How This Small Massachusetts City Created Homegrown Solutions to Urban Problems
Chelsea, Massachusetts, is a small city—just over 2 square miles large but teeming with almost 40,000 residents. It sits northeast of Boston, over the Tobin Bridge. Among its most noted citizens was Horatio Alger, whose famous rags-to-riches stories helped shape the American credo of self-reliance. Little is remembered, however, about the essential role that community played in each of Alger’s successes.
Chelsea has a long and proud history of providing new generations of working-class Americans and recent immigrants a chance at the American Dream. When I grew up there, the signs of businesses and bars that adorned storefronts bore the surnames of Irish and Eastern European families who had arrived looking to make a better life for their children. Today, many of those same storefronts remain but the signs reflect a different generation of residents: people from Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Honduras, and elsewhere who share their predecessors’ dreams of a better life.
What has remained consistent is the essentialness of Chelsea—not just for its dreamers but for the entire region. Within its borders is the fuel for airplanes going out of Logan, oil that heats homes throughout the region, produce from the New England Produce Center that is shipped to stores through the Northeast, and even mountains of rock salt that is used to protect the roads throughout the state.
Chelsea has also endured its share of tragedy. Its dense quarters have seen an increase in violent crime, and it was hit extraordinarily hard during the pandemic due to its high concentration of essential workers. In response, its citizens have generated a series of valuable social innovations that have started to successfully address the city’s most pressing problems—and which could serve as important models for how to approach such issues in other cities across the country. But even as its citizens succeed, the city faces a more fundamental question: whether future generations will be able to reap the benefits of an improving city, or whether they will be priced out.
To tackle violence, organizations like Roca forged productive partnerships with the police and justice system to address the underlying needs of the most at-risk youth, significantly reducing recidivism rates and improving life outcomes by introducing cognitive behavioral theory to teach young people life-saving emotional skills. According to external evaluation results, young men participating in Roca’s program have 37% lower recidivism rates than comparable men. And while 66% of Roca youth have violent criminal histories, only 13% commit another violent offense.
Most recently Chelsea was one of the hardest-hit communities during the pandemic. A short PBS film created by documentarians Sabrina Avilés and Jenny Alexander demonstrates the impact of COVID-19 on the city, opening with startling statistics that four out of five workers there were deemed essential at the outset of the pandemic. These workers’ responsibility for bringing the food, fuel, transportation, and care to others placed an often deadly burden on themselves and their families. At one point the infection rate within Chelsea was 600% higher than the statewide average.
During the pandemic, Gladys Vega, executive director of local nonprofit La Colaborativa, began distributing donated goods off her back porch. Recognizing the inefficiency of that approach, she worked with city leaders like Roy Avellaneda, then president of the City Council, and others to design Chelsea Eats, which gave debit cards to about 2,000 families in need so they could more efficiently get the food and supplies their family urgently needed. They had de facto created one of the country’s largest basic income experiments.
According to a report from Harvard University, “After the six-month pilot, Chelsea Eats participants said they were better off financially, were less likely to report food insecurity, and reported no negative impact on their willingness to work.”
There are a few factors that cut across these social innovations and others like them that can explain their effectiveness—and serve as lessons for other cities attempting to incubate their own.
The first is that most solutions are community-conceived, led, and implemented. Chelsea has benefited from remarkable continuity in its community leaders. People like Vega from La Colaborativa and Molly Baldwin of Roca have been working and living in Chelsea for more than 30 years.
Many school and city leaders have also historically been born and raised in Chelsea. This continuity and proximity is critical to servicing the community. One program, called The Hub, inspired by a Canadian practice, regularly brings together people working across social services and members of the police department to identify and address community members in need or at risk.
The second is the primary role women have played in Chelsea’s resilience. In addition to Vega and Baldwin, there is Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots, a community-based organization “dedicated to improving and enhancing the urban environment and public health in Chelsea.” And there is Devra Sari Zabot, founder of Clark Street Productions, who has been active in trying to revitalize the cultural scene of the city through projects ranging from downtown flower planting and dance nights to poetry readings and stand-up shows. And there are many others.
Finally, there is the concentration and activation of community power. Chelsea is one of the most densely populated communities in the state. Tight-knit is a term that often feels soft, but here it also represents strength. There is a culture woven from social cohesion, where citizens support and fight for one another.
Last May, when it was discovered that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation dumped a huge mound of construction debris containing asbestos across the street from a public housing complex, citizens of all stripes demanded action and accountability. Their “Chelsea MA: What’s Happening” Facebook page often reflects the promise of social media—where residents ask for and receive help from one another, whether that’s assisting someone facing eviction; posting job or volunteer opportunities; or raising funds for a family suffering the recent loss of a loved one.
This innovation does not come without a price, literally and figuratively. As the city improves, so too does its desirability. Ironically, certain conditions within Chelsea—its real and perceived violence, limited housing stock, the presence of certain environmental hazards from the mountains of salt, airport noise, and fuel trucks—have insulated it from widespread gentrification. That has changed over the past several years.
The very people who have made Chelsea what it is today fear that their children will not be able to afford to live there long enough to reap the benefits or that those who move there will not embrace the community but instead extract from it. As Vega said, referring to residents in a new condo complex, “They don’t come downtown, they don’t support our businesses. To them Chelsea is a hotel.” They may technically live in Chelsea, but they work and socialize in Boston and other surrounding towns.
There is concern that ultimately Chelsea may become unrecognizable like some of its adjacent communities where longtime residents have been priced out. Baldwin of Roca noted that recently she was driving in nearby East Boston. Although she was on streets she’d traversed for decades, she said she “felt lost”—a reflection of how unrecognizable the neighborhood had become.
It remains to be seen whether the same level of ingenuity and resilience will be able to tackle the elemental issue of affordable housing. Avellaneda, the former City Council president, is also a real estate broker, and he estimates that 80% of Chelsea residents are renters rather than homeowners—a percentage that has steadily increased over the past several years.
Chelsea’s traditional housing stock consisted largely of three-family homes, which allowed property owners the opportunity to live on one floor while renting out the other two floors to help pay the mortgage. This arrangement, which afforded families like Avellaneda’s a way to build equity and establish roots in the community, is no longer an option for most residents given rising housing costs. The fear Avellaneda and others share is that Chelsea is becoming increasingly transitory, where people can’t “buy into the community.” It’s a sentiment that is both literal and figurative.
What is the Chelsea Eats equivalent of affordable housing? What program can be put in place that will allow more of its residents not just to live in Chelsea but to own a home? The kind of benefit that creates the intergenerational wealth that so many others have benefited from. Back in the 1970s, Chelsea developed programs that incentivized developers to build affordable housing and at the same time facilitate home ownership. Today, the incentives are much different.
Avilés and Alexander have been filming in Chelsea for more than three years for a longer documentary. Among the people they’ve been following are perhaps Chelsea’s next generation of leaders. Brandie Garcia is a student with Indigenous heritage who advocated for the successful removal of the Christopher Columbus statue in Chelsea Square.
Last year Judith Garcia (no relation to Brandie) was elected as Chelsea’s first state representative. Previously Chelsea was split into multiple districts and represented by officials from other towns. In 2020, as part of a statewide redistricting process designed to create minority-majority districts, Chelsea was designated its own district and is now represented by one of its own. Avilés and Alexander’s film shows Garcia being sworn in, after which she turns back to her parents in the gallery and mouths “I love you.”
These women represent not just the future of Chelsea but also an undeniable tie to its past—one that provides hope and inspiration for its residents as well as for others who build communities in the hope that their children can enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Moving Up in Communities is a series sharing stories of innovation and advancement in communities across the country.
Bob McKinnon is host of the award-winning PBS podcast, Attribution and author of Actions Speak Loudest: Keeping Our Promise for a Better World, the best selling children’s book, Three Little Engines and the weekly newsletter, Moving Up Mondays.
Co-published with Fast Company.