East Boston and Power: An Environmental Justice Community in Transition

October 31, 2019 | 11:16 am
East Boston murals celebrating the community’s immigrant identity.East Boston murals celebrating the community’s immigrant identity.
John Walkey

En español

This is the first in a four-part blog series on East Boston, a Controversial Substation, and Opportunities for a Clean Energy Transition. Please click here to see blog 23 or 4.

Welcome to Eastie

Of all the neighborhoods of Boston, East Boston quite literally stands apart: physically separated from the rest of the city by Boston Harbor. Originally a collection of small islands, it was eventually merged into one land mass, and its northern shore was connected to the mainland through a land filling and development process in the late nineteenth century. The character of East Boston has been defined by its waterfront in two main ways: the industries that have thrived along its wharves, and the immigrants who passed from those docks to live in the neighborhood’s tightly packed blocks of triple-decker homes. Now in the 21st century, change is rippling across this waterfront community.

Map depicting the areas of landfill of East Boston in light green and the original islands comprising the neighborhood in dark green. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

Map depicting the areas of landfill of East Boston in light green and the original islands comprising the neighborhood in dark green. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

The 1994 action thriller “Blown Away,” filmed in Boston, chooses this neighborhood as the movie villain’s hiding spot in a derelict tanker on a decrepit waterfront. Today, the site of the movie’s actual rotting ship and decaying wharf is occupied by luxury condos and a harbor walk that includes a kayak launch.

In the 25 years since Hollywood identified East Boston as a gritty, neglected area, the neighborhood has become one of the hottest real estate scenes in an already scorching Boston housing market. The waterbound neighborhood with spectacular views of Downtown Boston is only a short subway ride away from the city, and has cheaper property values. East Boston is the latest “it” neighborhood, and as a result is undergoing rapid gentrification and feeling the displacement pressures it brings for long-time, low income residents.

Eastie isn’t just the hottest site for new luxury condos or coffee shops, however. It’s also the destination of choice for the proposed site of a new high voltage electrical substation. As an East Boston resident working for the environmental justice nonprofit GreenRoots, I’m excited to introduce you to our community, and lay out why this proposed substation is a terrible idea for us.

Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?

The East Boston population is 53% Latinx, with 17% of residents living below the poverty line. Over the years the immigrant faces of “Eastie” have changed from Jewish, Canadian, Irish, and Italian, to Colombian, Salvadoran, and Middle Eastern. East Boston has proudly identified as an immigrant neighborhood that has served as a “gateway community” for many families, including a particularly influential Kennedy family. While the various waves of immigrants have been diverse in language and culture, until recently, they were unified in their working-class status. The newest arrivals to the neighborhood do not share this background, as they purchase newly renovated condominiums that were once rental tenement apartments.

Mural in East Boston celebrating the community´s immigrant identity. Photo by John Walkey

At the same time, despite the gentrification and increasing prices, the industrial past of East Boston remains an industrial present: better than half of the neighborhood’s landmass is occupied by Logan International Airport. A highway to the airport cuts through the community. The Chelsea Creek, a tidal estuary and federal shipping channel that bounds East Boston on the north side, accommodates 100% of Logan’s jet fuel, 79% of the gasoline used in Massachusetts, 66% of home heating oil for the region, and road salt for over 300 communities.

An industrial past has left the unpaid tab of environmental and social costs. Over a hundred years of industrial use has left many brownfields and a burden of contamination in the soil, the water and air of East Boston. As the airport expands to meet the needs of an increasingly international city, the thunder of jets overhead and the smell of jet fuel in the streets gradually permeates the lives of the residents, low income and luxury condo-owners alike.

An oil tanker is pulled through Chelsea Creek (photo courtesy of author).

An oil tanker is pulled through Chelsea Creek (photo courtesy of author).

GreenRoots: Continuing a Community Activist Legacy

GreenRoots is an environmental justice non-profit organization that has been organizing in the communities along the banks of the Chelsea Creek over the past 25 years. Greenroots’s mission builds upon the legacy of community activists who, since the 1960s, have fought the airport and advocated for the creation of critical parks and green spaces in the neighborhood. GreenRoots has similarly fought for public access to the waterfront, against the introduction of new polluting power plants and other industries, and has advocated on behalf of the community on issues such as public and environmental health, transit and food justice, and community inclusion in the decision making processes guiding local development. Now we’re gearing up for our campaign against the substation, to protect the health, safety and future of East Boston residents.

In 2014, local energy provider Eversource proposed building a high voltage electrical substation. Part of a larger electrical transmission project, the substation was put forth by Eversource as a needed piece of critical infrastructure. Of much concern to the community was the suggested placement of the substation across the street from an existing playground, on city-owned land originally slated for a soccer field.

Additionally, the proposed site for the high voltage electrical station sat on the banks of the Chelsea Creek, within an area predicted to flood and suffer chronic inundation in the future, 100 meters from an 8 million-gallon tank of jet fuel and a densely packed residential neighborhood. GreenRoots members became involved in the complex state permitting process, and over time revealed that there were legitimate questions over the actual need for the project in the first place.

In late 2017, GreenRoots mobilized 30 residents from the impacted communities to attend the permitting agency’s final hearing of the project. Although English to Spanish interpretation was requested for the mostly Latinx attendees, the state only provided interpretation of Spanish testimonies to English for the benefit of the adjudicating board. This left community members to sit for four hours of a hearing which was not translated from English to Spanish.

The outcome of the hearing was the relocation of the substation further from an abutting business, which had complained, and closer to the American Legion Playground. GreenRoots at that point secured pro bono legal representation and became an intervenor in the process that modifies the location of the substation.

New Partners in the Fight for East Boston

GreenRoots reached out to allies and experts in trying to digest and comprehend the complex energy sector data and reports from ISO-New England, Eversource, and the state. This year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) partnered with GreenRoots to investigate the feasibility of a distributed solar generation and battery storage approach as an alternative to a substation—which would be wired directly to a fossil fuel burning power plant.

As the permitting process winds its way down to a decision before the end of the year, UCS analysts and GreenRoots staff are working to get their information out to the community in time to advocate for a more sustainable and just energy infrastructure in East Boston. Stay tuned for more on our joint efforts on behalf of East Boston in our next blog post.

John is an East Boston resident who has been committed to the work of the Chelsea Creek Action Group (a cross-Creek coalition of Chelsea and East Boston residents, organized in Chelsea by GreenRoots) for the past fifteen years and the movement for environmental, climate and transportation justice. Previous employment with Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE) and the Urban Ecology Institute equip John with the knowledge, relationships and understanding of community organizing, project implementation and strategic planning that will help advance, strengthen and grow GreenRoots work.  John’s technical capacity in GIS, database development and web-based technologies complement his program management experience in the Greater Boston area and in Central America.  John holds a B.A. degree in Archaeological Science and Anthropology from Boston University and a Master’s degree in Science in Environmental Science from the University of Wisconsin. He is bilingual in Spanish and English and has a unique sense of humor.

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