In addition to race and class, environmental justice issues around Boston often stem from two additional sources: transportation and topology. In our site visits to Dudley Square, Chinatown, and Chelsea, these two sources are featured prominently.
First, consider topology. Dudley and Chelsea presently exist off the mental map of many regional residents. They are considered marginal areas outside of areas of importance. They get less focus as communities than they do as places needed so that other areas of the metro region can function; they are warehouses – of people and commodities – rather than the main showroom. For Dudley, for much of its history and up until a few years ago, it was storage yards for many of the buses of the area. For Chelsea, it is road salt, compressed natural gas, and food warehousing. All of these activities require large amounts of inexpensive space, and their outcomes are vital to the functioning of a city. Chinatown is a slightly different in that it is centrally located, near many “more desirable” neighborhoods. However, Chinatown suffers a similar injustice. It is the knot of the region’s interstate highways and must content with the urban fabric-bending power when high-speed, high-volume traffic infrastructure collides with low-volume, low-speed, pedestrian infrastructure. All three suffer the issue of topology in that way – they seem to be the unfortunate victim of urban-scale needs. However, some of the topological injustice is historic.
Dudley was at one point the end of the street-car suburbs, a natural terminus. It was only through poor system planning of systemic inertia, and lack of political power did it continue to function as such through many changes in public transportation infrastructure. The area that Chinatown occupies was the historic main port of the city, as well as the northeast terminus of a vast national railroad network. (Connections to the then new industrial centers of upstate New York were strong — so much so that an area adjacent to present-day Chinatown was once called the New York Streets neighborhood. Albany is the last remnant of this, the others, Seneca, Oneida, Oswego, Genesee, Rochester, and Troy are now gone.) Because the state and transportation interests already owned much of the land around the railroad and port networks, the new interstate infrastructure was built adjacent to the old.
While this was a big change in movement methods, it only further burdened the Chinatown community with increased air pollution, poor surface-level pedestrian transportation, noise, and community marginalization. Like Dudley, Chinatown has been and continues to suffer from cultural/infrastructural memories but in different ways; newly arrived immigrants (either coming from foreign ports or the other side of the country) deboard and try to take care of immediate needs—housing—often without surveying and weighing possible locations and making an informed choice. This was an especially true cultural pattern at the time of the build out of Chinatown. This pattern also gave way to the Theater District and subsequent Combat Zone. Chelsea is in similar infrastructure inertia. The area has historically been a location for water and rail transported fuel and salt storage. At one point, its diversity of ownership, intense labor needs, and smaller scale provided a working-class job base for the residents of the community. But over time, ownership has monopolized, labor needs diminished, and the scale of operations increased exponentially.
Additionally, land-use patterns of the region grew to be more far-flung, larger-scaled, less-dense, automobile-dependent development, and the systemic infrastructure that services these kind of regional needs grew in proportion. Vast grocery stores in every community (though more often in white, upper-class communities) with an unlimited and endless supply of cuisine from every part of the globe no matter the season needs equally large warehouse distribution points and the trucks that correlate to this system. Roadway design standards call for multilane interstates and regional arterials built for peak traffic volumes rather than average traffic counts. Our regional economy, based on the freedom to “live anywhere,” no matter the local weather, demand that roads remain free from snow and ice even in the worst of storms.
There isn’t an accounting of the energy – either carbon or organizational based – needed to keep this level of service in place. In a sense, we have chosen that we “all” deserve a choice to live anywhere and eat anything, anytime. Not only is this a fallacy in that only a few have a free choice to try to participate in either of these ideals, but they ignore the local weather, seasonality, geography. Most of all though, this places heavy burdens on the most vulnerable of citizens. I find it most interesting – especially in the last 20 years of cultural awareness, litigious non-profits, intense media coverage, and hard-fought legislation at every level of government – that these issues exist at the level that they do (which hasn’t changed in correlation with the level of community energy and collective headspace spent on correcting them). This isn’t a slight to the communities we’ve surveyed. Rather it is an indictment of the larger region and its policy-makers, planners, politicians, and media.
Communities at the margins of our region continue to have relative little power and this is deeply troubling. Wealthier, whiter neighborhoods seem to be able to accomplish so much more with much less community organizing. Those neighborhoods seem to revolve around bourgeois ideals: work, school, children, landscaping. When the next new coffee shop is coming. Dudley, Chelsea, and Chinatown are framed as neighborhoods of struggle. The individuals usually have their own personal struggles – immigration, historic prejudices, economic, education, and health.
How is it possible for individuals suffering these personal challenges also exist in a community environment that is viewed collectively as a giant challenge? I think it would sap human potential, severely limiting the possibilities for success of a whole population and draining the long-term resources of the larger group – no matter how much they unconsciously tried to shield themselves by moving further away and segregating themselves socially. The solution must be dialectic, engaged, and integrated. It involves new thinking at the technical level – in planning and engineering and putting those activities in the context of community and history. It requires cross election-cycle leadership from all politicians and a will to spend part of their political capital. Lastly, it requires a cultural change, an acceptance and an enthusiasm for the idea that equality of communities raises the long-term success of all communities. This begins with a realization that our communities are deeply interconnected.
I rode my bike to the Chelsea tour, across Beacham Street. I’d been on this road before, but only a few times and in a car. The intimate experience of the bicycle brought a rush of new observations, thoughts, and analysis. First of all, traffic on Beacham Street is dominated by very large trucks. There are no sidewalks. There are few streetlights or signage coming close to the standards that would be in any other community. The road is highly deteriorated and feels like it isn’t maintained at all. It feels lawless. I stopped at the intersection at Behan Street for lunch. There, two men had set up a hot dog cart, an oasis in the middle of this dusty, industrial area that looks right out of the best dystopian-future movies. From ground level, you can see nothing but warehouses, generic industrial plants and a steady stream of diesel-belching trucks driving by with little regard to ground-level pedestrian activity. Not a tree, or even a shrub, in sight. I call this area the soul of the city. Without this vast acreage of perceived wasteland, all the niceties of the city couldn’t exist.
Case in point: The intersection is the also site of the Whole Foods Kitchen. All those organic baked goods, the farm-to-table whole pre-cooked convenience chickens, the fair-trade coffee blends, the artisanal breads, and the gourmet deli vegetable dishes found in the neighborhood stores across the region are made here in the same industrial-scale fashion as most of the other food in the city. As good-hearted and guilt-ridden as their customers may be (myself included), Whole Foods is beholden to their shareholders first and foremost just like any other corporation. For them not to participate at least partially in the efficiencies of centralized production and warehousing would be against their company charter toward maximizing profit over any other value. So in the end, who is really at fault for the inequities of the communities we’ve toured?