Photos by Emily Hopkins

FREE RADICAL: EXODUS IN EASTIE

In Maverick Square, a community clings to home

BY EMILY HOPKINS


Thanks, first, to God.”

This was the translated refrain of East Boston residents, standing before a room full of their brethren, on the night before Thanksgiving. There’s a weekly meeting on Wednesdays for City Life/Vida Urbana’s East Boston chapter at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, but this gathering held extra weight. Eleven families have been displaced from their building a few blocks away, and many of them took refuge in the sanctuary. Thanks to God, and to the church, but also to the community that has risen to the challenge of confronting the seemingly inescapable force of gentrification in this city.

East Boston has been making headlines lately. It’s the next frontier to become an overpriced student ghetto, in not so many words. Just like in Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain, developers have been scooping up properties and nudging out residents. Sometimes it’s done quietly. In the case of Olga Pasco, her daughter Kimberly Romero, and several other Maverick Street residents, it’s taken more than just the typical subterfuge to get these folks out of their homes.

The problems began in early spring, when several residents of 173–177 Maverick St. received notices of a drastic rent increase. The property had been recently purchased by a company called Maverick Street Realty, which was established only a few months prior. The LLC, whose owners list their addresses at the Four Seasons, has purchased a number of properties in the area, including a Catholic church they plan to convert into condos. They bought that spot for a cool $3 million.

As for the Maverick Street residents, they were given a choice to either pay more by the next rent cycle, or get out. While some of them accepted the increase, others did not, and instead tried to mediate through legal services provided by City Life. On top of the threats of eviction, the conditions were at times unlivable.

“We had been telling [the landlord] about the conditions,” Romero says. “For two weeks, we didn’t have water.” Other days passed without electricity or gas. She continues: “There was rats, there was mold!”

Then, on August 1, the back wall collapsed.

“I was coming from work,” Romero says. “I came home, and my mom was like, ‘We heard, BOOM BOOM BOOM.’”

That collapse happened four months ago, but the wall has not been repaired. A pile of tangled fire escapes sits beside a gaping facade covered with plywood. The back doors to the apartments look as if any minute Wile E. Coyote will dart out onto nothing before falling to earth. Residents who were at work and children who were in school when the crash occurred came home to a building surrounded by firefighters and tape. They left with the clothes on their backs and few other personal items, and for the next few months bounced from motel to motel — until last week, when the property owners decided to stop paying for their stays. That’s when they came to Our Saviour, where City Life provided bedding and collected food donations.

Boston is a city of transients and shitty landlords, so it can be difficult to understand the idea of displacement. Young professionals, who make up a large portion of our city and get lots of media coverage, are displaced all the time. Rents go up, or they don’t; either way, many people eventually move, as do their friends.

Things are different in East Boston. Many of the tenants who were displaced on Maverick Street had called it home for upwards of two decades. They are the faces of the “displacement crisis,” as Matt Nickell, attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, describes them. City Life organizer Maria Christina Blanco calls the families “the refugees of the gentrification crisis.” As Andres Del Castillo, City Life’s lead organizer in East Boston, explains: “These families weren’t just families living in an apartment. They were part of our community. They weren’t just part of City Life. They were part of the entire neighborhood of East Boston.”

Following their hearty Thanksgiving meal last week, it was time for the silent candlelit vigil. People filed slowly out of the church, taking lit white candlesticks in dixie cups as they departed. Outside, a man who was attempting to straighten one candle using another burned a quarter-sized hole in his jacket, but was moved enough by the moment to just smile and say, “It’s OK.”

The procession, dozens strong, then moved quietly to Maverick Street — even children who had been excitable just moments earlier walked without making a peep. Once there, people who once called the building home gave tearful testimonies before proceeding to the Catholic church slated to become condos. A prayer, and a declaration: “This silence is not just the absence of sound, but the absence of morality.”

Back at Our Saviour’s Lutheran, the room that 30 minutes earlier had been full of sound and food and body heat was dark. One by one, people filed back in. Still clutching his candle from the vigil, the pastor lit more candles on a cake. Finally, the doors closed, and for another 30 seconds no one spoke. Then Del Castillo walked in and to his surprise, friends were singing “Happy Birthday” for him in two languages. He began to thank all those who came to show their solidarity and the resilience of the community, and was met with a protest demand from the group: Blow out the candles. He did.

Del Castillo didn’t say what he wished for. But one can guess.


Free Radical is a biweekly column syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Emily Hopkins is BINJ projects coordinator.

Copyright 2015 Emily Hopkins. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.