Posted December 19th 2016 at 10:50 am by
in Story Behind the Story

Story Behind the Story: Displacement in Boston, Part 1

This is the first part in a series of interviews with Boston artist and photographer, Maureen White. This series, Story Behind the Story, will follow along with Maureen, checking in as she develops a body of work about displacement in her neighborhood (East Boston) and Boston more broadly. 

Lawrence: So Maureen, why are you interested in photographing displacement in Boston?

Maureen: I’ve become very interested in exploring how photography intersects with social change.  I think often documentary photographers become interested in social issues as they find subjects that speak to them in some way, but for me it’s the other way around. I’ve worked on issues of social change for almost two decades, and have just recently begun to create images that can support that work.

I learned the basics of photography as a teenager, but after college I actually stepped away from it for a long time.  About three years ago I picked it back up at the strong urging of a friend (whose said urging came about because of what she saw in my tarot cards… an amusing story for another time!) I bought a camera, taught myself digital, and quickly become dedicated to photography as my means of expression.

That happened to be right around the time when urban agriculture projects began springing up in Boston. People were building these very cool urban farms on vacant lots, on rooftops, in shipping containers… I decided that I wanted to photograph and document this movement that I saw emerging. It was a very visual subject and I decided I would do it for free as a good way to learn documentary photography and to contribute something to the movement.  I donated dozens and dozens of photographs to the various farmers.

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Some of the earliest urban farms in and around Boston.

A few months later I was at the Urban Agriculture Conference at Northeastern University and I noticed a lot of my photos being used by the farmers in their presentations. Courtney Hennessey, one half of the founding team of Higher Ground Farm, told me afterward that during the plenary she had whispered to her co-founder, “Thank God for Maureen, without her, nobody would know what any of us was doing!” It wasn’t really true, of course, but it struck a chord with me. I started to understand the power of images to communicate what’s going on in our city, what good people are working on, what’s possible.  I wasn’t a professional, and I hadn’t shot in many years, and I was learning digital for the first time, but I had contributed something positive to a movement I cared about.

As I began to look for a new project this fall, housing was a natural choice because of my background as an organizer.  My first job out of college was as a community organizer in the Fenway neighborhood. We worked on lots of issues, but mainly on housing. The neighborhood was already in pretty late stages of gentrification but there were still some battles left to fight. I learned a lot about the types of forces at play in the housing market in Boston and what potential solutions to the housing crisis were. I saw firsthand the impact of gentrification, and people losing homes that were previously affordable. I saw gentrification as a process that can tear apart the fabric of a community. A community is first and foremost about the people that live there; when people that live there can no longer afford it, it’s a problem.

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East Boston today.

Now I’m starting to see gentrification take hold in my current neighborhood.  I moved away from Boston for three years and when I moved back in 2010, I landed (as a renter) in East Boston. I instantly fell in love with the neighborhood and started to become a part of the community. I decided in 2013 that I was going to try to buy a home, and that’s when the reality of the market really shocked me.

My agent took me to see a two-family house and told me I was going to be the first person to see it. When we walked in, the selling agent mentioned that there was already an accepted full-price offer on the house. Confused, I said, “I thought I was the first person to see this place?” And she said, “Oh, yes, you are.”

And that’s when the alarm bells started going off: someone had bought this place sight unseen! I thought to myself, I’m just a regular person working in the non-profit sector. I don’t make a lot of money… I don’t care about making a lot of money, but it means I’m not going to be able to afford to live in my own community. Some investor who hasn’t even seen this house was able to snatch it up from under people like me. People were paying cash for homes and doing all sorts of things that the people who live in this neighborhood just can’t afford to do.  I was very lucky that I eventually got to buy a place at auction, but what about my neighbors who were not so lucky?

Then I started to see the bulldozers and the cranes start to come in, and the luxury condos that had been stalled during the recession began to get built.  The symptoms of gentrification were becoming more visible, and I thought that I should document these changes and also who is being impacted.

At a certain point, I began to notice another really concerning thing. I starting seeing through the neighborhood Facebook groups that a lot of people were actually rooting for the gentrification. They wanted their property values to go up, or they felt like they had lived through the tough times in the neighborhood and now they wanted it to be nice, they wanted new private investment to come. Now, I saw it as a thriving place already, but they imagined something different. They were excited by the changes coming. There was this tone in what people posted that suggested they felt landlords were being besieged by unreasonable demands to keep rents low. They thought tenants were out to screw them over. They felt that the housing court system was rigged against them.

This was all counter to the narratives I’d been immersed in as a housing activist. People were talking about gentrification as a positive force and in this very abstract way… It was being talked about in a way that left out the parts about families losing their homes. It was leaving out the fact that some people who were being pushed out were perhaps the very people who had worked to make the neighborhood better.

It started to dawn on me that there are stories here that need to be told. There are real losses on the part of people forced to leave, and also for the people who stay behind and have lost their neighbors.  So we might have a nicer coffee shop or a spruced up park, but at what cost? I started to think about using my particular creative outlet to show that.

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Massive luxury developments are walling the neighborhood off from its most beloved resource, Boston Harbor.

L: What launched you into this project full steam-ahead?

M: Back in September, I got invited to a meeting by the pastor of a local Lutheran church. He does a lot of good work in the community and told me that a couple of folks were gathering to talk about the housing crisis because it was really getting bad and a lot of the parishoners were being affected.  The church has Mass in English and in Spanish, and a lot of immigrant folks are part of his congregation.

As I sat in the meeting, I found myself advocating for reinforcing the work already being done by people doing strategic organizing around this crisis, especially City Life / Vida Urbana & the Right to the City Alliance.

I left that meeting realizing I wanted to recommit myself to using my art to further that work. The next night I went to a City Life meeting, talked to the organizers, and then began going to the meetings regularly. I started going without my camera, just to show my face and establish myself as a neighbor and an ally. Then I photographed a march they held in November. I’ll be photographing the upcoming city council hearings on a tenant protection bill they are advocating for. As I build relationships I hope to do portraits of the families at risk of displacement. I’m also photographing the construction that’s happening and some general streetscape because I know that will change and things will look very different in two or three years.

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Residents at risk of displacement march through the neighborhood to bring attention to the housing crisis.  East Boston is the fastest-gentrifying neighborhood in the city.

L: So what’s your big picture vision for the project?

M: My hope is to create images that show the impact of gentrification, both on the built environment, and also on members of the community themselves.  I also want to show the people who are intervening in the crisis- the people who are organizing, and also the people who are intervening in their own private ways. I have this idea for a series of portraits of landlords who are keeping their rents below market rate so that their tenants can continue to live in the neighborhood. They are the landlords who care more about people than about profits. They care more about the community than about their property being a commodity. These people are largely invisible, but I think that by lifting them up and making them visible it’s a way of intervening in the dominant narrative, which says that the natural course of things is for landlords to maximize their profit at all costs. I want to disrupt that narrative and create a new one.

Stay tuned for the Part 2 of this series and check out Maureen’s photography work on her personal website. All photos in this post are owned by Maureen White and cannot be used without her explicit permission.

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