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The unintended consequences of Boston’s nonprofit-led urban development

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An unidentified woman, center, wears a "we shall not be moved" pin at a sit-in at the Boston Redevelopment Authority in April 1968.BREARLEY COLLECTION/BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY

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. Once skeptical of outsourcing responsibility to nonprofits, mayoral administrations started to see the political gain to be had in appearing responsive, inclusive, and fiscally prudent. Financial support for nonprofit community development organizations started to come from the Massachusetts Legislature, the Ford Foundation, and Boston’s business community.

Perhaps nothing embodied the primacy of nonprofits in urban redevelopment more than the granting of the power of eminent domain to the grass-roots Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in 1988. The group had launched a campaign called “Take a stand, own the land,” and Mayor Ray Flynn reasoned that being able to carry out the city’s eminent domain authority in some instances gave DSNI “the power so they could do something for themselves.” And it did. DSNI gained control over 1,300 parcels of land — many of them abandoned — and established a community land trust, built affordable housing and community spaces, and developed the area into an “urban village.” Flynn called it a clear “win-win.”

In neighborhood after neighborhood, Boston’s nonprofits proved they could build housing and do so by uplifting the visions, values, and voices of residents who had been excluded from municipal government. Nonprofits also took on more than housing. Beginning in the 1960s, these private organizations started to supplement — and sometimes replace — public service provisions in areas ranging from housing to health, arts to parks, and education to economic development.

There were reasons to cheer the increasing involvement of nonprofits in urban governance. Many community groups became involved and many still are. Rarely stated, however, is the downside: The increasing funding of and reliance upon nonprofits to meet community needs have enabled inequalities to persist.

Once the needs of marginalized populations came under the aegis of nonprofits, the idea that those groups were best served outside the traditional operations of municipal agencies took hold. This myth aligned with a shifting political climate in the 1970s and 1980s that favored private solutions to public problems. It also let local — and state and federal — administrations off the hook from the actual work of addressing racism and economic inequality.

Mayor Flynn’s support of DSNI in the late 1980s looks quite different, for example, when considered against the development projects his administration pursued in downtown Boston. Under Flynn’s leadership, the BRA oversaw a multibillion-dollar building boom that further gentrified the city and pushed rents higher. All told, those downtown projects did far more than DSNI to shape the future of Dudley Square, which, despite the grass-roots group’s work in the neighborhood, was becoming poorer and more segregated. It’s a perfect example of the limited ability of nonprofits to push back against the broader political and economic shifts in American cities and a reminder of why efforts like DSNI’s are both important and inadequate.

Nonprofit leaders fully recognize the limitations of what they can achieve when tackling big, structural problems with small, local organizations. They accept, however, that something is better than nothing, and they know that acknowledging the shortcomings of their work could jeopardize funding, partnerships, and reputations.

The way forward, then, lies not in relying on individual organizations but in policy change at and beyond the local level. What’s needed now is an honest reckoning with the racism that shaped Boston’s past and that continues to shape its present.

The city’s proposed commission on reparations could be one way to achieve that reckoning, as experiments in Evanston, Ill., and Providence suggest. Such efforts respond to racial inequalities rooted in the transatlantic slave trade and perpetuated through urban renewal, redlining, and other discriminatory practices. The reparative tools include direct cash payments, neighborhood investments, and policy recommendations to promote health equity, redesign school curricula, create a home repair fund, and reform policing and sentencing practices, among others. Some of these efforts involve nonprofit organizations, and some aim to rebuild and reform public institutions in ways that would make nonprofit participation less necessary.

The hoped-for future that residents of Lower Roxbury, the South End, and Dudley Square fought for has yet to arrive. But if we can let ourselves be guided by history, experience, and the examples of other cities grappling with the same issues, it’s not out of reach.


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