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Families, College Students Reflect Many Contrasts In Allston/Brighton

Oak Square in Brighton (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Oak Square in Brighton (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

BOSTON — If you look at a map, the Allston/Brighton section of Boston seems barely attached to the rest of the city. The neighborhood was originally part of Watertown when the Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630. It was annexed to Boston in 1873.

Today, Allston/Brighton is better known for the throngs of students who live and party there, and for large new developments planned by businesses and surrounding universities. But there are also generations of families who are trying to hold on to their neighborhood.

Preservation Vs. Development

On a quiet fall evening, the sun had just set as Monsignor James Moroney, rector of Saint John’s Seminary, greeted a crowd of several hundred right outside Oak Square in Brighton.

There, a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked a milestone in a community’s effort at preservation — reclaiming a landmark that was almost lost.

“In 1999 our community was informed that a developer wanted to build a high-rise building to 10 stories right up over our beloved church,” said resident Ann Larosse. “But this community was going to do whatever it could to stop this development.”

She added: “We all wore our ‘No high rise in Oak Square signs.’ ”

As the residents came together to celebrate on this recent evening, they paid tribute to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who strongly supported the restoration and reopening of Our Lady of the Presentation. Moroney said it would not have happened without the mayor’s support.

New Balance's Boston Landing development site in Brighton (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

New Balance’s Boston Landing development site in Brighton (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“I remember when I brought this project to you, Mr. Mayor, just about a year ago, and you looked at me and just had one thing to say,” Moroney said to Menino. “You said, ‘Monsignor, whatever I can do,’ and you have been a man of your word.”

Just one week later, on the other side of Brighton, the athletic footwear and clothing company New Balance began construction of its new world headquarters in a development called Boston Landing, alongside the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The 14-acre site, in an area once home to stockyards and slaughterhouses, will include office and retail space, a hotel, a sports complex, open spaces for community use and a new MBTA stop on the commuter rail to be paid for by New Balance, which will also pay to operate the station for its first 10 years.

Lifelong Allston resident Ned Anello and his wife Paula attended the groundbreaking for the New Balance project. They welcome it.

Ned, who turns 70 this month, has lived in the same Allston house his entire life. He and Paula raised their daughter there.

“The neighborhood was great, growing up when we were kids,” he said. “This area is not what you would call residential anymore; it’s more industrial than residential.”

Only four houses are left on their block now. As in large swathes of Allston, the few neighbors they have are transients.

“You got all these college students coming in and out of here, loads of them,” Anello said. “Which is fine, they don’t bother anybody.”

Lifelong Allston resident Ned Anello and his wife Paula welcome the New Balance project in Brighton. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Lifelong Allston resident Ned Anello and his wife Paula welcome the New Balance project in Brighton. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

But for some Allston residents, it’s all about the students.

Large Student Populations

Saturday night, the corner of Commonwealth and Harvard avenues.

The energy is that of a mini-Times Square. Heavy foot traffic, a steady flow of cars. Streets so jammed bicyclists push, rather than ride, their bikes through the area. Green Line streetcars, some standing-room only, zip between Boston University and Boston College. Occasionally, an EMS truck responds to an emergency call — a drug overdose.

That happens often enough that state Rep. Michael Moran calls it a public safety issue.

“The use of Oxycontin and heroin has taken a lot of young kids away from us too early,” he said. “So public safety in our community is different. We certainly don’t have the gun violence that is in other parts of the city.”

Moran, a lifelong resident, says his district is one of contrasting neighborhoods. There is the nomadic vibrancy of the Allston Village area.

“It’s always been a different neighborhood, a younger neighborhood, eclectic neighborhood,” he said. “I always make a joke that Harvard Ave. was grunge and liberal before Cambridge and JP [Jamaica Plain] knew what that meant, and it still remains that way. We’re still very much sort of a — all nations, you can find anything on Harvard Ave., any nation, any nationality, any food you’d like to find.”

There are also neighborhoods with rich architectural pasts that rival some of the most storied sections of Boston, and are increasingly being threatened by development, says longtime resident Paul Berkeley.

“Whether it’s Harvard [University] on the north side or small developers that buy oversize lots and try to tear down historic homes or homes that have been in the neighborhood since the 1800s and put up block houses with four to six apartments instead of two,” he said.

BU student Mike Tom, who lives on Ashford Street, says he likes being near campus and enjoys seeing the students in the streets on weekend evenings. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

BU student Mike Tom, who lives on Ashford Street, says he likes being near campus and enjoys seeing the students in the streets on weekend evenings. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Institutional expansion by neighboring colleges — Harvard, BU, BC — has brought some new housing, but has also brought more students to the area.

“One of our concerns is obviously having colleges build more housing on campus to free up housing stock in the neighborhood for families,” said state Rep. Kevin Honan, who chairs the Housing Committee in the state Legislature. “But there are certain sections of the neighborhood that are pretty much gone.”

The Dunnes are among those families still there. Four generations of the family have lived in the same house on Pratt Street. Robert Dunne’s mother was a little girl when her family moved in. She lives there with Robert and his wife Rochelle, who are raising their two daughters in Allston Village.

“It’s where the parties are,” Rochelle Dunne said. “So on a Friday and Saturday night, there are just hordes of kids just walking through the neighborhood. So it may not be a party here or there. It just may be a hundred kids walking through in a huge group that creates noise.”

She wants the next mayor to put pressure on colleges that house students in the area.

“Some of these kids, they’re drinking so much,” she said. “We’ve already had problems in this neighborhood with things like that. Somebody else is going to die and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

That’s a reference to Boston’s first homicide of 2013, a stabbing that took place just four houses away during a New Year’s Eve party. The victim was a student at the New England Art Institute.

Education is also high on the list of priorities for the Dunnes and other families in the district.

Education, Public Safety, Affordable Housing

The Allston/Brighton area has some of the most sought-after public schools in the city. But the chances of getting into the Mary Lyon and other high-performing public schools have been slim under the current student assignment system, in which neighborhood residents are competing with students from across the city. Boston’s new home-based student assignment plan, which goes into effect next fall, is expected to change that.

If you get lucky you might win the lottery for a seat at the Conservatory Lab Charter School, off Market Street. Serving students from pre-K through seventh grade, it’s a school with a proven track record.

“Every single student gets music instruction,” said the school’s head, Diana Lam. “It doesn’t matter whether they have had music instruction before or not. We take them, while here they learn to play an instrument. They participate in orchestra. They learn to read music and they do it quite well.”

Over the last 20 years Allston/Brighton has drawn a more diverse population, especially from Russia, Asia and Latin America.

Heloisa Galvao, co-founder and executive director of the Brazilian Women’s Group, says the area has been especially popular for Brazilian immigrants. But she says there are growing concerns.

“Safety was a big issue,” Galvao said. “Street lights … it’s very, very dark in certain parts of Allston/Brighton. St. Anthony’s, a lot of Brazilians attend Mass there, there are many break-ins in houses and cars stolen. They wouldn’t go to the police. They’re really scared of the police.”

There is a lack of affordable housing, which has families doubling up. For many homeownership is almost impossible. Residents throughout the area say the next mayor has to prioritize affordable housing in any new development proposal.

As part of its newly scaled-back master plan, Harvard’s been pushed, along with other developers, to include more open space for the area, supporting family friendly neighborhoods.

Just a few blocks outside Oak Square, down the road to Nonantum Street in Brighton, you can find an oasis on the banks of the Charles River, a part of Boston’s Emerald Necklace: a striking teak edifice, an award-winning, environmentally friendly boathouse rising along the shoreline, the home of Community Rowing Inc., which brings together thousands of people from around the region.

“Green spaces, particularly active community spaces like this, foster community,” said Jorge Abellas, who lives in Jamaica Plain but comes to this corner of Brighton three days a week with his 14-year-old son, who rows on a crew team.

“People that probably would not have met before in the city get to meet in a place like this, because you have people from all different walks of life and all different socioeconomic levels coming together,” Abellas said, “and it’s the same thing in the parks, just passively; it’s used by everybody, from somebody who lives in a brownstone in the Back Bay to somebody who lives in public housing somewhere in JP.”

Parts of Allston/Brighton are on the precipice of the kind of transformation that’s revived other neighborhoods of Boston.

“It’s a lot of steps in the right direction for Brighton,” said Anabela Gomes, head of the Brighton Allston Improvement Association. She bought her first home there 10 years ago.

“It’s been a lot of changes, a lot of institutional expansion, a lot of development especially in the last couple of years. We’ve really had a lot of boom here,” she said. “We need to be careful that we are not overbuilding, and that we make sure we have the infrastructure for it.”

She feels Menino has struck the right balance. She expects no less from the next mayor.

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