DIGG BOSTON - Allston Politics City: In a gentrifying arts hamlet, political hopefuls share plans to keep their neighborhood weird
Allston-Brighton is known for a lot of things: its storied history of punk and hardcore, a lively DIY music scene, independent stores, diverse cuisines, and generally being a creative haven. Artists, immigrants, college students, and families who have lived in the neighborhood for decades call the area home.
But the fabric of the neighborhood is at risk of changing. Developers have been ripping at the threads of Allston’s fabric, while the neighborhood is gentrifying, in the process displacing both long-term residents as well as creatives who can no longer afford the rising cost of living. With major developments like Continuum, luxury apartment building Lantera, the proposed Allston Yards near Stop & Shop, and Harvard University further expanding in Lower Allston, Allston Rock City is suddenly looking more like the Seaport District. And with physical changes have come political ones; this year, incumbent District 9 City Councilor Mark Ciommo is not seeking reelection, leaving his seat vacant for the first time in more than a decade.
Naturally, there has been a mad dash to claim Ciommo’s seat.
This year’s race is markedly different from previous years; for one, issues related to the arts are taking center stage. Nick Grieco, a musician and organizer with the arts advocacy group Artist Impact Allston, said that arts make cities desirable, and that reality is too often taken advantage of by moneyed interests.
“We put our necks out there to invest ourselves emotionally, physically, monetarily into everything that surrounds us because we wanna make it beautiful, and then the second it actually becomes beautiful is the second that people want to turn it into something else,” Grieco told the Dig.
Lizzie Torres, a community activist who also organizes with Artist Impact Allston, said that at last, artists are being taken more seriously than they have been before in the context of civic discourse.
“It’s [arts] either coming up because of an economic issue, or as a housing issue, or as an investment in arts and culture generally speaking,” Torres said. “I don’t think we’ve seen that in the same breadth as we had in previous years.”
We interviewed all seven D9 Council candidates to get their take on how to address issues faced by the arts community in Allston-Brighton.
Hailing from St. Louis and its surrounding areas, Lee Nave works as a community engagement coordinator for Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a “nonprofit statewide organization working exclusively to improve the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts.”
In another effort, Nave founded Student Voice, an organization that empowers young people to have more say in their education. He said that the combined experience gives him a better perspective of “building coalitions with multiple, diverse audiences.” This, he said, is critical in Allston-Brighton.
Nave’s arts advocacy mainly stems from his education work. “I’ve advocated for key funding for arts programs,” he said. “Also with the Department of Youth Services, my organization makes sure that every year we have an art show as part of our gala, and so my job is to coordinate to make sure we have folks represented there, young people from all over the city of Boston have the ability to display art,” he said.
Nave also points to affordability as a key issue. “Artists aren’t known for making a lot of money, and Allston has gotten so unaffordable for a lot of folks,” he said. “An affordable rate is like two people at a $78,000 income, which even then as an artist can be a stretch. I’ve seen testimony from an artist who was at the Allston Civic Association where they’re like, ‘Yeah, I make $31k, $32k a year, so even if I have a roommate making the same amount, it’s still hard for us to afford affordable housing.’”
Nave proposes implementing rent control and a flip tax. “Right now at the City Council there is a debate going on a flip tax, which is there’s a whole bunch of developers buying up properties especially in Allston-Brighton, pretty much immediately flipping them and making a profit. The flip tax would be a 6% tax, and that 6% would be used for affordable housing. I would want to use that 6% to actually develop affordable housing, workforce housing units for artists, and very low-income folks in our community.”
Jonathan Allen landed in Boston in 2016, moving for his partner and to pursue a Juris Doctor at Boston University Law School, where he was the president of the Black Law Students’ Association. He’s also worked for Free Speech for People, an organization with a goal of challenging “big money in politics and unchecked corporate power.”
“Positive energy and interactions with people that helps make other people’s lives better,” said Allen, an active member of the Brighton YMCA and zumba enthusiast. While he doesn’t have arts organizing experience, Allen said he’s got a plan, pointing to two key issues to address: affordable housing and what he calls “exposure” for artists. To address the lack of affordable housing, he said he will advocate for an increase in the minimum number of affordable housing units in new developments, adding that schools like Harvard University should work on increasing their student housing.
Allen is also big on promoting artists. “Our businesses are essential pillars in our communities, and our hosting all kinds of events and initiatives all the time,” he said. “How do we ensure that they know more about the artists that are in this community so they are also prioritized when those opportunities for exposure and performance and economic increase is available to them? I think a lot of that is information connecting people together.”
To fill the information gap, Allen proposes a “Better Together D9 Community Card.” The community card, which can be carried like a CharlieCard, would have a digital extension and highlight the following, according to Allen: resources, things to do, and businesses interested in offering discounts.
“What resources are in our community, what organizations are in our community, what standard events are happening in our community?” Allen asked. “What is your niche and how do we brand your niche? How do we tell your story so that you can get more opportunity? I think we need to really, really get in there and work on our artists so they can build up their platforms even more.”
Brandon Bowser has lived in Allston-Brighton since 2009, moving there to start a career teaching in public schools. An avid arts supporter, Bowser’s organizing experience includes running a pop-up gallery showcasing local artists. He has also been working with Artist Impact Allston to advocate for live/work spaces, affordable housing, and making sure artists are included the conversation about development.
You can often catch Bowser at a show at Great Scott or O’Briens. He’s not new to running for this seat, having lost to incumbent Mark Ciommo in 2017. In that run, he made arts a key component of his platform. “I created my base as artists,” Bowser said. “Certain people thought that it was a crazy endeavor. They said that those people don’t vote. And you know what, they did. They showed up because their interests and their voices [were] amplified.
Bowser is a board member of the Allston Civic Association and took a pledge to reject money from developers. For him, addressing affordable housing is key to keeping the arts alive in Allston-Brighton. “We have a boom in development,” he told the Dig, “but my major question … is, Who are we developing for? Are we developing for working class families? Are we developing workforce housing? … I see some of these developments coming into our neighborhood as crushing our neighborhood and changing the identity of who we are.”
Specifically, Bowser wants to push developers to get at least 20% of developments designated for workforce housing, working families, and artists. When it comes to working with institutions like Harvard that have been expanding into Lower Allston, the candidate said the institution needs to be more integrated with the neighborhood and include local artists in their programming.
“We need to make sure that Harvard is responsive and respectful to our neighbors and their neighbors,” Bowser said. “We need to elevate artists of color and other marginalized voices in the arts community. Especially in Allston-Brighton. I think that it’s really important you have the artist’s back and you have experience working in the arts community, which I do.”
Liz Breadon is a physical therapist who immigrated to Boston from Northern Ireland in 1995 and has lived and worked in Allston-Brighton for 22 years. In her time here, she’s worked on an initiative to keep the Presentation School as a community resource (now the Presentation Community Center in Oak Square), campaigned to save the Faneuil Branch Library, and helped form an LGBTQ+ group, in addition to being involved in the Brighton-Allston Community Coalition, a newer group that builds ties between homeowners and renters.
Breadon said one main goal of hers is to increase the neighborhood’s homeownership rate. “I think it’s really important to try and stabilize a community and ensure that families and people who want to stay in the neighborhood could put down roots and raise their families here are able to afford to stay,” Breadon said. “We’re also working to get more affordable homeownership as well as affordable rentals.”
The hopeful added that having a young population and having residents who own shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. “There’s a huge number of young people in their 30s now,” she told the Dig. “They’ve lived in the neighborhood for eight or 10 years and worked here, and many of them really love the neighborhood and they want to stay. They have their partners and want to set up a household, but it’s just totally unaffordable for them to own.”
As for Allston’s long history as a community for artists, Breadon noted the importance of preserving the tradition. “Unfortunately,” she said, “I think what’s happening now with gentrification, the housing has become unaffordable for artists. Many of the performance venues, small venues, they’ve gone commercial,” Breadon wants to establish Allston as an arts innovation district, referencing Marty Walsh’s Boston 2030 plan to establish three arts innovation districts (there already is one in Dorchester).
“I would love to see Allston be designated … so that would bring support for housing and studios and performance spaces and really try and stabilize the artist community here,” Breadon said. “With a lot of thought and planning and input from the artist community, we could establish an arts district. Thinking of Allston, the area along Harvard Street from Comm Ave right down to Cambridge Street, that whole strip crossing Brighton Ave.”
Craig Cashman was born and raised in Brighton. For the past 11 years, he served as an aide in the State House, and in the last few years, he worked as district director for state Rep. Michael Moran. Cashman said he’s spent a lot of weekends over the years going to shows at the Paradise and Great Scott.
Allston has “long been a destination for those in the creative community,” he said, emphasizing that it needs to stay that way.
In the neighborhood, Cashman has helped revitalize Herter Park and also managed the Allston Brighton Parade for 12 years. As councilor, he said he will “work to address issues of affordability for both housing and artist work space.”
At the intersection of the aforementioned issues, Cashman said that developers need to take input from artists seriously and commit to collaborating with artists for community spaces.
“We need to expedite the permitting process when it comes to the arts, and we need to assure that all forms of art receive equal funding and attention from the city,” he told the Dig. “I am excited to work to build a stronger relationship between our local creative community and City Hall.”
Dan Daly, a local union electrician and musician, has been in Allston-Brighton for about 50 years. He praises the neighborhood’s diversity and calls it a melting pot, and said he’s always been locally active, whether it’s serving as president as the Brighton-Allston Improvement Association or being on the Little League board of directors.
“I’ve always put my neighborhood first—with the development that’s going on around here, dealing with institutions,” Daly said. “We’re in a big triangle … Allston-Brighton, as much of a great neighborhood it still is to live in, it’s changing over the last couple years with some major developments. I’ve never said no to being on one of these neighborhood task forces, and feel like I’ve had quite an impact positively.”
Daly said the art scene is alive and well, but noted many challenges.
“Now it’s starting to get developed … and a lot of struggling artists are getting kind of displaced. You can understand the value of real estate in Allston-Brighton, it’s crazy. … But as a part of these impact advisory groups that I’ve been on, especially in the art district that I’ll call it, myself and my fellow members have been advocating for units that will be reserved for art space and for public art display and affordable units for live-work artists.”
Daly said he’d like to see more gallery space for visual art. Stating that rising rental costs pose a problem for artists, he added that he would like to address the challenges facing artists as city councilor by continuing to advocate for “reserving affordable art units,” which would involve dealing with institutions like Harvard.
Amanda Smart has lived in Allston-Brighton since 2002. Now working for the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, Smart has previously worked on efforts like helping write a bill for health insurance covering therapy for car accidents. Smart hopes to improve the way individuals with disabilities are treated and work on issues regarding the MBTA.
“I think that I come from a background that I have experience that none of the other city councilors have. I know they’re all in support of helping people with disabilities and challenges, but I think that me being an individual with a disability, traumatic brain injury, I think I would offer a whole new perspective,” Smart said.
According to Smart, Allston-Brighton is a diverse multigenerational neighborhood with a vibrant arts scene. While Smart said she doesn’t know too much about the local artist community, she would like to be educated on it.
“I would definitely want to hire somebody who’s more in that scene and knew all the artists,” she told the Dig. “If I wasn’t able to personally do it myself I would want to hire somebody who’s involved … to help me understand the different ways you would need to be supportive.
“Do you guys need funding? Do you need space? Do you need more equipment? What exactly do you need, and how can I be … how can I help you? Do you guys need a general place that people can access each week? If you tell me what you need, that would help me a whole lot.”
Smart said she is open to collaborating with artists and arts advocacy groups, and added that she would love it if artists involved individuals with disabilities in their work.