James Vazzana / Gavel Media

Panel Analyzes Geographic Barriers in Boston

On the evening of October 30, members of the sophomore class of the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program, inspired by their work at various service placements throughout Boston over the summer, hosted a panel titled "The Geography of Opportunity." Moderated by Amy Glasmeier, Professor of Economic Geography and Regional Planning at MIT, the conversation shed light on one of the greatest challenges facing struggling and underprivileged portions of the population: location. The area in which one lives has significant effects on one's life, including access to housing, education, and public transportation. The panel highlighted how these severely limiting opportunities are a reality for a large segment of the city of Boston and the United States as a whole.

Professor Glasmeier opened the discussion by noting that the cost of living in America has dramatically outstripped wage growth in recent decades; the minimum wage, she pointed out, has not changed since 2009. The American Dream has faded for middle- and lower-class citizens, who are faced with the paradoxical concept that while everyone deserves a chance to succeed, each person must make it alone and against insurmountable odds. The bubble of opportunity, Glasmeier concluded, is now “more crowded, but also much less secure” than at any other point in history.

The lived experiences of the three panelists seemed to affirm Professor Glassmeier’s remarks. Dominique Williams recounted her childhood in Roxbury, one of the most widely recognized underserved neighborhoods in Boston. As part of the METCO Program, which provides educational opportunities for inner-city children, Williams was able to witness firsthand the disparity between Roxbury and Newton, where she attended school.

Now, as the Deputy Director for the Office of Housing Stability in Boston, Williams studies eviction data, educates residents on the rights of tenants against landlords, and handles casework for close to a hundred people each week, all of which provides her with incredible insight into the shortcomings of the current system.

Barry Bluestone, Founding Director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and a former Boston College professor, started as an autoworker and union representative in Detroit, where the support of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) “made blue collar auto workers middle-class.”

Bluestone explained that this shift enabled white families to move outside of the city. As a consequence, the government diverted funds, services, and resources to the suburbs at the expense of more urban areas, where black families make up the majority of the population. With the collapse of the auto industry and the 2008 Housing Crisis, black community members in Detriot found themselves trapped in the bankrupt city with few means of escape. Meanwhile, the white suburbs continued to flourish.

The family of the final panelist, Angela Johnson, immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic in the 1970’s but moved to Texas when the cost of living proved too high. In Houston, they settled in a mixed-race suburb that was known as a hub for middle-class African American families. Although Johnson and her neighbors had decent access to facilities and services, the members of her district voted against a bus route through the suburb in order to appear wealthy and avoid the stigmas of poverty.

As a Transportation Justice Organizer at Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA), Johnson now works to reduce the impact of gentrification and displacement by addressing issues with state public transportation systems. One of the largest problems, she suggested, is the lack of a T-Line connecting Boston’s northern and southern halves.

Each panelist emphasized the point that geography, particularly proximity to effective public transportation, ultimately determines success. The lack of reliable and far-reaching commuter rails and bus routes limits the ability of certain demographics to find work beyond the confines of their respective neighborhoods or regions. It is little wonder, then, that such individuals find themselves increasingly left behind.

The rising cost of public transportation was another serious problem touched upon by the panelists. A round trip journey in Boston can cost as much as $20, meaning that homeless individuals sometimes cannot afford a ticket to reach the nearest homeless shelter.

Bluestone told The Gavel that there is no way to alleviate the situation or effect dramatic change outside of government. He suggested that the solution lies in mobilizing voters and generating enough outrage about this issue that the city would be forced to address it. Only then can Boston begin to break down the geographic barriers that inhibit success for a significant portion of the population.

As a continuation of their project on the Geography of Opportunity, the sophomore Presidential Scholars are currently planning a spring story-slam event to highlight the voices of those impacted by this issue.