An environmentalist in the city
An environmentalist in the city
Not so many years ago, Gregory Watson learned more than he ever thought he’d need to know about dairy farming. As commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture, he traveled the state meeting with food producers, including an active group of dairy farmers who were pressing for milk price supports. (To the dismay of his boss, Gov. William Weld, Watson was backing them.)
Now Watson concentrates his efforts on a 1.5-square-mile plot of land in Boston’s Roxbury district that could hardly be more removed from the dairy farms of Western Massachusetts. Since 1995, Watson has served as executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a highly regarded community planning group that works to improve what was in the 1970s and ’80s one of the most blighted parts of the city.
In his current role, Watson works with neighborhood residents on a range of issues, including affordable housing, community organizing and planning, environmental clean-up, and commercial re-development. Watson is a voluble, rapid-fire speaker who is given to futuristic ideas about making the Dudley Street neighborhood a bustling center of small businesses, with galleries, restaurants, jazz clubs — even “urban agriculture.” I met with Watson in DSNI’s Roxbury office, which is housed in a converted furniture warehouse, to discuss environmentalism, development, and opportunity in the inner city. This is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length.
CommonWealth: How did you become an environmentalist?
Gregory Watson: My short answer to that question is I tell people that I became an environmentalist because I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio during the ’50s and ’60s — half in jest, because that was a time when Lake Erie had gone through that period of eutrophication and I think it had become one of the first of the Great Lakes to be declared legally dead. We also had in our city boundary the Cuyahoga River, which was made infamous by Randy Newman, you know, “Burn On Big River” — and it really did catch fire. I mean, there were just so many flammable pollutants in the river that occasionally somebody would throw a cigarette over and the surface would erupt in flames. Cleveland’s the brunt of just about every joke you can imagine.
CommonWealth: It used to be, anyway.
Watson: It used to be, yeah. Actually it’s turned itself around, which is really pretty gratifying. But the final nail in the coffin was my junior or senior year in high school, one of the headlines in the Cleveland Plain Dealer one morning read, “Cleveland’s Air Declared Illegal.” The EPA had just started to come up with its guidelines for air quality. And Cleveland, being a highly industrial city, being on the banks of the river, [with] automobile related industries, basically had air quality that was beyond the limit for people with respiratory problems. And back then there were no strict guidelines about how to deal with the problem. But Cleveland identified who the culprits were — some of the big factories — told them they had to clean up Cleveland’s air quality, clean up their act, but didn’t give them any guidelines. That’s when — the now-famous story — the factories didn’t install scrubbers or put in new production facilities or filters; they basically raised their smokestacks high enough to throw the pollutants a little higher in the air to get caught by the prevailing winds and carry them away. Now this was just the time that I decided that I was going to come out East to go to school, so Cleveland’s problems just followed me right here to the East Coast. More than anything else that made me aware that environmental problems not only can be very much urban problems, but also everything really is, as the environmentalists or ecologists say, interconnected. So it made this whole problem real and it made me committed to that environmental movement.
CommonWealth: And you became active in college?
Watson: Yeah. [Environmental scientist] Norton Nickerson was one of my professors, at Tufts University. I got involved in the environmental movement… But to my surprise, I was called on the carpet by the president of the Tufts chapter of the Afro-American Society, who basically questioned why I as a young African-American during those times was committing myself to the environmental movement. And I recall his words very clearly because he said, “It would be one thing, Greg, if we felt that the environmental movement was merely irrelevant to the cause of people of color.” But he said, “We actually think it’s counter-productive and sinister.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, listen to the slogans: limited growth, no growth. Seems to me that’s a very subtle way to maintain the status quo. The Haves will continue to have, the Have-Nots will not. Where’s the potential for economic equality in that equation?” And I have to admit, at that time, I had no clue as to how to respond to him intellectually. But gut-wise I felt that the two goals of environmental quality and economic equality had to be compatible.
Watson: I would have, maybe five years ago, said that was probably true — that environmental issues were low on the list. To go back a little bit in the history of this area, you had a lot of vacant land. And it was vacant land that was not only unusable but was actually posing a threat to the health and safety of a number of individuals because it had become contaminated, it had become polluted, it had become hazardous waste sites. You also had a situation here [where] you had children — particularly children, but other residents as well — that had some of the highest rates of asthma and respiratory illness of any other place in the country. And all of a sudden people began to realize that the sources of a lot of their problems were, in fact, environmental. That’s where this term “environmental racism” [comes from]. Where are the factories and the facilities that are spewing out these harmful toxins? Why does it seem to be that they are located near communities where folks are disenfranchised and for the most part poor? I think you’re right for the most part in terms of environmentalism — but when the connection was made between health and some of the environmental threats that people began to identify, all of a sudden the notion of there being an environmental awareness, an environmental movement in the city became very real…. There’s a very distinct difference between the environmentalism that we come to think of with the Nature Conservancy and other places I’ve worked and environmentalism as it relates to the city. But nonetheless, there was an environmental awareness that was beginning to emerge.
CommonWealth: You mentioned asthma. Lead poisoning is another…
Watson: Lead poisoning, absolutely. I think it would be fair to say that you could characterize –and particularly in this part of the city, but in probably other cities as well — asthma and lead poisoning as being of epidemic proportions. I mean, you look at the number of people that were affected, you look at the fact that it really had become an insidious part of our environment — it was seen as being crucially important to try to figure out how we could begin to address that.
CommonWealth: Do you think there’s meaning behind that term, “environmental racism”?
Watson: I definitely do think so. I used to begin some talks when I was at the Nature Conservancy with the skepticism that people had developed with the scientific community around issues of environmental racism. Remember the scientific discoveries — when they were able to trace back, using the crushed-up placenta from women, they were able to trace our common origin back to, you know, the mother in Africa, Eve, the original mom? And they can look at the background noise — “21-centimeter noise” — in the universe and trace it back to the original Big Bang? Yet here is a huge leaking tank of toxins that is a few hundred yards away from a community where all of a sudden leukemia and cancer rates are skyrocketing — and nobody can make the connection! So you start saying, wait a minute, wait a minute, what’s going on? Either we’re all naïve [or] we’re all corrupt. But there was a real disconnect I think that people felt between what science was either able or willing to tell us and what was really going on. The only thing I will [add] is that as we found more and more about what was going on throughout the country, you probably would be more accurate to say that it was more a class issue than a race issue. Because it seemed to be that the people who really suffered from this type of activity were poor. You could be white and poor, you could be Latino and poor….
CommonWealth: Well in, I guess it was 1985, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative started to work on some of these issues. I wonder if you could just highlight a few of the most significant projects that are going on here that bring together that concern for economic development and growth and jobs and also the concern for the environment.
Watson: There are a couple of significant developments in the history of DSNI. One was clearly the identification that some of the activities in the neighborhood really were contributing to both some serious environmental problems and threatening the health of residents. A lot of that was traced back to the illegal trash-transfer stations that were operating then. When this area was level, you had a lot of vacant land. There were a number of folks who were dumping, you know, had trash and garbage and were on the way to the legal landfills to dispose of the stuff and they, as they drove by this area, they saw this vacant, empty land. They said, “Wait, why am I going to pay a tipping fee when it seems that there is nobody around?” And so it began with this illegal dumping in the middle of the night and then it became blatant. They’d do it, you know, 12 o’clock in the afternoon, dumping in here. And so you’ve got this area that was built up with piles and piles of, I mean, it was everything from automobile parts to sides of beef rotting on the streets. Children became ill, you know…that became a real issue. The precursor to DSNI was an organizing effort. We’re organizers and planners. You don’t want to de-emphasize the organizing aspect of it. One of the first major projects was empowering residents to organize and literally close down the illegal trash transfer stations — to stop that kind of activity. That then led to coming up with a plan…. I’m going to emphasize this because the comprehensive plan that gave us the ability to come up with a shared vision has been probably the most powerful [tool]. I think for us the infrastructure and the thing that has made this community in many cases different from so many others is that they took a bold step to develop a shared vision that people could buy into, that they understood. We determined that it’s possible and even desirable to organize around a positive vision, that you don’t have to go out and stake out enemies and constantly fight against something, that you can be pulled towards this vision if it’s credible and you’ve got the tools to do it. Clearly, obstacles are going to jump in your way and you’re going to have to fight some battles, but I think that is clearly where we’ve come down.
CommonWealth: It makes a point that for an area like this, as it was 15 years ago, there was a lot of preliminary work that had to be done before you could really even get to a productive conversation, I imagine, about economic development.
Watson: Oh yeah.
CommonWealth: There’s a lot of preliminary work — for example, getting all the trash out.
Watson: Getting all the trash out. And then secondly, building homes. I mean, literally, there were no places for people to live. Folks who were working here and on this — residents as well as organizers — were influenced by people like [author] Jane Jacobs. You say, where did the guidance come from? Well, Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities really did influence a lot of thinking around here. And I think probably more so than your traditional planning. She gave folks a sense that ordinary citizens could be planners, because a lot of it — and here I can paraphrase Yogi Berra — you can observe a lot just by looking. That’s what she got people to understand: Look and see the patterns that are out there.
CommonWealth: She led people to question what the professional planners were doing.
Watson: Absolutely, absolutely. So homeownership became a big part — and to us that is part of economic development. In the broadest sense we’re saying we need jobs — jobs are important, they pay the rent, they pay the bills. But you really also want to build wealth. And so wealth means — even though this is a poor community — how can we start building assets within this population? And one of the most important assets is your house. So the affordable housing piece became a really important part. Establishing homeownership is one of the steps that we can take in anticipating how we can avoid displacement when — and I’m going to say when — gentrification [takes place]. I’d make a distinction that gentrification isn’t necessarily undesirable; gentrification and displacement is what you don’t want to have happen. Usually what happens is you don’t have a stakehold — you don’t own your homes, you don’t own the businesses, there’s not both individual and community wealth there. This community, through its organizing effort and coming up with its comprehensive plan, went to the city and said, “We’ve got a plan, we think it can work, but we can’t implement it because all these abandoned parcels are owned by scores of absentee landowners who abandoned [them.]” So they asked the city to grant them the power of eminent domain so that they could at least [reclaim lots], only on vacant, abandoned land. That then led them to develop a land trust. As I said, this is a non-traditional approach and I think there is a real underlying thread here. And that is building a strong base and infrastructure — vision, homeownership, but also land — a land trust. We’re invested in this community and I think that’s been a big part of what’s happened here.
CommonWealth: As you go forward and you do some of that groundwork and gradually prosperity returns to an area, I think maybe that’s when you get into more of the head-to-head conflict between people’s environmental concerns and people’s desire for development.
CommonWealth: I mean, you see it in a lot of outlying towns in that people say we don’t want this mall being put here because we’re concerned about the traffic and the air pollution. Even in the city there is that concern over — you know, the fight [the Boston community group] Urban Edge has been involved with in putting a Kmart [in the inner city].
Watson: That’s right. But see, I think we would have those battles even now. I think that a Kmart or the Walmarts or the traditional anchors are something that we’ve decided against. That means that the economic development will probably be slower. I mean, someone suggested: You’ve got eminent domain, you’ve got this land; give every sort of tax concession you can find, get an anchor, get them in here, and then start. Well that’s your traditional way of doing it. But the anchor has no commitment to the community. The anchor could come in as a Walmart or a Kmart, run a lot of small businesses out of business and then if they decide to leave, then you’re left with nothing. The ultimate goal with the home building, with building the physical infrastructure, building and bringing in new businesses — we’re talking about building community. It’s not economic development at any cost. We’re going to try to give local businesses an opportunity to get a foothold first. You can’t control economic development the same way you can control housing and we know that and aren’t going to try to do that. Once the gate’s open and this becomes an increasingly attractive place to be, we’re going to find that those pressures are going to definitely be there.
CommonWealth: Let’s get back to that question of what’s happening now. If we’re looking for an example of “here’s something that really helps the immediate environment and it’s also crucial to the development and prosperity of the area,” what’s a good example? Where they are not in conflict.
Watson: Across the street we had an abandoned garage, the Brook Avenue Garage, that is considered a “brownfield.” It has been out of business, I don’t know, for a number of years. Oil and gasoline have leaked in. The building is in the process of being demolished. We were able to get funds from the Massachusetts Highway Department via the Environmental Protection Agency’s Supplemental Environmental Program to tear the garage down, clean up the site, and construct in its place a 10,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse. The greenhouse was actually the idea of the community because we have established as one of the pillars of our economic redevelopment package urban agriculture. And strange as that may seem, we think that that has a lot of credibility. When I was commissioner of agriculture and got to travel around the state, I saw a lot of what I would call not necessarily farmers or agriculturists but “food entrepreneurs.” People who are looking at niche markets, high-value-added products — basil, parsley, etc., etc.… The greenhouse we were looking at will be a for-profit, commercial greenhouse. The idea, though, is that the profits will accrue to a community development fund. So even though it makes money, it becomes a community asset. That money can then be invested in socially responsible businesses. But it can be tapped by the community for community projects, whether it be youth programs or actually poured back into the greenhouse, because we think that 10,000 square foot — if this is successful, which we think it will be — [it] may also need to expand. So, here we’ve taken a liability…and we’re turning it into a real community asset.
CommonWealth: You know the problem that comes to mind when I hear about those sort of solutions? You can imagine that for that particular block it’s better to have a greenhouse there than a business that’s polluting — a garage of some sort. And you can see how a community organization could come together and say, “Let’s see if we can put a greenhouse on this land.” And yet, that’s a non-traditional way of doing development. Isn’t it difficult for them to be in the position of saying we’ve got an idea of a business that would work here? It doesn’t mean that the business can actually thrive. Usually, the normal way of it being done is an entrepreneur comes in and sees the opportunity and says, “Yeah, I can take the risk and I think this business can survive.” But how does it work when a community says this business can make it? And what if the community is wrong? What if it goes belly-up?
Watson: Well, it could. And by the same token the entrepreneur can go belly-up as well…. Now you can’t create, I mean, just grow large entrepreneurs, I realize that. I’m going to probably risk saying something here and stereotyping but, I will say that in my culture, African-Americans, when we used to sit around the table at night and talk about work or livelihood, we almost always talked about getting a job, someone giving us a job. We very rarely talked about starting our own business. I mean, some of them did, obviously, but it wasn’t as much a part of our culture as it is in some others. And there is this resentment. I remember watching the Spike Lee movie, Do the Right Thing, where the African-Americans are sitting around and resenting the fact that, you know, here are these folks from Korea or whatever coming in and they’re making a go of it. And they’re upset and they’re sitting there out of business. But the fact is there is a — there’s some gap there.
So we run entrepreneurial programs for young people here. Now we don’t expect that all of them are going to become entrepreneurs, but all we’re saying is you’ve got to expose them to what that may mean. So if they make some bucks because they’ve developed this calendar or — some of their ideas are actually pretty good. Why not minority greeting cards? I mean, Cape Verdean, Latino, African-American greeting cards that aren’t available. Yeah, it is risky, no question, but I think what residents here are saying is, right now they see the conventional wisdom is not going to get them where they want to go so let’s take some of those risks.
When this is all said and done, we think you’re going to see a mixture of — let me give you an example: [we use the term] “urban village.” Some people said, “I can’t picture that” and some people got it right away. Other people said, “I don’t see it. Can you help us see this?” We rented a couple of vans. We went to the North End [in Boston], we went to Jamaica Plain, we went to Brookline Village, we even went to Newbury Street. And all we said was, “you know what, there’s a mixture — when you go to these places you see some one-of-a-kind shops, you see some chains, and you see some mixed use.” We’re not saying “no” to a McDonalds, we’re not even saying “no” to a Gap, but all we’re saying is, can there be that mix? And can we give ourselves an opportunity to get some of our economic development initiatives a head start and a toehold so that it becomes that mixed-use place?
CommonWealth: And when we’re talking about the community’s role in planning and development, that’s the other side of it that, especially here in Massachusetts, there is an idea that’s been around for a long time that it takes too long to get development projects going. We had an interview some time ago in our magazine with [Harvard Business School Professor] Michael Porter, in which he made the point that it’s as if there are two layers of government in the city. There’s the official government and then, in his view, there’s this layer of community organizations. Which, he says, made it twice as hard to get things accomplished.
Watson: I’m surprised and shocked he said [only] two times [laughter]. But, you know — two things here: One, it’s a result of people having gotten burned, literally and figuratively in the past, and two, there’s a sense that they’d rather do it right and have a chance to do it right than to have it done in a hurry. The city got on this community’s case a lot; they wanted the housing to happen a lot faster than it happened. And why? One reason is because — I mean, just to be honest — the city works on two- to four-year cycles — elections. You know, this is city councilors, this is the mayor, and what they want to be able to do is to say, “This is what we’ve done.” Now, in some cases, having something done visibly — you can put housing in almost any one of the lots up and down the area, and that happened a couple of years ago when people were proposing housing along Blue Hill Avenue. The residents said they wanted commercial development. They didn’t know what kind of commercial development — but they were saying, “Let’s not lock out that option because we feel that we have more options for where our housing can go than for where commercial development can go.” Yet the city thought that maybe [on] Blue Hill Avenue, filling in those [vacant lots] with houses would be a more appropriate way. Because they too felt that we know that we can get that done. We don’t know how long it’s going to take for commercial development. I guess what I want to say is that the community is not being an obstacle just for the sake of being an obstacle. As I said, even with the housing pieces, they want economic development, they want — and I think I can say this — they want housing, but I think they can also see that the bottom line — this is sort of interesting — the bottom line is what they really want is a certain quality of life. And the jobs and the economic development are a means towards that end, but they aren’t the end.… It’s not as if people are ungrateful. It’s not as if we’re using this power just to be obstructionist. It’s just that there is a certain uncertainty about where this can all lead.
CommonWealth: But don’t developers hate that? I mean, don’t developers think, “Oh God, I’ve got to go in and deal with Dudley Street community group?”
Watson: Oh yeah. I think they hate it, but at the same time, there aren’t too many places where you can still build horizontally. That is the leverage and so you take advantage of that leverage and say, “You know, but if you’re gonna’ do it here, you do have to deal with us and yes, we’re gonna’ probably throw it back at ya’ because it’s probably not going to be just the right way.” Another example, as we look at some of the areas that we’re working in…[such as] the interior [of the neighborhood]. One of the residents said, “Couldn’t we have a corner grocery store?” Do all the grocery stores have to be on the main streets? We have to walk a long way; some of us don’t have cars. Is there anything in the design process that says you can’t have an interior convenience store or grocery store? Christopher Alexander wrote a book called A Pattern Language. He’s an architect who really believed in the bottom-up approach and he put together this incredible book that shows design principles; [he] looked at it like rules of thumb. You can say, intersections — what happens at intersections? What corners of a neighborhood are best suited or highly suitable for something like a corner grocery store? We still do defer to developers, but we’re saying, “ask these questions.” Because what happens in most cases when a planner or an architect comes in is that you don’t even feel comfortable knowing what questions you might be able to ask about.… So yes, it does take longer. Because we aren’t looking at the housing or the development in isolation.
CommonWealth: You can drive around this neighborhood and see that there’s been success in creating new housing. That’s visible. Are there success stories about bringing commercial development here?
Watson: It’s not even been done yet. What you’re saying is exactly what most people would say about community-based organizations and it’s very valid. “We know that you know how to build affordable housing. We know that you know how to deliver social services, human services. But you have no track record when it comes to economic development.” And they’re absolutely right. But back when, when we talked about doing housing, people said “You’ve never done housing,” and there was a point when we hadn’t done housing. The jury is still very much out. And what’s going to be happening, probably beginning this summer…we’ve hired folks from MIT to work with us to develop both a physical model, but also a computer simulation model, of Dudley Street. So that by the end of this summer, you’ll be able to [take a] virtual walk down Dudley Street, do the 360 turn, but also put in the tree-lined streets, put in the shops. And I think this is the challenge.
CommonWealth: You mentioned earlier urban agriculture. When I hear about that idea of growing food in the city it sounds like one of those ideas that’s good in theory but maybe ultimately what might be called a “boutique” program. The question is how could it be done on any sort of scale that would make it significant?
Watson: Well, there are two ways. I’m basing this on what I saw as I traveled around the state as commissioner of agriculture. The folks who were really succeeding in the food industry weren’t necessarily people who were farming large numbers of acres. It was people who were using innovation, technology, and an understanding where the niche markets are for food, which is still very considerable. Just a couple of examples: In Westport, Massachusetts, Gooseberry Farms. Chris Killenberg is growing hydroponic lettuce in a greenhouse. This is on land that’s not suitable, necessarily, for agriculture, but he’s raising lettuce hydroponically — not using soil — and raising it and selling it year round. You can get it in Stop and Shops throughout the state. Because there is still a demand for fresh lettuce — quality. You can do a lot of things in terms of food production in facilities that don’t require having to have a lot of land. In North Adams, it’s amazing; there is a place called Delf Tree in an abandoned warehouse raising shiitake mushrooms. You can say “boutique,” but you’ve got to say, are there job creations, is there a way to make money doing this? On the other end of this, Josh Goldman out in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, in the industrial park, it’s in a warehouse — and I’m going to take you to the extreme here, OK? — but, you walk inside this warehouse and he’s got the equivalent of 400 acres of fish ponds; he’s raising striped bass. And he’s using no more than two single-family households worth of water a year, recycling, re-circulating, and raising some of the best tasting striped bass you could ever want to eat. And he’s raising this almost on a commodity scale. All I’m saying is that food production is no longer necessarily just a rural activity…. Restaurants will pay a premium for high-quality herbs and greens in the winter. They can’t get them. They’re importing them from Denmark and Holland. All I’m saying is there is a demand — we don’t meet it. Grand Chou-Chou Chinese restaurants in downtown Boston are driving their refrigerated trucks all the way out to Turners Falls, Massachusetts, loading them up with that striped bass, and driving back into Chinatown. As Josh Goldman says, “You know, it makes much more sense to have these things in the city,” where the infrastructure is there, you’ve got the population, you’re near the Mass Pike, you’re right off the expressway. We’ve got to start thinking a little bit differently about the city. And [DSNI] is one place that is saying, “Why not start that thinking in Roxbury?”
CommonWealth: At bottom, what you’re really trying to envision is a way, in this piece of land, to get the markets interacting with each other in a natural way. It gets back to some of the environmental questions that we’ve been thinking about. Do you think there is too much reluctance in the environmental community to look for market-oriented solutions to environmental problems? Is there too much hostility to market solutions?
Watson: When I was at the Nature Conservancy, there was a big event. Norman Schwarzkopf was [overseeing] the reintroduction of bison to the Great Plains. I remember there was a guy from someplace out West — we’re all watching this on TV — and they were interviewing someone and someone said, “We’re reintroducing the bison, but how can we make sure they’re going to survive and thrive?” And the guy looked at him and said, “The best way to ensure the survival of the bison is to eat them.” What he was saying was absolutely true. If they’re going to be there as ornaments, or just like relics, well, it’s not going to work. I know that upset a lot of the vegetarian community…but a strictly vegetarian society would not be ecologically sound, that’s just one of the things we probably have to realize. I think that there still is an anti-development, anti-business attitude that still permeates the environmental community that makes it very difficult…. In the long run I don’t think that’s going to serve the environmental movement, because it’s just too isolated and too myopic and too extreme a posture.
Watson: That’s right. Absolutely. And I think that is exactly what they were saying, is that, “We can’t buy that.” For people who still maintain that posture, the no-growth, no development — and to me there’s a qualitative difference between development and growth. Because I don’t think you can sustain growth forever, but you can sustain a certain type of development. …I do think there’s still a schism between the environmental community — I would say “the traditional environmental community” a la the Nature Conservancy, etc. — and a community like Roxbury. The bridge is when you begin to see organizations like the Conservation Law Foundation, or Alternatives for Community and Environment, that are beginning to take that piece that began with “environmental racism” and now are trying to turn that into more of an ecological design and ecosystem approach, where you can actually see the two being compatible and looking at sustainable economic development.