Development Without Displacement: What We Can Learn from Boston's Dudley Neighborhood

Earlier this month, the Economy League traveled north with more than 110 of Philadelphia's business, civic and government leaders to learn how Boston is tackling critical issues related to growth and opportunity. In this piece, we take a closer look at why the revitalization of Boston's Dudley neighborhood has served as a national model of resident-driven "development without displacement."  


Nearly three miles south of Boston's posh Omni Parker House Hotel, more than 60 Leadership Exchange participants piled out onto Dudley Street for a walking tour of Dudley Square – a neighborhood that is heralded by planners, developers, and community organizers as a national model of resident-led community “development without displacement.” The Dudley neighborhood occupies 1.3 square miles of the northeastern corner of the Roxbury/North Dorchester district. It’s an area with some of the highest poverty and crime rates in Boston, yet it displays all the signs of a safe, vibrant, close-knit urban village: a community garden, clean parks with playgrounds, a town Common, and trilingual signage representative of its rich cultural diversity.


But things weren’t always this way in Dudley. In the mid-1980s, the neighborhood suffered from a story too-often seen in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods: one of abandoned properties, disinvestment, and illegal trash dumping. So how could a once-devastated neighborhood transform into a beacon of community development in under three decades?


In Dudley, sustained neglect catalyzed resident-led action. In 1984, community members formed the Dudley Advisory Group (renamed the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative or DSNI two years later) and began organizing protests and rallies while toting empowering campaign slogans, such as "Don't Dump on Us" and "Take a Stand, Own the Land." By the following year, the grassroots effort culminated in public policy change when the Dudley Street Neighborhood Comprehensive Revitalization Plan – which focused on sustainable, community-controlled development and economic empowerment – received approval from the City of Boston and was officially adopted in 1987.


Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, DSNI continues to serve as an anchor institution in the community. There are many lessons to be drawn from Dudley’s community development experience. During the Leadership Exchange visit to the neighborhood, an in-depth conversation with Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations President Joe Kriesberg, DSNI Executive Director Chris Jones, and DSNI Director of Sustainable and Economic Development Harry Smith revealed some of the essential elements of Dudley’s success as well as the challenges of sustaining the neighborhood’s character. A few key themes emerged:


Innovative Resident Land Control


Following a four-year legal battle against the city, DSNI made history by acquiring eminent domain authority over much of the neighborhood’s privately owned blighted and vacant parcels. Today, this innovative resident-driven land control mechanism, referred to as Dudley Neighbors, Inc. Land Trust, continues to foster a culture of home ownership and long-term residency throughout the neighborhood. Since the Land Trust was established in 1988, more than 400 affordable houses have been built, more than 500 homes have been rehabbed, and several community centers and schools have been established. In all, 1,300 abandoned parcels have been permanently transformed.


This approach to housing development and pricing has meant that Dudley’s traditionally marginalized residents have been able to avoid redlining and foreclosures – even during the height of the Great Recession. Beyond home ownership, the Land Trust provides residents with opportunities to play a participatory role in neighborhood planning -- including the decision to create a greenhouse and urban garden and to consciously protect open space.


Pathways to Leadership


Perhaps DSNI's most unique and powerful strategy for ensuring sustained community involvement lies in the way it cultivates organizational leadership. Adolescents and young adults are provided several pathways to leadership through substantive youth development programs, such as DSNI's Youth Committee (an offshoot of its Board of Directors) and the Dudley Youth Council (designed to empower youth to better the local community). In fact, DSNI Executive Director Chris Jones' predecessor John Barros spent his early career moving through the ranks of Dudley's leadership ladder, starting as a teenage community organizer and serving on DSNI’s Board at age 17. He now serves as chief of economic development for the City of Boston under Mayor Martin Walsh.


Community Health Starts with Resident Wellness


Quality of life in Dudley is not only derived from the physical character of the neighborhood. Access to high-quality healthcare and social services are also coming to the forefront of residents' demands. To get a closer look at recent efforts to address these issues, Leadership Exchange participants toured the impressive Whittier Street Health Center, a newly constructed 78,900 square-foot LEED Silver health and wellness facility. A leader in urban healthcare for diverse populations, Whittier offers its patients comprehensive healthcare and wellness services extending beyond primary care -- including dental services, a Men’s Health Center, and a Dana Farber Community Cancer Clinic.


But for the at-risk population that it serves – 54% of all clients are below the federal poverty line, 35% are uninsured, and many do not speak English – Whittier’s most important role is serving as an accessible and nearby source of approachable and familiar support. To accommodate the neighborhood’s remarkable diversity, Whittier’s employees speak an astonishing 22 languages.


Sustaining a Renaissance Neighborhood


Although the Dudley neighborhood has found security in stabilizing entities like DSNI and Whittier, long-term sustainability remains a challenge for the community. Moving forward, neighborhood leaders will have to grapple with the threat of increasing gentrification, as well-educated Bostonians who have been priced out of downtown neighborhoods search for more affordable options elsewhere in the city. In addition, the growth of high-skilled jobs in Boston’s booming innovation economy has the potential to leave behind many of Dudley’s less-educated residents (nearly 35% of adult residents lack a high school diploma). However, DSNI’s emerging emphasis on public health, workforce development, and entrepreneurship lays the foundation for Dudley’s future. If community leaders can continue to approach development through the lens of neighborhood empowerment and participation while providing key services, “development without displacement” could be preserved for more than another 30 years.