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Patterns of Contradiction: Tufts in Chinatown

Opinion | April 10, 2017

Tufts’ relationship with Boston’s Chinatown is complicated, both historically and in the present day. There are currently various university efforts attempting to alleviate the rapid gentrification of Boston’s Chinatown, which will hopefully repair some of the past displacement inflicted by Tufts. This semester, Professor Penn Loh, Director of the Master in Public Policy Program and Community Practice at the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP), is teaching a class, for UEP graduate students that allows them to get real world work experience by collaborating with community organizations. For the first time, the course is working with the Chinatown Community Land Trust (CCLT).

A community land trust (CLT) is a non-profit, community based organization designed to ensure stewardship of land and long term housing affordability. CLTs acquire land and legally separate ownership of the buildings and homes from ownership of the land. The CCLT obtains land from homeowners and converts their property to permanent affordable housing on behalf of the Chinatown community to mitigate displacement and gentrification. Students in Loh’s class research mechanisms that the CCLT can use to incentivize homeowners to give or sell their land to the trust and transfer it into affordable housing stock.

We must consider Tufts’ history in Boston’s Chinatown in order to contextualize the contradictions in this project. Over the past several decades, Tufts Medical Center has gradually taken land from its host community, Boston’s Chinatown. Tufts University Medical School and New England Medical Center, which make up Tufts Medical Center, occupy over one third of Chinatown’s land. During the urban renewal era in the 1950s and 1960s, the government took land from the Chinatown community through eminent domain, displacing over 700 residents, and sold it to Tufts Medical Center. In the 1990s, community members protested New England Medical Center’s decision to build an eight-story, 455-car garage that would displace a local community center and preschool and create health and safety issues for the neighborhood. Organizers eventually managed to prevent the project’s construction and instead built residential units and community space on the same land parcel. Unfortunately, Chinatown’s fight against displacement and gentrification is ongoing, largely due to the Dental School and Medical Center’s presence.

Many of  Loh’s students voiced concerns about doing this work with Tufts when it is a major contributor to gentrification in the Chinatown community. Several expressed skepticism about the prospects for securing land in Chinatown for affordable housing. Lydia Collins, a senior in the Field Projects class and UEP 5-year MA/BA program, explained, “It’s so close to being impossible because Tufts took all of the land. Chinatown is just in this incredibly ripe space. It’s so close to transit, so close to the financial center. It has entertainment and food. It is also really dense and people love density. And Boston’s housing market is one of the most competitive in the country already.”

The CCLT is unique because most community land trusts secure land in communities with blighted or low value plots of land that the government does not want. However, the Chinatown Community Land Trust is attempting to secure land as  wealthy real estate developers are vying for the same properties. Allison Curtis, a first year UEP graduate student, said, “A lot of the work in the land trusts is a reimagining of what the land could be but it is still entrenched in a capitalist system that creates a lot of barriers for people trying to do this type of work.” As a result, students in the UEP course share a goal of helping the Chinatown community but understand the bleak prospects of success.

Collins struggles with the idea of working for Tufts when the institution could easily solve problems that it caused in the first place. “It’s also interesting that Tufts is funding work that is fighting against Tufts. Much of the research that is helping the community comes from the institution that is harming it… So much of the research in UEP is independent of Tufts’ actual impact in the community,” said Collins. Neoliberal institutions like Tufts present themselves as liberal and  benevolent, but they don’t practice what they preach. They use entities like UEP in the attempt to work for positive community change, but need to connect these groups with larger institutional entities in order to better serve their community.

While the university’s relationship with the Chinatown community is contradictory and undoubtedly harmful, studying the multiple relationships Tufts has with the community can help us understand which relationships need to be nurtured, and which harmful and imbalanced relationships need to be addressed. Loh explained, “The first thing I would say is you can’t really understand it unless you understand that the university is not one thing. Just like you say the Chinatown community is not one thing. The university has a planning department and an institutional master plan…However, at the end of the day there is a governing body and there are people and bodies that are and should be held accountable.”

Additionally, the structure and rigidity of the university, especially in the way it handles its finances, makes community work increasingly difficult. Loh believes it’s not effective because “we’re just one unit working here in a massive thousands of people working here. The university is not as nimble as a single non-profit. It has a lot more resources but how it thinks about programming those can sometimes be very constraining too. You get a lot of questions asked when doing anything outside of the normal. Funneling that cash flow to community work involves shifting a much more complex institution.”

Tufts’ report “Working Together | Tufts in the Community: Chinatown” discusses the university’s alleged contribution to Chinatown’s growth when the historical reality reveals that its impact has been nearly the opposite. The report addresses the research and medical care that it has brought to the community, yet fails to mention the most vital issue: housing. In the report, Dr. Catherine Hayes, the chair of the Department of Public Health and Community Service, says, “As public health dentists, we don’t see the individual patient as our patient. We see the community as our patient.” But there is no acknowledgement that the dental school has contributed to the shrinking of the community. Taking care of a patient also means making sure they are able to continue being a patient. In order to increase transparency and truly benefit the community, Tufts Medical Center could have used the report to discuss its institutional master plan and how it seeks to preserve affordable housing in the community if it keeps expanding.

Students and professors concerned with community work must think of ways that these entities within Tufts working for good can collaborate with the entities that are ignoring the needs of the Chinatown community, such as the Tufts Medical Center, in order to ensure that all of Tufts is working together to meet its host community’s needs. If the university supported and listened to the positive work being done in UEP and dismantled structural confinements, UEP could make an even greater impact. Community input must be taken into account by university institutions beyond just UEP.

Collins’ experience in the course and her work with the CCLT has led her to think of solutions to Chinatown’s housing affordability crisis. One is for Tufts Medical Center to give back some of the land they took. “The reality is that Tufts is there now, and won’t tear down their children hospital. They could give their parking lot back that they took and then give a really nice press spin to it to give themselves good publicity. Tufts is so integral to the economy that they can push for these policies—but only if they want to be political, which they don’t.”

Professor Loh, too, has a simple solution that employs urban planning strategies and a diplomatic framework that Tufts could work within. “Tufts sometimes sees itself as its own thing and then decides for itself what it’s going to look like in the city as part of its institutional master plan. We’re one element of this community. Can we convene with others to decide together? That requires getting to know each other and getting to know where people’s interests are. At the very least hopefully you can avoid some of those conflicts when you could’ve figured out something else out to begin with.”