A Generation of Gentrification

by Madelene Nieman / Beacon Staff • October 26, 2017

When I transferred to Emerson over two years ago, I was living with my parents in Illinois, totally ignorant to the layout of the city where I would soon live. Instead of visiting, or doing any research whatsoever, I did what any suitably desperate student will do—I found roommates on Facebook. On a sticky July day, my two roommates and I flew into Boston for a twelve-hour mad-dash apartment hunt. Fourteen apartments, five fights, and two ferrets later, we had signed a lease on an apartment in what we were told was the trendy neighborhood: Allston.

Whatever your opinion of the much-maligned area, Allston certainly has a distinctive character. No matter the time of day, there is always vomit on the sidewalk, and I can get a nicotine fix just walking slowly past the clumps of students outside bars. Only this September did I move across town to a suitably grown-up apartment in the South End (if one can call a four-bedroom, one-bath walk up “grown-up”), leaving the Allston chapter of my life behind.

But I did not move because I wanted to seem more adult, or because my house was unbearable (though that stint when you got an electric shock in the shower was a bit much). I moved because I was priced out.

Stories like mine are not unique. The average rent in Boston is now over $2,000, and aside from a 1.7 percent drop for the first time in seven years, it’s on the rise. It’s not hard to find housing stories that border on the bizarre—the Globe recently reported on a graphic designer who was paying $300 to live in a pantry. This pricing climb is totally unsustainable.

In 2014, Mayor Martin J. Walsh set forward a plan to change the Boston housing model. While the overall plan calls for the building of 53,000 more housing units, a large portion of the plan is based upon the fact that 20,000 undergraduates live off campus. With this influx of students—many of whom have parents willing to pay astronomical rents for the well-being of their little ones—it’s no wonder that the city is transforming into something utterly unrecognizable.

I think back to the street where I used to live. When my roommates and I first moved in, we were the only students in the building, and some of the first on the block (with the exception of the Allston Pudding staff). There were a few young professionals, but largely the neighborhood was populated with young families. By the time I left, my entire building was undergraduate girls. The buildings that once housed families were now empty and under total renovation. Two Vespas had suddenly appeared on the street corner opposite me.

Though this picture is largely anecdotal, it is certainly damning. I find myself simultaneously an agent and victim of gentrification; I am the reason rent prices skyrocket, but also the person forced out when large companies set up shop to meet student demand. Though I personally am not wealthy, the economic assistance of my parents is what makes me a target for overpriced coffee and resold fast fashion. I only realized this once my performance of poverty began to border on reality, when the lazy pasta dinners for which I am well-known became a matter of necessity for fear of being unable to pay rent. I am perpetrator and prey, criminal and casualty.  

As students, it is so easy to see all our actions as blameless, and mistakes as little more than blunders. But what we do in this city during our four-year tenure has lasting impacts on long-term residents. Acknowledging privilege is no longer enough. We must work with the Emerson administration and the City of Boston alike to become more sustainable citizens. There is more at stake in this city than our convenience or even our comfort. Neighborhoods are disappearing before our eyes, and all we do is comment upon the quality of the new brunch place around the corner.

There are ways students can live in Boston without becoming agents of gentrification. One of the best ways is to frequent small, locally-owned business. 95 percent of Boston’s business are sole proprietors, meaning that there is a direct correlation between success of these business and success of the Boston residents that own them. Simply by choosing to buy a book at Barnes & Noble rather than Trident, one has a direct negative impact upon business owners. There is no way to directly prevent gentrification or rising rents, but conscientious consumption is a start.

This week, I returned to the Harvard Ave. B line stop for the first time since moving. The shops are different: neighborhood staple Bookistan, while still claiming to be open online, is papered-up and locked; Refuge Cafe almost closed. While there are still, mercifully, two Tedeschis within walking distance of each other, 7-Eleven and Five Guys have taken up residence. The entire time I wandered Harvard Ave., I floated as in a dream, totally disconnected from the new reality of Allston. It is a reality I, through disinterest and disengagement, have helped to create, and will soon be a microcosm of the city as a whole if we are not careful.