By Insiyah Mohammad Bergeron, CoLab Radio
Adela Gonzalez is a Resident Researcher with the Healthy Neighborhoods Participatory Action Research Study Team, led by Prof. Mariana Arcaya. CoLab is collaborating with teams of Resident Researchers in nine communities across Boston to design and carry out research that examines the relationship between community health and urban development. This is part of an effort to ensure that future development in communities like Chelsea, where Adela lives, contributes to the health and wellbeing of all residents. To read more about the Healthy Neighborhoods Study, please click here.
Colab Radio’s Insiyah Mohammad Bergeron interviewed Adela at the offices of GreenRoots, an environmental justice organization in Chelsea, MA.
Insiyah: How long have you lived in Chelsea and how would you describe the neighborhood?
Adela: I have been living here for thirteen years. I moved here when I was five. We are originally from East Boston but we couldn’t afford to live there since the rents were skyrocketing. We came here because it was more affordable.
Chelsea is very diverse. It has its ups and downs. There is a lot of drug activity here. But there are also many great community organizations like the Chelsea Collaborative and GreenRoots, which I am a part of. GreenRoots is a spin off the Chelsea Collaborative and we focus on environmental justice. Chelsea is a community of many minority groups and this has influenced what we have access to. We have limited access to our own waterfront. There are many industries along the water that are dumping their waste here. We as residents cannot do fun things like swimming or kayaking, or enjoying the beach as residents in Revere do, for instance.
There are huge ugly salt piles along the waterfront that block access to the water. A company stores the salt here for the winter for many other cities and the trucks that transport it create a lot of pollution. Many local residents have nasal congestion and asthma. The salt is here for everybody; we provide for every city, but Chelsea is forced to carry these environmental burdens.
When GreenRoots spun off it was great that we could find a space next to the waterfront because this is what we have been fighting for: cleaner water and more access to the waterfront.
Have you noticed any changes in the neighborhood over time?
I honestly haven’t. I am new at GreenRoots and before I started working here I didn’t know what my city was going through. I just saw the huge salt pile but I didn’t know why we had it. When I was little, I didn’t even know we had water around here! I didn’t understand my community very well and I see that in a lot of youth, and residents more generally.
I started working here this summer and I am a lot more informed about the different issues we’re facing. I found out about GreenRoots through a friend who told me about an open position for ECO (Environmental Chelsea Organizers- the youth group at Green Roots). I started off working with that group and as I transitioned to college, GreenRoots allowed me to stay here as a Junior Organizer.
Can you tell me a little more about this part of Chelsea?
Not many people come around Marginal Street near the GreenRoots office, even though the waterfront is here. It is mostly dominated by industrial uses and there are not really crosswalks. The closest bus stop is a fifteen-minute walk away. There is also a place called Hides and Furs, right next to us, which is involved in leather production. There is always a horrible smell coming from there. I pass it every single day when I walk here.
What are you learning about your neighborhood through doing this research?
I noticed that a lot of people are scared to open their doors, especially since this is a city of immigrants. They see our nametags and think that we might be someone from an official agency, out to get them. But when they do open their doors a lot of people say they are busy or don’t have time. People are very scared of saying something incriminating. Before doing this research I was aware of all the immigrants here, but knocking on doors really made me realize how much people are giving up to be in this city, and that there are people who are living in constant fear.
What are some specific challenges of doing research in your own neighborhood?
It’s actually much easier. Most of the residents around here know someone from ECO. That connection gives them a reason to do it. People are also hearing about us from each other, which helps us. And the Market Basket gift card helps too! It’s also easier to do it in your own city because you feel more comfortable. You know which streets you should avoid. You know where the houses are closer together. And you don’t get lost around here. Chelsea is really small, only 1.8sq miles, so there’s little chance of getting lost.
Can you think of times when it was really fulfilling to do this research?
Just talking to residents is really rewarding. I don’t live on this side of Chelsea so I don’t really talk to, or associate with, people around here. So just talking to people in their homes is great. Sometimes people share a lot and feel very comfortable which is sweet and makes me comfortable too. They talk to me as if I’m a long lost friend- they tell me about when they came here and how they found their husband.
Often they don’t talk about the survey questions. One time a woman kept telling us about her favorite soap opera that was on, and kept telling us to hurry up even though she wanted to tell us more stories. The soap opera was playing in the same room and she kept apologizing to us for being distracted by it, saying, “Sorry guys, but this person loves this other person but they don’t know it yet.”
I think I’m learning about my neighborhood. I feel a lot more comfortable here now, even though I’ve lived in Chelsea for fifteen years. Walking around here to do the research is helping me find little pathways and shortcuts and corner stores.
Do people ask you questions about the survey and what will come of it?
A lot of people don’t. Many people don’t really understand what the survey is about because it has lots of different questions. Usually people just want to get it over with. The more long term residents are typically the ones who really want to know more, especially how they will be affected by the survey.
What are your reflections on this process overall?
I’m excited about the results we’re going to get. I really want to know the overall trends that we will see in the survey. I want to know how we compare to other cities as well because I don’t know much about any other city. I am interested in the health section of the survey because there were questions about mental and physical health. I really want to know how we can help people with mental and physical health because we don’t really talk about those issues here and don’t know where people stand. People don’t really say “I have depression” or other mental health issues so I think that survey will shed light on that.
What are your hopes for the future of this community and how can projects like this help?
I definitely want my community to be more informed about the changes happening in Chelsea. We have lots of new buildings being constructed and different industries coming in here. I want them to know what is happening because that is going to result in higher rents at some point. We’ve actually been experiencing some of that recently. That’s what’s dragging people out of the city. When I went to do surveys I was hearing that a lot. There was one question that asks if you ever fell flat from paying a bill. A lot of people would say no, but a lot of people would also say yes. People are very worried about the rent with gentrification.
A lot of people don’t know what’s happening here and ask us, the youth, about things. And we’re telling them about the new hotel and FBI building are being built right next to the high school here. Lots of people don’t know about that and they’re really curious. We as an organization need to be a stronger voice.
The healthy Neighborhoods PAR Study is being conducted in partnership with the Conservation Law Foundation, and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.