers looking to buy their way into the neighborhood.
“If that is done like all the other developments, like what happened with the Seaport, it’ll be ‘Boston East,’” she said, turning her voice up to reference the new luxury waterfront apartment complex near Maverick Square. “But if it’s done and truly creates a neighborhood, I think it will remain East Boston, the welcoming place for newcomers where you can start out or you can grow, where you can build a family.”