East Boston can learn from Seaport mistakes

Develop the waterfront in just, equitable way

EAST BOSTON’S WATERFRONT may be just a quick ferry ride from the Seaport District, but it might as well be a world away.  While the Seaport has become an exclusive playground for wealthy residents and multinational corporations – even though the land on which the glass towers and luxury condos are built belongs to all of us – East Boston is a place where Boston’s industrial past dominates.

It’s a problem. Too many of Eastie’s residents don’t have access to Boston Harbor despite it being the longest stretch of waterfront in the city and having the most striking views. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us both the need for better open spaces and recreation areas for communities of color and the hurdles they face when it comes to actually using that space.  Nowhere is that clearer than in East Boston.

Eastie is one of the more culturally vibrant and diverse areas in Boston, with more than half of its residents identifying as Hispanic. Additionally, in 2016, East Boston had the highest percentage of residents born in another country – again, more than half of the population. However, the poverty rate here remains high – more than 15 percent of people living in East Boston are living in low income households. So it’s no surprise that East Boston is the part of the city that has seen the highest rates of COVID infections, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. We have seen the way that COVID has disproportionately impacted communities of color and low-income communities across the country.

The pandemic has exposed this truth: having parks and other green spaces within easy walking distance can equate to better physical and mental health, which is more important than ever these days. And for communities that have been dealing with this devastating illness the most, like East Boston, it is a necessity.  Even as we head into the fall and winter months, those living in the neighborhood need to have places to be safely outdoors, to breathe fresh air, get exercise, and de-stress.

The good news is that East Boston’s waterfront has an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of South Boston and create a waterfront that is more accessible to all and more resilient to climate change. And this doesn’t have to come at the expense of displacing residents who already live in Eastie. We must make sure that new development creates equal access and opportunities for both newcomers and long-time residents.

The waterfront areas in both East Boston and the Seaport are governed by the same law: the Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act, which not only guarantees the public’s right to access these areas but also sets conditions for how developers can build on them. Eastie has not benefited from the Public Waterfront Act, in part because of historical industrial and corporate neglect.  But as the area becomes more attractive to developers and others, we must avoid what happened in the Seaport. We cannot trade a waterfront blocked by industrial sites for one blocked by condos and office towers.

The East Boston waterfront is a jewel – ask anyone who has stood on the water’s edge at night and looked across the harbor at downtown Boston. It is going to be developed. But there is still an opportunity to make sure it is developed in a just and equitable way.

Meet the Author

Juanita Gibson

Charlotte E. Ray legal fellow , Conservation Law Foundation
Done right, we can see those decades of industrial neglect turn into a positive social investment in the area, which will lead to open spaces and access to Boston Harbor that benefits everyone–especially those of us living here.  Done wrong, Eastie will still be blocked off from the water, just by a different kind of wall.

Juanita Gibson is the Charlotte E. Ray legal fellow at the Conservation Law Foundation and an East Boston resident.