When I worked for Harry Belafonte, he loved to tell a story about how the civil rights movement did not trust John F. Kennedy when he was first elected president. He would say “What did we know of this elite senator from Boston, who knew nothing of the civil rights movement happening in the American South?” He would then shrug, smile and say, “But we didn’t need to know where he stood, because we knew the numbers of people joining the movement daily.”
Kennedy was not a natural civil rights supporter. He did not want to alienate Protestant Southern voters any more than he had being an Irish Catholic. However, Kennedy knew the winds of change were inevitable and therefore he decided to be a leader of progress. As a result he, far more than Lyndon Johnson (who actually passed the Civil Rights Act), is remembered as a leader in the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
Right now, Boston is asking for movement towards more equitable development processes. Community advocacy groups are calling for an expansion of the “Massport Model” for diversity and inclusion percentages in all aspects of the development process. According to a recent Boston Business Journal Pulse survey, 67 percent of Bostonians want to either reform or abolish the Boston Planning & Development Agency, an agency which many hold accountable for the displacement of Black and immigrant families. At the same time, housing keeps polling as one of the most important issues to voters as the city deals with one of the most expensive rental and homeownership markets in the country. On the consumer side, the generational shift is profound. A survey done by Real Estate Weekly found that 58 percent of future Generation Z homebuyers “prefer a diverse community” compared to 12 percent who “prefer a homogeneous neighborhood.”
Development Is an Easy Target
Development plays a huge role in any city, but Boston in particular is dependent on development, and it will always be a political issue. Unfortunately, developers haven’t done much to be more inclusive and have become easy targets. Inclusion in development has remained elusive on both sides of the equation. Who is developing and who will feel welcome in these new spaces? The answers, by the numbers, seem disappointing.
Who is developing? WGBH highlighted in a recent article on Boston’s struggle to boost the construction workforce, out of 150 major projects in Boston in the last five years less than one-third reached their racial equity goals and none reached their goals for women. Local participation has actually fallen from 28 percent of hours in 2017 to 24 percent in 2020.
Who are they developing for? The newest neighborhood built in Boston, the Seaport, is one of the city’s most segregated, at just 3 percent Black according to the Boston Globe. A contemporary art museum anchors the neighborhood, a perfect metaphor: beautiful things you can’t touch and will never afford, the cafe is to the left. More than that, the Seaport represents the failure of the development process to understand the winds of change. But from Congress to the City Council, the “new Boston” – people of color, young professionals – is speaking quite loudly, and traditional Boston seems determined to not hear them. Why?
Diverse Thinking Benefits Projects
Why fight change rather than be curious about it? Big development, including plans for small business and subcultures, can create developments like the Wynwood District in Miami, Florida. By opening studios for artists, painting murals and hosting community walks, Wynwood quickly became one of the coolest places in Miami while increasing the value of the once-underdeveloped neighborhood. In Roxbury, diverse thinking is creating a new standard for real estate projects. Black developer Richard Taylor is bringing arts and the life sciences together with his Nubian Ascends development that’s planned next to the future home of the Ben Franklin Institute of Technology, an affordable, nonprofit college that prepares local students for high-tech careers. This new project also includes Black Market, an event space and launchpad for Black artists. This creative partnership brings inclusion, equity and the future together and creates a multifaceted economic hub for the community.
This year we have a chance to recognize the hundreds of thousands of Bostonians who want to make the city into a more inclusive place, one that has equity as a core practice from the beginning. A city not afraid of its communities but one that understands the value of the people living in each neighborhood. A Boston that is not only tired of being known for its racism but has actual plans to change that brand from the inside out.
Real estate can help design this new future or be remembered as one of the obstacles future generations had to overcome to get there. But either way, time will march on, and justice will continue to seep into all aspects of business, including development. Don’t be scared of the change new leaders bring. Welcome it. New ideas and systems will help create spaces all Bostonians don’t just walk by, but also feel as though they belong in, as well.
Malia Lazu is a lecturer in the Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Strategic Management Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, CEO of The Lazu Group and former Eastern Massachusetts regional president and chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank.