As a longtime activist with City Life/Vida Urbana and a current member of its board of directors, I want to thank you for your recent article about this wonderful organization. (“City Life marks 40 years of helping residents,” May 10.)
The article notes that in the past, City Life has “partnered” with the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation in an effort to create more “affordable units outside of the market.” It is with some irony that I remember this “partnering” very well. Approximately seven years ago, I was asked by senior staff at the JPNDC to testify at a community hearing regarding the future for the Blessed Sacrament Church. At that time, there was a proposal to sell the church to a for-profit developer and turn this community building into luxury, market-rate condos. During my testimony, I spoke at length about the rising rates of homelessness, lack of affordable housing and the dangers of growing income inequality. I quoted from a number of studies by the World Health Organization that demonstrate that higher levels of income inequality are linked to a higher prevalence of mental illness. Our community organized to sell the church to a nonprofit developer and we were successful! A JPNDC staff member summarized the victory to me with the following statement: “Sometimes the people beat big money and win.” Given all of the JPNDC’s pre-purchase advocacy for keeping Blessed Sacrament Complex in the “hands of the community,” I assumed that this important neighborhood space would be developed to benefit the working-class people who had organized alongside of the JPNDC. I certainly didn’t envision the JPNDC developing one-half of the campus space into luxury condos.
I was wrong. I have recently learned that shortly after the JPNDC won the bid for Blessed Sacrament, it announced plans to build market-rate units at the church. Again, given all of the JPNDC’s pre purchase organizing against the gentrification of Jamaica Plain, I was shocked and angry upon hearing this news and found myself thinking about the Spike Lee movie “Bamboozled.”
I know that the JPNDC has built many units of affordable housing in Jamaica Plain, and I suspect some people at the organization feel very badly about the proposed plan for condos that cost up to $750,000. I would like to remind the JPNDC that the same problems I testified about over six years ago are still major issues in our community. In fact, income inequality has gotten even worse. More and more people have been forced out of our neighborhood and levels of depression and anxiety continue to grow. Building those luxury condos, no matter how many affordable units the JPNDC has developed in the past, only contributes to the problem.
I urge the JPNDC to be part of the solution and go “back to the future.” You have a history of partnering with organizations like City Life/Vida Urbana and the Hyde Square Task Force. Join with “the people” to create a space that reflects the strength and diversity of our community. Help facilitate the development of a cultural center that serves the needs of the people. You have done it in the past, and can do it again, for our future.
Dawn Belkin Martinez