How Gentrification and Displacement Are Remaking Boston

This post is part of our online forum on Race, Property, and Economic History.

“Roxbury Love” mural on Warren Street, Boston. (Photo: Joe Difazio for WBUR)

Ask anyone in Boston, “what’s going on in Roxbury?” and the word you’re most likely to hear is gentrification. Ask that same question in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Roxbury, and the word you’re probably going to hear is displacement. These two responses both say something important about what’s happening in Boston as well as in other cities across the nation.

As speculators, developers and realtors marvel at record breaking real estate sales in Roxbury, real estate prices continue to soar at an alarming rate in what was once, dismissively, if not disparagingly, called “the ghetto.” For many longtime residents, it may represent a “perfect storm”–a devastating mix of racialized gentrification, property exploitation, displacement, and capitalism. These changes have occurred so rapidly and with such ferocity, in fact, that the term “hyper-gentrification” more aptly describes Boston’s current trajectory.

According to a study by the Boston Federal Reserve Bank, the median income for Black and Brown families living in the Greater Roxbury area is $30,000. The median net worth of white households in Boston stands at $247,000. And the median net worth for Black households is just $8.00–yes, eight dollars–and $28.60 for Latino households.1

A short stroll through the communities that comprise Roxbury clearly tells the tale. A boon for the real estate market has been a bust for long-time community residents. The sorrow and sadness that this hyper-gentrification has caused for working people who have lived in these neighborhoods, sometimes for their entire lives, has become a veritable “Trail of Tears” for Black and Brown Americans in Boston—one that has marked the legacy of Black Bostonians ever since their slow sojourn from the North slope of Beacon Hill in the 19th century. The oldest extant Black church in America, the African Meeting House, still stands triumphantly in what is now the most expensive neighborhood in the entire city. Beginning in the 1900s, African Americans began migrating toward the current-day heart of the Black community, first to The South End, and later to the neighborhoods Southwest of Beacon Hill, a mere six miles away. Their houses of worship soon followed. Churches with names like 12th Baptist Church, and Charles Street AME Church closed the doors to the buildings they once occupied in Beacon Hill, and moved to the current heart of the Black communities where they are now located.

The African Meeting House is among the 77 Save America’s Treasures grants, which embody the experiences, achievements and contributions of African-Americans to U.S. culture and history. Photo: Max A. van Balgooy.

Boston has been and continues to be, in all the ways that matter, one of the most segregated cities by race in the nation. Additionally, Boston is rapidly becoming one of the most deeply gentrified cities in the United States.  This “deep segregation” has had long-lasting implications to Boston’s public housing and public education, in addition to virtually every other aspect of daily life. The neighborhoods that form the epicenter of Boston’s black community–Mattapan, North Dorchester and Upper-Roxbury–went from almost completely white, mainly Jewish, to predominately Black (only 10% white) in the four years between 1968-1972. Much of this change has to do with the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, specifically the Federal Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed discrimination in the housing market and finally made it possible for many Black families to purchase homes in any neighborhood in America. As Lew Finfer, long-time housing advocate recalls,

This led to the formation of the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG), which existed between 1968 and 1972. In this well-intended but ultimately failed initiative, banks promised to make home ownership loans to African-American families. However, in this program Black families could buy homes only in existing Black neighborhoods and the then predominantly White and predominantly Jewish sections of Mattapan and North Dorchester. This ‘reverse redlining’ led to blockbusting by realtors and racial conflict as neighborhoods turned from 90% White to 90% Black in only four years.

Rooted in the Black Power demands for self-determination, Boston’s communities of color had worked to address the growing problem of gentrification since the late 1960s and all through the 1970s. In 1986, Andrew Jones and Curtis Davis, both newcomers to Boston, presented a ballot initiative to have the right to pose the question of seceding from Boston to re-incorporate as its own municipality called Mandela, Massachusetts. With rhetoric steeped in the Civil Rights Movement and deeply impacted by the experiences of Blacks in other parts of the Diaspora, Andrew Jones, a 34-year-old classical violinist, and independent television producer, and Curtis Davis, a Harvard trained architect, started an organization called GRIP (the Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project) and so began the tumultuous fight for Black self-sufficiency.

Jones, the primary driver, and radical apparatchik who drew heavily on his television news experience to stoke public opinion about Mandela, declared from the steps of the Massachusetts State House,

We feel that we have a ‘colonial relationship’ with the city of Boston; we feel that the city of Boston has treated us like second-class citizens and we’re fighting for basic rights of citizenship.

Jones, who had attended prep school in Exeter, NH, was profoundly impacted by the traditions of liberty, democracy and the small-town approach of New England-style civic life—one which he saw as being based on the spirit of liberty from the revolutionary period. For Jones, ever the ideologue, the Mandela movement put them more in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, than Steve Biko. As such, the organizing strategy was a hybrid of anti-colonial ideas drawing from revolutionary war-era rhetoric and an ideology just as much influenced by Tanzania president Julius Nyerere’s “ujamaa” concept of self-government and cooperative economics. Like the Republic of New Africa (RNA), which attempted to lay claim to an independent Black republic created out of the southern states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the RNA proposed that these lands separate from the larger United States to function as “a government in exile” for Black Americans and the basis for a new Black nation.

Conceived a mere twelve years after court-ordered busing in Boston, “Mandela” symbolized in many ways an attempt to address the equity issues that were never completely resolved after the school desegregation crisis of the 1970s.  By the mid-1980s, “land control” became the reigning civil rights issue for the Black community in Boston. The backdrop was very much Reagan’s America, where social services were being cut and hip-hop was the medium of expression on the streets.

Members of Boston Police tactical force take an African American youth into custody on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 1974 in Boston during a disturbance in the Roxbury section. (AP Photo)

The founders of GRIP began their organizing by sponsoring monthly breakfast meetings at the Harvard Faculty Club, which Curtis Davis had access to as a Harvard alum. Davis, for his part was much more the organizer and builder, having spent a career as an architect and early pioneer of the CDC model of development. For about a year, the organizers held meetings at Harvard and seeded the idea throughout the political and community leadership. This, in combination with a coordinated campaign of door-knocking, community meetings, and an organizing strategy based on the New England-style “town hall” meeting, the gatherings were led largely by the Greater Roxbury Neighborhood Authority (GRNA), a group organized by Bob Terrell and Chuck Turner, who tried to bring the “neighborhood government” concept to reality in the form of the Roxbury Neighborhood Council.2

November 4th, 2016 marked the 30th anniversary of the historic referendum, where approximately 50,000 Boston voters, living in or near the GRIP-proposed “Greater Roxbury” area, voted on whether Boston’s communities of color should leave Boston and establish a new and separate municipality to be named in honor of Nelson Mandela, or remain a part of Boston. Mandela, Massachusetts included wards and precincts in much–if not all– of the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, the Fenway, the South End, and parts of Dorchester including what was then known as Columbia Point.

Mandela, Massachusetts, as an autonomous Black-majority city, did not come to fruition but the drive behind it sparked everlasting changes to the city’s budgetary process, real assessment, community input in the city’s development processes and a general awareness of the Black condition in Boston. In the wake of other destructive changes such as deindustrialization, globalization, and rising unemployment, local government, the business community, non-profit organizations, and residents were compelled to come up with new solutions to these daunting problems on the local level. If Mandela had succeeded, it would have served as a model for self-determination, as understood by those influenced by the movement.

The tale of Mandela lives on in Roxbury. Local artists Richard Gomez, known locally as “Deme Cinco” and Thomas Burns, also known as “Kwest,” recently created a block-long, spray-painted mural of the former South African President Nelson Mandela flanked by the words “Roxbury Love,” and splashed with the Pan-African colors of red, green and gold. The symbol of Mandela of course has deeply resonated with denizens of Roxbury because of the potent symbol that the name Mandela became.

Today, there is much talk about “a new Boston”— one in which the racism and discrimination associated with earlier eras such as “busing” or “Mandela” is no more. Groups such as the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA) who sponsored Freeze Frame in Roxbury continue to carry the torch for community control. But we need to make “displacement prevention” a societal priority and not just a governmental one. Government intervention is needed in a free market economy; that’s only likely to increase in the context of hyper-gentrification. The current efforts to stem gentrification and displacement in Roxbury call for new approaches and technologies such as using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to create a publicly accessible regional database, “heat maps” of neighborhood change, and an overall increase in the land trust held by community groups, all become critical in this re-imagining of Boston. The horns of the dilemma are jobs and housing. Without significant government intervention,this ‘perfect storm’ of hyper-gentrification and displacement is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

  1.  Federal Reserve of Boston’s “Color of Wealth” Report., By Ana Patricia Muñoz , March 25, 2015.
  2.  “Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project: A New Municipality” Northeastern University Special Collections.
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Zebulon Miletsky and Tomas Gonzalez

Zebulon Vance Miletsky is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History at Stony Brook University. He specializes in African American History, History of Miscegenation, Interracial Marriage, Urban History, African Americans in Boston, and Mixed Race and Biracial Identity. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the Civil Rights Movement in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @ZebulonMiletsky. Tomas Gonzalez is a native Bostonian and a graduate of Boston College. He is currently the Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services for the City of Boston. He has studied in the Master of City Planning (MCP) at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. In 2017, he completed a certificate program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education in Senior Executives in State and Local Government program. He has dedicated his professional career to running campaigns, organizing, and advocating for social and economic justice.