Center for Social Policy Takes on Role in Fairmount Corridor Improvements

Pamela Worth | May 27, 2011
Center for Social Policy Takes on Role in Fairmount Corridor Improvements

Along a nine-mile stretch of Boston between South Station and Readville, known as the Fairmount Corridor after the MBTA commuter rail line that runs through it, a slow-moving urban renaissance is in effect.

At UMass Boston’s Center for Social Policy (CSP), Director Donna Haig Friedman is watching it unfold, eager to assess the positive – and potentially negative – changes.

The Boston Foundation, one of the country’s oldest and largest philanthropic foundations, has awarded Friedman and the CSP a $500,000 grant for their watchdog project, “People and Place: Understanding the Processes, Outcomes, and Impacts of Interventions of the Fairmount Corridor Initiative.”

In the Fairmount Corridor, comprising parts of Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Hyde Park, many of Boston’s low-income and working-class families struggle with poverty, low wages, unemployment, and limited access to public transportation; Friedman points out that people living in Boston’s western suburbs have more public transit options for travel to the downtown area than the Bostonians in the Fairmount Corridor.

Over the past twenty years, several community development corporations (CDCs) have been working together to advocate for and enact improvements to the region, including adding stops on the commuter rail to improve access to jobs, creating more affordable housing for residents, and transforming abandoned properties into green spaces.

Their efforts are paying off: The MBTA has agreed to add four stations to the existing five stops on the Fairmount Line; plans are in progress to create “urban villages,” walkable centers of commerce and recreation for residents; and the resulting development will create jobs.

The Boston Foundation provides much of the funding for these projects to the CDCs involved. The CSP will evaluate the results of these initiatives, using real-time data to help direct and improve the plans to revitalize the Fairmount Corridor.

“The Boston Foundation made a decision to invest resources heavily in particular neighborhoods,” Friedman says. “Our role is to facilitate an alignment of these initiatives, maximizing our collective resources. We’ll also be an evaluation partner.”

While the members of the CDCs funded by the Boston Foundation share a unique understanding of the Fairmount Corridor community’s needs, the CSP has extensive expertise and experience in poverty policy that will, Friedman hopes, prevent missteps. She explains that development in economically troubled areas often leads to unintended consequences.

“Gentrification creeps in as the community improves,” she says. “Poverty decreases, but the people who live there can no longer afford to stay.”  Additionally, she says, a focus on creating minimum-wage jobs forces would-be employees living in poverty to make difficult decisions: between earning their own money, but not enough to live on, and qualifying for the public assistance programs they need to survive.

“What we want to ask is,” Friedman says, “how is it working for people who are working?  Do they have enough to live on? To meet basic needs? Food assistance, temporary aid, healthcare – are they accessing these resources?  Is there an eligibility gap?”

Friedman and the CSP will gather information from residents and community members to inform their feedback.

“We’re committed to engaging people in these neighborhoods to document their stories,” she says, “and tapping their wisdom about the changes that are needed in policies: local, state, and federal.”

As Friedman and the project’s co-director, Michael Stone, a senior fellow at the CSP and a professor of community planning and public policy in the College of Public and Community Service, carry out their assessment of the Fairmount Corridor improvements, they are excited about involving UMass Boston students.

“We have students on campus who’ve been activists in the Fairmount Corridor. I’m envisioning that when we’re evaluating [these initiatives], they can have a role with us. They’ll be a good source of information on what’s happening in their communities; they’ll provide another perspective and inform the depth of our perspective,” she says.

The grant from the Boston Foundation will provide the CSP with $100,000 annually for five years to conduct its research and make recommendations.

“It’s a lot of work, but we’re very excited about it,” Friedman says. “It’s complex: There are lots of stakeholders, lots of organizations we’re connecting with to do this work. We’re in it for the long-term so we can really dig in."

Tags: boston foundation , center for social policy , csp , donna haig friedman , the point

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