Across the Charles River from Cambridge lie Allston and Brighton, neighborhoods that tens of thousands of families, artists, and immigrants call home. Among residents, Allston-Brighton is known as “welcoming,” “diverse,” and “resilient.”
Among Harvard students, the area is primarily known as an extension of the University’s campus, with landmarks such as the Harvard Athletics Complex, Harvard Business School, and the $1 billion Science and Engineering Complex. This perception is not necessarily inaccurate; in total, the University owns around one-third of the land in Allston, making it the largest landholder in the neighborhood.
In the late 1980s, the University began covertly acquiring land through an agent, amounting to 52.6 acres of land anonymously purchased over the span of eight years. Today, after several additional explicit purchases in the intervening decades, Harvard and its subsidiaries own roughly 360 acres of land in Allston.
Harvard’s envisioned future for Allston is a “campus for the next century,” according to its 2013 Institutional Master Plan. In addition to the recently built SEC, Harvard’s plans include a residential unit at 180 Western Ave. and the much-anticipated Enterprise Research Campus, a 900,000 square foot mixed-use development which has drawn criticism from some residents.
Harvard believes that its presence in Allston has led to many “direct benefits” to residents, such as “new parks, open spaces, robust programming, and affordable housing preservation and creation,” amounting to more than $70 million, according to an emailed statement from University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke. Just last week, University President Lawrence S. Bacow presented the 14th annual $100,000 donation from the Harvard Allston Partnership Fund to local nonprofits.
Residents have praised initiatives like the Harvard Ed Portal, which provides educational programs to children and adults living in the neighborhood, and the Harvard-Allston Task Force, an advisory group for Harvard’s Allston developments consisting of both residents and University members. But they have also voiced concern over Harvard’s rapid expansion, claiming that the University has not involved residents in the planning process enough.
Allston-Brighton residents also struggle with other key issues, chief among them a shortage of affordable housing and an increase in rent prices.
This piece profiles five residents from Allston and Brighton who are actively dealing with these challenges and envisioning a better future for their neighborhoods. They provide a snapshot of the character of Allston-Brighton, the lives of the people within it — and the way those lives are changing.
As Mary E. Larosee spoke about her childhood in Brighton, where her family has lived for five generations, she said an excited hello to her mailman, a testament to how embedded she is into her neighborhood.
In the ’60s and ’70s, when Allston-Brighton was less densely populated, the neighborhood felt like a “smaller world,” one in which no one ventured far outside their immediate surroundings, according to Larosee. Larosee has enjoyed seeing Allston-Brighton expand and diversify and stated that “change is always good.”
She said that the people are her favorite part about the neighborhood — from those who stop by to talk to her when she’s sitting on her porch, to her immigrant neighbors from South Asia, to the five-year-old living next door who calls her “Auntie Mary.”
“I attend a lot of meetings and I know a lot of people because no matter if it’s a small community or a large community, I’m going to be part of the community and get to know people, because that’s who I am and how I am,” she said.
But Larosee worries about the future of Allston-Brighton when it comes to the area’s affordability. Larosee said that her own two children, now adults, are not able to live in Allston-Brighton because it is “way too expensive.”
According to the Boston Globe, median home sale values increased by about nine percent between 2019 and 2021 in Allston, and by 12 percent in Brighton. The median price for a house in Allston and Brighton in 2021 was around $850,000.
Larosee secured her house through a lottery for an affordable housing unit. She explained that her income fortunately fell within the “very narrow window” that was required to enter the lottery; “it couldn’t be too high and couldn’t be too low,” she said.
In addition to the lack of affordable housing, Larosee also expressed concern about Harvard’s planned developments. She said she is uncertain about what the changes in her neighborhood will look like, claiming that the University’s “lack of communication” has left her in the dark.
Meanwhile, the University contends that there are several points of access for Allston-Brighton residents to connect with Harvard.
“From formal public meetings, to more casual coffee hours, to impromptu check-ins, there are dozens of ongoing ways and opportunities for Harvard and Allston residents to engage on a variety of subjects,” O’Rourke wrote.
Larosee’s home is right off Western Avenue, an area surrounded by more than two dozen Harvard properties. From her house, Larosee can see the fencing that the University has put up in preparation for its forthcoming developments, a signal of the change looming ahead.
After serving in World War II, Anthony P. “Tony” D’Isidoro’s father got married and moved to Allston, eventually purchasing a home with aid from the 1944 G.I. Bill. When D’Isidoro was growing up in Allston, the neighborhood was still affordable and familial, a town where “everybody knew everybody,” he said.
By contrast, D’Isidoro’s description of Allston today emphasized the gentrification of the neighborhood, the housing crisis, and the strain on the public school system. D’Isidoro facilitates conversations about such issues as the president of the Allston Civic Association, a group which provides public forums for Allston-Brighton residents.
As a member of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, D’Isidoro is heavily involved in discussions about Harvard’s expansion and acknowledges both the University’s successes and its failures throughout Allston’s history.
While he lauded efforts such as the Ed Portal, he argued that, at times, Harvard has acted like a “real estate development company” more than a university.
“We’ve been through a lot of traumatic events in our community,” he said, citing Harvard’s secret purchase of land in the late ’80s as as an event “indelibly written” on every Allstonian’s mind.
“The feeling of the Harvard presence is that it’s not one of accountability and transparency right now. If you want to build trust between the community and the institution, the ingredients for that certainly aren’t in place,” he said.
For the University’s part, it provides a point-person to facilitate relations and communication with Allston-Brighton residents. Though D’Isidoro said the representative is a “great guy,” he called on Harvard to give residents the opportunity to speak to a more senior member of the administration rather than a “messenger.” He characterized the choice not to do so as a “deliberate strategy.”
“It is just very exclusive, very condescending,” he said. “It’s almost like ‘Hey, we work with governors and mayors, we don’t work with you.’”
To D’Isidoro, Allston is more than just “physical buildings or campuses.” It is a neighborhood of living and working people trying to raise their families and “make ends meet.”
“To me, this is home,” said D’Isidoro. “Whether I can stay here forever, who knows. That will be seen. But it really feels like home.”
When Siobhan McHugh traveled from Ireland to Brighton in 1989, she was supposed to only stay for her two-week summer vacation. But she unexpectedly found herself in a “home away from home,” surrounded by enclaves of immigrants within a familial neighborhood. At the end of the two weeks, McHugh extended her stay and has been living in Brighton ever since.
“I felt so welcomed here, and not just by the Irish community. By every community,” she said.
McHugh raised her two children in Brighton and currently runs a family child care service at her house. When she moved to Allston-Brighton, she said that the neighborhood was made up of mostly families. But according to her, those families started moving away a decade ago due to their inability to afford the cost of living in the area.
“Our little league, our hockey teams, soccer teams — the numbers have halved in the last 10 years of kids and families playing sports. Families just aren’t here anymore,” McHugh said.
Even the neighborhood’s affordable housing efforts aren’t enough to sustain the long-term residency of families. McHugh recounted her experience helping her friends look for affordable housing units and finding that they were too low-income to qualify for the low-income housing.
“What they’re calling affordable housing is not affordable housing,” she said.
From her hilltop home in Oak Square, McHugh has a view of her town, one that she said has changed dramatically since she started living there. Part of that change has to do with Harvard’s development in the past couple decades.
McHugh described Harvard’s land acquisition process as “sneaky,” a series of purchases that flew under the radar of many residents.
“Nobody was any the wiser really for a while [of] who was buying the houses,” McHugh said. To her, Harvard’s growing role in Allston-Brighton felt like an “invasion.”
“University representatives routinely participate in public meetings, which are just one of the many ways in which Harvard engages with the Allston-Brighton community to ensure local residents can get answers to outstanding questions, offer feedback and voice concerns,” O’Rourke wrote.
The changes in Allston remind McHugh of past developments in Harvard Square, which she described as a once “thriving” area for small businesses, many of which have since been replaced by chain stores. She said she worries that Allston may follow the same route.
But McHugh still feels optimistic about the integrity of the neighborhood’s residents as they encounter any unwelcome changes. “I don’t think anyone can argue, but we are fighters here in Allston-Brighton,” she said.
When Cindy Marchando moved to Allston in 2006, she found the neighborhood to be “intimate,” full of “mom-and-pop” style businesses. She had been living in the Boston area for around 16 years before then, having moved to the United States from her home country of Trinidad and Tobago in 1990.
As the chair of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, Marchando is familiar with the tensions between the University and Allston-Brighton residents. She has also had personal encounters with Harvard’s developments, including the construction of the Harvard Ed Portal, which happened directly behind her home. The experience was positive, according to Marchando.
“We were able to work together. [Harvard] got their project completed and the impact on the families that live here was minimal,” she said. “The days when they had to really disrupt our lives, they made accommodations for us to be able to not be as disrupted as we were.”
She described her next experience with Harvard as more negative. Marchando said that she faced physical damages to her home in 2014 during the construction of the Continuum, a luxury apartment building at Barry’s Corner built on land owned by the Harvard Allston Land Company.
Marchando claimed that while the contractor was pile-driving into the land, the vibrations shook her and her neighbors’ houses. She said that the University neglected her and other residents when they complained about the damages.
“[The construction company] kept putting us off and delaying while they kept shaking the home, and then when they were finished, then they decided to put in vibration monitors at our home to prove that we were lying,” she said.
As a result, Marchando said she had to reconstruct her whole front porch out of her own pocket. At the time, her husband was recovering from a heart attack, making her the only wage-earner in her home.
“I should not have to fight for a large university to stop destroying my home and then turn their backs on me and say, ‘Not our problem,’” Marchando said.
Though Marchando believes that “change helps us grow as a community,” she worries that future developments in the area will cause her to be displaced from her home.
When asked about her feelings about the future of Allston-Brighton, Marchando said: “I’m excited, but petrified.”
Ellen L. Krause-Grosman loves Allston-Brighton. She loves Chandler Pond, she loves Johnny D’s Fruit and Produce shop, and she loves her neighborhood’s Jewish community.
Krause-Grosman first moved to the Greater Boston area in 1990 and has been living in Brighton for the past 22 years. Now, she serves as a member of the Coalition for a Just Allston and Brighton, a group of residents, local organizations, and elected officials which advocates for the neighborhood.
One of the challenges Krause-Grosman sees in Allston-Brighton is its unaffordability which she said makes no one but the “two-income, serious professional family” able to provide a down payment on a house.
Although Krause-Grosman owns a two-family home, she makes extra income by renting out two rooms of her own unit to international students and renting out the other unit entirely.
During their time living there, her family has rented to more than 60 international students from 20 different countries.
On the bright side, Krause-Grosman said, “I’m an extrovert and my kids had this very interesting upbringing with us.”
On the other hand, she said, “you would look at it and say, I’m 54 years old and I still have housemates.”
The inflation of real estate prices are significantly driving up the number of housing developments in Allston-Brighton, making for a “financially extractive development model” in the neighborhood, according to Krause-Grosman.
Yet, she said she is “deeply not an anti-development person.”
“I like change. I like new. I stand at the edge of construction sites and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s cool. That’s just so cool.’ But it’s about development that has a vision to it,” said Krause-Grosman.
But according to her, the current state of development in the area lacks a clear purpose.
“Uncontrolled growth is cancer,” she said. “Those are cells going out of control in places where they ought not to be.”
In addition to being a Brighton resident, Krause-Grosman is also a Harvard alumna, having attended the Graduate School of Education. She brings her unique perspective as a former Harvard student into her understanding of the changing fabric of Allston-Brighton.
“Last September, I got a letter from Larry Bacow that went to all the Harvard alums about all of the green and sustainable ‘save the Earth’ stuff that Harvard was doing and their important impact in the world,” she said. “And there was not a word or a line about anything in Cambridge or Boston.”
Krause-Grosman calls on the University to focus their efforts locally, too.
Even in the face of what she said are “serious challenges” between Harvard and Allston-Brighton residents, Krause-Grosman remains hopeful for a future where both parties will successfully collaborate.
“Let’s take it on together and let’s do something that’s worthy of replicating in other places,” she said.
—Staff writer Michal Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bymgoldstein.