Commentary: UMass Boston at Columbia Point is part of Dorchester’s past, present, and future

UMass Boston (UMB) already has a half century of history as a Dorchester institution, built starting in 1972 on Boston’s former garbage landfill, and opened to students in January 1974. This was a mostly forgotten, depreciated part of Boston, literally “on the other side of the Old Colony Line tracks,” site to a troubled, neglected BHA project, Columbia Point Houses, and earlier as a prison for World War II Italian POWs, and a 1930s Depression-era “Hooverville” shantytown for the homeless.

The university’s arrival spawned the Point’s revitalization as a cultural, educational, and heritage park, as UMass allocated portions of its peninsula property to the JFK Library & Museum, State Archives & Commonwealth Museum, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. UMB’s presence on Columbia Point offers valuable new educational opportunities to Dorchester and greater Boston residents. Before UMB’s 1965 founding, UMass President Robert C. Wood noted that Boston sent a smaller percentage of high school graduates to college than Mississippi. Today 16,000 Greater Boston youth have access to a quality higher education, and they stay in the Commonwealth after graduating. They are also mostly first-generation college students and reflect emerging demographics among today’s youth: 62 percent in 2022 are Students of Color.

In 1974, UMB established field offices to support housing in neighboring Columbia Point and in Savin Hill. UMB was one of several new US “urban land grant” universities responding to the 1960s “urban crisis,” opening its facilities to local youth – especially sports fields and gyms, but also classrooms. Faculty and staff developed many partnerships with local organizations, schools, and neighborhoods – 2000 in all!

A recent inventory showed 106 of these rooted in Dorchester, one of the oldest being the Dorchester Education Project begun in 1974 to support neighborhood K-12 schools in meeting challenges of that year’s federal school desegregation order. The list also has included the Dorchester Boys & Girls Club at Walter Denny Youth Center, Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Mujeres Unidas En Acción, St. Peter’s Teen Center, and others.

UMB’s dynamic Office of Community Partnerships (OCP) has worked to assemble “Circles of Practice” of faculty and staff engaged in community partnership work in Dorchester, and events like their recent February 2022 “Fireside Chat” entitled, “Our Dorchester: A Home for Place-Based Justice Partnerships,” joining faculty, students, and staff residing in Dorchester and engaged in community affairs in dialogue with Dorchester community leaders and public officials.

The event’s purpose was for all those who care about Dorchester to discuss how to strengthen the special ties linking UMB and the neighborhood. OCP Director Cynthia Orellana called for the university to promote what Dr. Martin Luther King called a “beloved community” between us and our neighborhood. Provost Joe Berger noted he was “proud to be at UMass Boston because we are so embedded in the fabrics of the very communities where we are located and that we have responsibilities to serve.”  Professor Ping-Ann Addo, a Dorchester resident, proposed a full-scale “Love the Dot” campaign, encouraging students and staff to support neighborhood businesses. The OCP also is currently mounting a photo and poetry exhibit by students from the neighborhood, entitled “Our Dorchester.”

Today, the UMB community counts more than 18,000 people – students, staff, and faculty – arriving from throughout Greater Boston. Because it is accessible, public, and mostly commuting, UMB also draws thousands of its participants from Dorchester and other nearby local neighborhoods. Unlike other area universities, our students are not from somewhere else: they are local: many of us not only work and study here, but live here, too! Thousands of us live here “at home” with our families. Our children, grandchildren, cousins, brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews attend Dorchester schools and play in local parks. Many are tenants in neighborhood rental properties, including hundreds at Corcoran-Jennison’s Harbor Point and The Peninsula apartment complexes.

University records show a total of 1752 executive, professional, and classified staff, faculty, and students residing in the three Dorchester zip codes of 02125, 02122, and 02124 - encompassing 149 staff, 66 professors, and 1,536 students, with 214 more in South Boston and 412 in Roxbury. All in all, 2,378 live in the neighborhood. Another 1,100 students live in our limited campus dorms. Together, almost 3,500 people who work or study at UMB thus also reside locally and will be affected by the colossal new Dorchester Bay City planned by Accordia Partners at the old Bayside Expo site in our own neighborhood – on university property, no less!

We speak out both as Dorchester residents and university-affiliated people. We worry about this mega-project’s neighborhood impacts, and upward pressure on rents, gentrification, and the displacement of current residents we can expect it to bring. Small, high-priced apartments – almost 2,000 planned, less than 1 of 6 only moderately “affordable” – won’t accommodate our multi-generational, mixed-income families. We don’t need another Seaport or Kendall Square in our beautiful, diverse, vibrant neighborhood, and we don’t condone our UMB administration’s washing its hands over the harm this project will cause as currently envisioned. It has leased this land for 99 years to the developers, yes, but still has some responsibility for the kind of new city neighborhood being created on Columbia Point, in our own backyard.

We call for more dialogue with a wider range of community members, a slowing for at least six months of the BPDA’s Article 80 review process now underway in order to allow this to take place, and the creation of a clear Community Benefits Agreement to protect the neighborhood we treasure and have helped lovingly to build over decades.

Tim Sieber is Professor of Anthropology; Maureen Boyle is Economics Department Coordinator; and Bianca I. Ortiz-Wythe is a graduate student in the Public Policy PhD Program. We all work at UMass Boston - as faculty, staff, and student – and, like many others on campus, are also long-term Dorchester residents.

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