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The Point: Doing Business as Dorchester Bay City


Greetings, Colleagues:

By now I am sure you have seen the email from Chancellor Suárez-Orozco about the “preliminary plans….and public review process” for the Bayside development.  Right, sorry: Dorchester Bay City. At our most recent FSU Executive Committee meeting we briefly discussed the  Project Development Report submitted by Accordia and I found myself thinking about the history of promises made and broken on Columbia Point in the past century and then wrote in the chat box: “Well, I guess the past is prologue!” (As a historian it grieves me to admit that I would give voice to such a banal truism, and I guess I will have to turn my Historian Membership Card in at the next guild meeting.)

Can we do a little history?

After all, while the Accordia proposal promises a section on history in the table of contents to the 187 page report, this turns out to be two very sketchy paragraphs. FSU members might avail themselves of some of the plentiful historical sources about Columbia Point as we figure out how to engage with this astonishingly large plan for developing the old Bayside site.  One great place to start is Tim Sieber’s FSU blog post from last summer, "Owning Our Past," which chronicles the “turbulent history of UMass Boston and Columbia Point” with an especially good eye for the “conflictual racial politics” of the area.

I am sure that most of you know that for decades Columbia Point was the city’s dump—and it is not even a little bit of a stretch to say that a legacy of waste and toxicity continued to infuse the peninsula even after activists got the actual garbage sites closed in the early 1960s. The promise of post-World War II security augured by the building of New England’s largest public housing project on the Point to the malign racialized neglect of the 1970s and 1980s (including the doomed-from-the-start Bayside Mall and the Harbor Point privatization) stitches all of us at UMB into a very fraught history. 

Numerous commentators have pointed to the very complex role UMB has played in this history; Tim Sieber, for instance, reminds us that for many in the community the university appeared first as a “threatening intruder.” The university, in turn, has consistently signaled to its neighbors that they are perceived as a danger: architectural writer, Ellen Perry Berkeley, for instance, notes that the original UMB campus on Columbia Point was “built like a fortress with security in mind.” The literal chain link fence that initially separated the campus from the projects has been converted, over the years, into a less visible, but even more pernicious, social and political structure.

It is remarkably poignant to study how the university threw itself, at first, into the work of integrating the campus into the world of Columbia Point: our late colleague, Professor Richard Hogarty, chaired a Campus Impact Study Group (CISG) in 1973 and the recommendations that his group made might strike some of us now as utopian. Without going into detail here, let it suffice to say that by the late ‘70s the university closed the field office it had established at Columbia Point to coordinate the efforts recommended by the CISG: “I guess I really have to fault the university,” Professor Hogarty said. “They pulled back.”  Late in 1973 the University also commissioned Ben Thompson Associates, a planning and architecture firm, to “draw up an overall redevelopment plan for the peninsula.”  This January 1974 report is a beauty: UMB would share sports facilities with the community and help develop a Town Center (including a “Little City Hall,” library and youth center) as well as 4,000 new and rehabilitated dwelling units.  Mayor Kevin White and the university got great press when the plan was announced: actual residents of the Columbia Point projects protested that the urgent needs they faced with respect to the peninsula’s housing stock would not be addressed by the plan. In any event, pretty much none of this got done anyway. Even this cursory history of big thinking and dashed hopes makes it clear that we need to approach the newest plan with some skepticism. (For more on this history, see Jane Roessner’s fantastic history of Columbia Point, A Decent Place to Live, which I’ve drawn from heavily here, and also check out the  People's History podcast on the subject).

What can we do?  First, we all really need to educate ourselves about what is at stake—the slide presentation our colleague Professor Kenneth Reardon has made (attached here) is a good place to start. Learning the recent history of gentrification in the Seaport Distict is probably a good ideas too. We also need to get involved with the public review process.  We can bring our energy and expertise to this table, of course, to push for an enforceable community-benefits agreement.  Perhaps most important is that we do what we can to ensure that a broad swath of community-members—not just the most privileged—are empowered to engage in the process. The dialectics of change in contemporary Boston history have so often been energized by women of color—from Ruth Batson’s activism in school integration efforts, to the heroes of the People Before Highways movement, to the lesser known work of Ruby Jaundoo and her tenants’ rights cohort right here on the Point.  Voices of working-class Black and Brown people need to be centered in this conversation about the future of Dorchester.

“Dorchester Bay City” is going to happen and we at UMass Boston sure can use the money it will bring in.  But we need to make sure—as Professor Reardon’s final slide underscores—not to trade decades of social capital UMB has developed on the peninsula for a mess of pottage.

This is your union: please tell us at how you think we all should engage with the public review process for Bayside.


Jeffrey Melnick

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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