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With Development, Maverick Square Residents Fear Losing Diversity

A view of Maverick Square in East Boston (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A view of Maverick Square in East Boston (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — When you fly into Logan Airport, you’re landing in East Boston. Since the early 19th century, the neighborhood has also served as a gateway to the city for immigrants.

Today, those immigrant populations are packed into the tiny part of East Boston squeezed by the airport on one side and, on the other, the grounds of the aging Suffolk Downs racetrack, where a controversial casino is proposed.

‘Rush Hours All Day And Night’

Teresa Waitt’s ancestors, the Irish, came after the Jews and before the Italians. These days, she observes the latest arrivals around her at the Maverick Square farmers market.

Waitt has lived in East Boston her whole life, and she’s seen a lot of change since Thomas Menino became mayor 20 years ago.

“The roads are better. The tunnels working better. The buses run like crazy. You don’t even need a car. You don’t need a car,” she said. “It’s become more like the United Colors of Benetton, alright? Since my heyday, alright, when it was only Irish and Italians.”

Magdalena Ayed is one of the resident leaders of the Maverick Landing housing project. She has lived in East Boston eight years and has seen many new people move in since then.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes. The immigrant community is so diverse now,” Ayed said. “Yes, it’s predominantly Latino, but really, just in Maverick Landing itself, you have Asian, North African, East African. You have Latino. You have European, Turkish, Arab populations.”

This statue sits in front of East Boston's Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

This statue sits in front of East Boston’s Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Today, Latinos make up most of the population of East Boston.

Pedro Morales moved to East Boston 10 years ago. On a recent day he took me to the front of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. Thanks to the Latino community, the Catholic church has the best-attended Sunday Masses in Boston.

“Any Sunday at noon, a river of people come through here,” Morales said, “and they come and enjoy, and it’s a very beautiful thing to see.”

But Morales, a Harvard Divinity School student who studies East Boston’s religious communities, says it’s the evangelical Protestant congregations that are exploding in membership.

Over on the other side of Maverick Square, in a converted firehouse, Morales’ wife, Madeleine Steczynski, has seen many changes since she arrived in East Boston in 1991, two years before Menino became mayor.

“My experience is that it wasn’t pretty, but it was active and it was vital and it was exciting because there were so many people coming and going,” she said. “All day and all night there’s rush hour, because the people who are living here are direct service providers for the hotels, the restaurants in the city of Boston. They’re cleaning big office buildings downtown. They’re cooking in every restaurant in town, and so you’d see rush hours all day and night.”

Steczynski has played a role in transforming life for young people who live around Maverick Square. She founded Zumix, a program that gets 1,000 Boston public school students involved in after-school creative endeavours.

A student tapes his radio show at the Zumix Community Arts Center in Maverick Square. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A student tapes his radio show at the Zumix Community Arts Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Tayler Fernandez is in the radio journalism program. She says when she’s not in school, she’s pretty much at Zumix.

“It’s like a second home to me,” Tayler said. “I’m here so often my mom gets kinda mad. She’s like, ‘That’s your home. You should move your bed in there.’ I have my charger here, and I bring my food and lunch over here.”

With Development, Worries

The demographic transformation of East Boston could take a very different turn, depending on the outcome of physical changes that are underway. Along much of the waterfront facing Boston, new luxury apartment units are under construction.

Tayler has lived in East Boston all her life, and she worries that with the casino and the waterfront development, the people of East Boston will lose control of their neighborhood.

“I don’t think things should change,” she said. “I love my neighborhood. I don’t want anything to come over and dictate [to] us to change anything. I love East Boston and the way it is.”

Al Calderalli wants to make sure that this transformation does not leave out East Boston’s current residents. As the longtime head of the East Boston Community Development Corporation, he has worked a lifetime making sure that there is plenty of affordable housing in the neighborhood.

When I spoke with him, he pointed to a development that residents and developers are watching closely. Two hundred apartments are being built on waterfront land owned by Massport, the quasi-public state agency that operates Logan Airport.

“Everyone on the waterfront in East Boston is waiting to see the results of that,” he said.

How much the rents will go for will determine if it’s economically viable to build more units on the waterfront. And if the rentals do well, then developers will start building condos. The Massport apartments are market-rate, except for 15 percent that must be affordable — which, in this case, means a single person making less than $90,000 a year could live there.

Ninety thousand dollars a year is an income the people of Maverick Landing can only dream of. For Ayed, who lives there, the next mayor should focus on services in the housing project and the improvement of the waterfront park across the street.

“More attention paid to this area,” she said. “It has been a bit underserved, maybe because it is predominantly subsidized housing.”

Morales, one of the leaders of the opposition to the proposed casino at Suffolk Downs, predicts it and the development along the waterfront would sweep away the layers of immigrant communities that have made East Boston the vital place it is.

“All these folks, most of them are low-income houses, are going to be displaced when all these major developments come to East Boston,” he said. “It’s like an ecosystem. That coral reef is such a delicate balance that takes so long to build.”

Steczynski worries that development will turn East Boston into another South Boston.

“While I think it’s wonderful that we have the Seaport District, I wouldn’t want every neighborhood to become that,” she said.

Calderalli believes Menino has set the example for paying attention to the residents of the neighborhoods when planning development.

“And I thought that was one of the best things of Menino, that he kind of keeps the balance,” Calderalli said. “We don’t have affordable housing all over the waterfront, but we have it there. He gave us a piece of the waterfront. The next mayor, I don’t know. We don’t know who it’s going to be.”

With Menino leaving, many of East Boston’s residents worry that its long tradition as a gateway to immigrants will end.

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