Is There Room for Equity on the Mass. Pike?

Allston Multimodal Project Area - Bird's-Eye View
A satellite view of the area covered by the Allston Multimodal Project. At center from the bottom, the Boston-Worcester Commuter Rail line, Beacon Park Yard, the MassPike with entrance and exit ramps, and Cambridge Street. The Throat section of the Charles River is visible in the bottom right.

The Mass. Pike Extension has always been controversial. To some, it is an ugly source of pollution that divides communities and inhibits access to the Charles River. Transportation and environmental advocates castigate the “obsolete, failed transportation policy that placed a highway above the needs of neighborhoods and the environment.” Yet to others, it is a lifeline ensuring access to jobs, city culture, and low-density living. With a pre-COVID average of 150,000 trips per day, the interstate has been a critical link between Boston and western areas of the Commonwealth with little access to public transit. The current impasse around the Allston Multimodal Project, MassDOT’s planned realignment of the Pike, is the latest iteration of a debate that centers around questions of community preservation and equity.

By now, the project’s details are well-known. The Mass. Pike Extension would be straightened through the former Beacon Park Yard, and the wasteland of entrance and exit ramps turned into a new Harvard University-developed neighborhood. West Station would finally be built along the Commuter Rail’s Boston-Worcester line. Sun-scorched Cambridge Street would become a landscaped, bike-friendly boulevard. And the portion of the highway elevated on the crumbling Allston Viaduct would be either repaired or reconstructed at grade. Everyone agrees the project is necessary and would benefit, well, everyone. But nobody seems to agree on how to squeeze the Pike, Soldiers Field Road, the Commuter Rail, bike and pedestrian paths, and a modicum of grass into the section of the Charles River known as the Throat. The differences that have emerged between those who commute along the viaduct and those who live in its shadow raise a question that has plagued the Mass. Pike since its earliest days: who stands to gain most from the project?

MassDOT's proposal for the Allston Multimodal Project
MassDOT’s July 2019 proposal for the Allston Multimodal Project.

MassDOT’s July 2019 proposal for the Allston Multimodal Project.

It can be hard nowadays, amid Boston’s development boom and the looming climate crisis, to understand why transportation planners opted to separate communities from each other and the Charles River to accommodate an interstate. Yet their decision, damaging as it was, had context. By the 1960s, Boston was becoming known as a has-been city. Manufacturing was at an all-time low after forty years of decline. Work was drying up at the Boston Navy Yard, which would soon close after nearly two centuries of operation. Suburban development, driven by white flight and post-war American Dreams, spurred the construction of office parks and shopping malls that drew white-collar and retail jobs out of the urban core. The Charles River was already polluted from centuries of industry along its banks. Environmentally friendly transportation policies rarely factored into planning discussions at a time when the car was king and climate change relatively unknown. With U.S. News and World Report declaring that Boston was “dying on the vine,” planners seemed to face a stark choice: preserve neighborhoods or preserve a city. They chose the latter.

Typical of mid-century highway projects, the immediate beneficiaries were people with means, and the immediate victims, low-income and Black communities. Under the bull-headed leadership of William F. Callahan, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority had purchased a right-of-way from the declining Boston & Albany Railroad, facilitating construction of the Mass. Pike from West Stockbridge to Route 128 between 1955 and 1957. The Turnpike Authority used the same right-of-way in 1962 to extend the road into Boston, connecting the western suburbs to the city. The project drew fierce opposition from communities in Newton and Allston-Brighton that were squarely in the bulldozers’ way. Though building the Mass. Pike Extension along an existing railroad reduced the need to seize land through eminent domain, those who were uprooted included society’s most vulnerable – people whose race or income forced them to live beside train tracks in the first place. Of the 350 homes and businesses demolished in Newton, ten percent belonged to the Hicks Street African-American neighborhood, which the Mass. Pike nearly eradicated. On top of the injustices common to all displaced community members (the Turnpike Authority gave locals merely two to four months’ notice to relocate and has been accused of insufficiently compensating them for lost property) racial discrimination prevented many evicted Black residents from buying new homes in the city. Meanwhile, highway construction in Allston-Brighton led the MBTA to discontinue the Green Line’s A-branch, rendering inefficient bus service the most accessible means of public transit for the working-class neighborhoods riven by the Pike. At least initially, the highway’s benefits were distributed unequally among the communities along its path.

Construction of the MassPike in Newton, 1964.
Road construction in 1964 in front of the Old Main building related to the laying of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Newton Free Library.

Yet the idea that the Mass. Pike Extension has helped only the affluent and hurt only the vulnerable is simplistic. In the decades following its construction, Boston flourished. Improved transportation networks brought new industries to the city that attracted both high and low-skilled workers. Small businesses grew alongside increased foot traffic and disposable income. Urban residents enjoyed a more convenient travel route to locations outside the city. Even communities that disproportionately endured the highway’s negative impacts benefitted to some degree from the boost it gave to the regional economy. Now Boston’s prosperity has given way to gentrification. As historically working-class neighborhoods like Allston-Brighton grow prohibitively expensive, low-income people are moving to more affordable towns far from MBTA stations. The Mass. Pike – rightly criticized, by those who can still afford to live in or near Boston, for its chronic congestion, pollution, and damage to the neighborhoods it runs through – is often the most convenient way for residents of these western communities to commute to work in the city. And herein lies a great irony: the highway that helped resurrect Boston’s economy and facilitated suburban growth at the expense of working-class urban communities, today enables low-income people displaced by Boston’s soaring rents to reach jobs in the city at the expense of those same, now rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

The view from Cambridge Street in Allston isn’t pretty. To the southeast, a knot of entrance ramps and exit ramps, underpasses and overpasses, looping through construction sites and empty lots. The Mass. Pike slicing Allston-Brighton in half, eight high-speed lanes clogged with cars. Beacon Park Yard stripped of train tracks, bulging like a growth against the highway’s curving southern edge. This no-man’s land of heat, dust, and noise is what MassDOT’s Allston Multimodal Project seeks to fix. But whether the Mass. Pike is on a viaduct or on the ground will do little to solve the larger problems historically intertwined with the highway – income and racial inequality, environmental and transit injustice, gentrification and political disfranchisement. The time has come for project stakeholders to reach a compromise and to redirect their time, energy, and considerable talents to tackling the bigger issues.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

The Speedway Progress Update: July 2020

The Speedway courtyard construction site viewed through a hole in the interior wall
The courtyard and Building F under construction. Photo by Ella Rinaldo.

Where to begin? When we posted our first Speedway progress update in early March, we never imagined a pandemic would shut down renovations for a month. Nor did we expect that we would have to delay opening until winter, or that the restaurant and retail industries would be thrown into turmoil. While the Speedway construction site came to a standstill, AHF staff worked feverishly to adapt the project to a world of social distancing and economic disruption. Despite these challenges, we’ve managed to move the project forward.

During the shutdown, our main priority was to stay connected with our Brighton neighbors. To this end, AHF connected with State Representative Michael Moran, Charles River Community Health (CRCH), and local wholesaler Katsiroubas Brothers to help address more immediate needs in the community. The result is the Speedway Produce Program. Now in its eighth week, this initiative has delivered 320 boxes of fresh produce, as well as masks, to CRCH members experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic. AHF sponsored the first month’s worth of produce boxes; thanks to dozens of individual donations and a Harvard University Allston-Brighton Emergency Response Grant, we are able to extend the program until the end of July. Visit our GoFundMe page to help Brighton’s most vulnerable residents access fresh food through the summer.

Meanwhile, the Speedway rehabilitation has progressed by leaps and bounds! Construction restarted in early May after a month-long shutdown. Since then, our contractor D.F. Pray has worked hard to renovate the complex, and it shows:

1. Shingling

If you’ve recently driven past the Speedway, you’ve probably noticed that the Western Avenue and Soldiers Field Road sides of the complex have gotten a makeover. Shingling is nearly complete on the buildings’ public-facing walls, transforming not only the Speedway, but the streetscape itself.

The Speedway's nearly completed shingling along Soldiers Field Road
The Speedway’s shingling is nearly complete along Soldiers Field Road.

2. Repointing Masonry

The masonry of Buildings C and H is being repointed, creating a stable foundation for the buildings’ future tenants – Notch Brewery and a to-be-determined restaurant operator.

Masonry undergoing repointing at the Speedway
The Speedway’s masonry is being repointed.
An open doorway at the Speedway with surrounding masonry being repointed
The masonry around one of the entrances to the Speedway’s Building H is being repointed.

3. A New Roof for the Speedway

The Speedway has a new roof! Ensuring that the complex is water-tight was one of our main priorities when construction got underway again.

The Speedway's Building H with new shingles, new roof, and restored windows
The Speedway’s new roof is now complete.

4. Restoring the Speedway’s Windows

For years, the Speedway’s windows were boarded up – the most visible sign of the blight that had set in at the site. Under the direction of DCR, a Student Conservation Association crew painted fake windows over the plywood, while the 169 real ones were locked away in storage. Now the original windows have been restored and are being re-installed. The difference is unmistakable.

Restored windows at the Speedway
Restored windows are a big improvement for Building H.

5. Ramping and Decking in the Speedway Courtyard

AHF is particularly excited to activate the Speedway courtyard as a public space. Last week, D.F. Pray began laying the foundation for ramping and decking, which will make the courtyard accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

Ramping and decking foundation in the Speedway courtyard
A foundation is being laid for ramping and decking in the Speedway courtyard.

6. Interior Renovations

The interior framing of Buildings E, C, and D –  future creative/retail bays and  Notch’s brewery and taproom – has been restored, allowing for more extensive improvements.  In fact, rough electrical work has begun in Building E!

Interior framing in the Speedway's Building E
The interior framing of the Speedway’s Building E has been restored.
Electrical wires hanging inside one of the Speedway buildings
Rough electrical work has begun inside the Speedway.

Behind the scenes, AHF is preparing to open the Speedway in a radically altered environment. Stay tuned for future announcements as we approach the Speedway’s new opening date in winter 2021.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

Learn more about the Charles River Speedway revitalization project.

When historic sites are vandalized, what does that say about the society that created them?

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial with graffiti
Backside of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial with graffiti, June 1, 2020. Photo credit: Friends of the Public Garden.

When the sun rose above Boston on June 1, illuminating hand-lettered posters left behind from the previous day’s Black Lives Matter protests, it shone also on a different kind of sign. Spray-paint stood out like a scar on downtown Boston’s historic landmarks: Park Street Church, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Women’s Memorial, the George Washington statue, the 9/11 Memorial, the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, and many other historic statues and buildings had been graffitied overnight following the peaceful demonstrations. Like the rest of the preservation community, AHF was dismayed by the vandalism, yet still more dismayed by what it said about the perpetrators’ apparent estrangement from Boston’s cultural landscape.

For many of us, it is easy to take place for granted. The buildings, street names, and memorials that comprise a neighborhood can become so familiar that it is possible to forget how they came to be there. Those who feel at home in a particular area may never consider the meanings embedded in its cultural landscape, or may assume that those meanings ring true for everyone. Equally easy to overlook are the sociocultural markers that exist alongside those features, are relevant to their creation and retention, and no less subtly assert who belongs: shop prices, rental rates, the faces of residents and business owners. In Boston, these indicators are the result of policies and choices, from redlining to gentrification, that have blocked African-Americans and low-income residents from the economic and political opportunities so often prerequisite to telling one’s story publicly.

When one recognizes the impact of structural racism and inequality on preservation in Boston, it is no wonder that some people may feel little connection to many of the city’s historic sites. Consider the following:

  • The Freedom Trail, whose primary purpose is to celebrate the egalitarian ideals of the American Revolution, is one of Boston’s main tourist attractions. Marked clearly in red brick, it is impossible to miss and draws four million visitors each year. The Black Heritage Trail, which celebrates the achievements of Boston’s African-American community and calls attention to the systemic racism that undercuts our country’s ideals, attracts just ten percent of the Freedom Trail’s visitation. This is unsurprising, as it poorly marked and located in a quiet residential neighborhood – one that was historically black and immigrant, but is now largely white and unaffordable.
  • Faneuil Hall is widely known as the Cradle of Liberty. Since the construction of its predecessor building in 1742, it has hosted orations by Revolutionary leaders, abolitionists, and suffragists, as well as citizenship ceremonies and political events. It has
Faneuil Hall viewed from Quincy Market, Boston
Faneuil Hall viewed from Quincy Market, Boston

rightly been celebrated throughout Boston’s history as a bastion of free speech. Yet its funder and namesake, Peter Faneuil, was a slaveowner who made much of his wealth through kidnapping and trading in African people. Today, hip-hop troupes regularly perform outside the building on the former site Dock Square, where, unbeknownst to the large crowds of spectators, human beings were sold alongside household goods. The continued existence of many of Boston’s historic neighborhoods is usually attributed to predominantly white and affluent preservation groups. In the past, less thought was given to the neighborhoods’ minority, immigrant, and working-class residents who, unable to afford relocating to the suburbs, cared for their urban homes and kept their neighborhoods intact. Former State Representative and preservationist Byron Rushing has noted that the poor are seldom recognized as the true preservationists of Boston’s residential working-class neighborhoods. Many of Boston’s historically designated neighborhoods are gentrified. Beacon Hill, the North End, and the South End have become prohibitively expensive to the populations who have inhabited them through time. Meanwhile, the no less historic, but undesignated areas where low-income populations currently live, such as Chinatown and parts of Roxbury, face development pressures that threaten not only to displace their current residents but to erase their heritage.

The things we choose to preserve and the way we preserve them sends a message about whose heritage matters, whose contributions to society are valued, and who is invited to the conversation; in short, who belongs. This message is glaringly obvious to those who are underrepresented in the cultural landscape. If iconic historic landmarks like the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial are vandalized, it is because the perpetrators are either ignorant of the sites’ meanings or alienated from the process that produced those meanings. Graffiti becomes the way that marginalized voices insert themselves into the city’s narrative. There is a link between the underpaid, undervalued, and martyred 54th MA Regiment, and the fury sprayed across the soldiers’ names.

In his book Place, Race, and Story, Ned Kaufman writes that preservation “is a social practice, part history and part planning. Its ultimate goal is not fixing or saving old things, but rather creating places where people can live well and connect to meaningful narratives about history, culture, and identity.” For too long, the preservation movement in Boston and the systems surrounding it failed the city’s most vulnerable. The more recent push to create a more inclusive cultural landscape, from the 1980 establishment of Boston African-American National Historic Site to today’s allocation of Community Preservation funds in Boston’s disinvested neighborhoods, is a laudable (if belated) effort to empower marginalized communities by helping them to tell their full story. Yet preserving the heritage of marginalized communities will fall short if the communities themselves are not preserved.

Addressing the structural inequities that destabilize Boston’s communities of color and low-income neighborhoods is a preservation issue. Converting historic buildings into affordable housing, partnering with community members on projects that enhance economic and social wellbeing, supporting local business owners, advocating for policies that stabilize neighborhoods – these are among the preservation movement’s responsibilities in the twenty-first century. Together, we can create a better Boston that honors all of its residents’ pasts while ensuring their futures.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

How a Small Group of Volunteers is Transforming a Rural Town through Historic Preservation and the Arts

North Brookfield Town House framed against a deep blue sky. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is preservation consultant to the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
North Brookfield Town House

What if a vacant town hall in a small Massachusetts community were granted a new life as an arts center devoted to solving the national problem of rural isolation? For the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House, this vision holds the key to their community’s revitalization.

Not many people know about North Brookfield. Nestled among orchards and state forests, this town of 4,800 could, at first glance, be any rural New England village. Modest single-family homes line Main Street, which runs north to south through a small downtown. The white steeple of the First Congregational Church rises above a sprawling green, opposite the Romanesque bulk of the Haston Free Public Library. Dark storefront windows of low-rise commercial blocks turn blank stares to the street. The “For Rent” posters are offset here and there with “Open” signs that wink redly from the businesses that have managed to hold on: Angel Nails Salon, St. Jeans Country Package Store, Jim’s Pizza… Near the center of town, Vibram employs over two hundred in manufacturing rubber soles for outdoor boots – a modern incarnation of the Batcheller Shoe Factory, which fueled the community’s growth during the nineteenth century. And rising above it all is the North Brookfield Town House.

A For Rent sign in an empty storefront on Main Street.

“The center of everything.” That’s how North Brookfield residents characterize the Town House, whose tall, arched windows and Italianate bell tower reflect the importance that its nineteenth-century designers and subsequent users attached to it. Once a town hall, theater, retail venue, and jail, the building has been vacant since 2002, victim to the same forces that have challenged North Brookfield and other rural communities throughout the country: reduced industry, the success of big box stores at the expense of small businesses, an exodus of young people seeking opportunity elsewhere. For many residents, the Town House’s peeling paint and locked doors came to symbolize these problems. Restoring the building would have to be part of the solution.

The Town House still stands today thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers. The Friends of the North Brookfield Town House were founded in 2006 to raise awareness and money for preserving the building. During the first several years, they focused on stabilization, such as repairing the roof and bell tower following Hurricane Irene. Yet the building’s future use was a persistent question. The Friends wanted the Town House to become a community hub – a coffee shop or artisan bakery, something to draw people downtown. But how to accomplish this multimillion-dollar restoration project in a financially sustainable way?

A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House. Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the building as an arts center.
A volunteer from the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House teaches a third grade class about the Town House.

Finding an answer required the Friends to transform their approach to the project from fundraising around a predetermined use to amplifying the building’s unlimited possibilities. In 2017, AHF began consulting for the Friends and soon discovered that the plans for a coffee shop and bakery were infeasible in the local economic climate. There was simply not enough traffic downtown or expendable income locally to support a dining establishment. Rehabilitating the Town House as a destination café, or any other commercial venue, would require a full-scale downtown development plan to create a more business-friendly environment.

Far from being discouraged, the Friends ran with AHF’s advice – and ran further even than they thought possible. They forged a strong relationship with the North Brookfield Board of Selectmen, Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), and Main Street America, leading to the creation of a Downtown Development Committee. They broadened their vision for the Town House to encompass a wide variety of future uses, from commercial to cultural. They raised the visibility of the building online, in classrooms, and at community events. At AHF’s suggestion, they organized a community-wide effort to repaint the Town House façade, transforming what appeared to be a shabby building into one brimming with potential. And people noticed.

The North Brookfield Town House being repainted. Architectural Heritage Foundation is preservation consultant for the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House.
Repainting the North Brookfield Town House

Bonnie Milner, Owner and General Manager of local recording company Long View Farm Studios, was astounded when she saw the repainted Town House – a building that she had often passed, but seldom noticed. The Friends invited her to tour the building in hopes that she might furnish an idea for its reuse. She realized that it would the perfect location for her to fulfill a lifelong dream of establishing an arts center for rural at-risk youth. Several months of collaboration later, the Creative Life Center concept was born.

The Creative Life Center (CLC) at the North Brookfield Town House is intended to be a replicable model for addressing rural disfranchisement through the artistic reuse of cherished historic properties. Under Bonnie’s leadership and in partnership with Berklee College of Music, the CLC will offer educational programming in music, theater, and the visual arts for local youth and seniors, provide a performance venue for the broader Central Massachusetts community, and give emerging artists the opportunity to showcase their work. In so doing, the CLC will foster connection and stimulate economic development in an oft-overlooked rural region. Yet it’s only the beginning of North Brookfield’s revitalization.

An audience watches young dancers perform on the Great Hall stage at the North Brookfield Town House during MayFest, 2019. The Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) is helping the Friends of the North Brookfield Town House to preserve and redevelop the historic building.
Young performers at the Town House during MayFest, 2019

While the Friends and Bonnie were refining the CLC concept, the Downtown Development Committee was working with CMRPC and Main Street America to create a business-friendly environment around the Town House.  Their plans include streetscape improvements, such as handicapped-accessible sidewalks, bike lanes, benches, and plantings; renovations to the Common, its playing fields, and playgrounds; and the rehabilitation of other vacant historic properties for commercial and nonprofit uses. These improvements will be driven by the Town House restoration and the expected increase in foot traffic downtown around the CLC.

By doggedly trying to preserve an historic building, the Friends catalyzed a downtown revitalization project. Their perseverance, diligence, and flexibility are putting North Brookfield on the map and giving other rural communities throughout the country reason to hope. Not even the pandemic has slowed them as they embark on a capital campaign to raise $2.5 million for the Town House’s rehabilitation. Each day brings them closer to their goal of reinvigorating rural communities through historic preservation and the arts.

To help the Friends realize their vision, visit their website to donate.

Architectural Heritage Foundation is a 501(c)3 dedicated to stimulating economic development in disinvested communities through historic preservation. Follow AHF and its projects on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

From Markets Insider – “Twain Financial Provides $1.6 Million in Historic Tax Credit Equity to Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA”

Twain Financial Partners announced the investment of $1.6 million in federal historic tax credit equity for the historic renovation and adaptive reuse of the Charles River Speedway in Boston, MA. The Speedway is located in the North Brighton section of the growing Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 2010. The 1.28-acre site includes three adjoining parcels, including the original 1899 former historic racetrack administrative building and garage facility.

The “Why” of Preservation Matters Now More than Ever

When life as we have known it comes to a halt; when the bonds holding society together grow brittle; when we cannot gather for fear of harming each other – what remains to us are the stories we keep. The reminders of those stories take many forms. A building. A battlefield. A burying ground. These physical affirmations of our histories and values are all around us. They help us to see ourselves as part of a community spanning generations and, in so doing, make us feel less alone.

Let’s work together.