Harvard Moves into the Neighborhood and a Citizen Journalist is Born

Behind the scenes
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When I’m not exploring the frontiers of digital journalism as a graduate student at Northeastern University Journalism School’s  Media Innovation program, I’m the projects coordinator for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Recently, we produced a story that came to us outside of the normal channels.

We were approached by a woman named Rachel Hock, an artistic associate for a theater company who was disturbed by the amount of luxury housing going up in her neighborhood of Lower Allston. She decided to do some digging into the history of development in her neighborhood.

Hock uncovered  the forgotten history of a place called Barry’s Corner and explored the situation of present-day neighbors fighting urban renewal and recent development efforts by neighboring Harvard University. When she brought us this story as a news tip, we asked her to write it.

It was published last week on DigBoston. I followed up with some questions for Hock:

You brought this story to us more as a suggestion than as a pitch for you to actually write. Can you briefly explain the situation that led to you writing and researching this story. Please include some of the resources that you stumbled upon in the process. (Ed. note: Thanks to Ethan Long of Rebel News for helping bring attention to the plight of Barry’s Corner then and now.)

Hock: I saw this photo on the internet of the TO HELL WITH URBAN RENEWAL sign. At the bottom there was the In Memoriam for Annie Soricelli, and I thought, Who was Annie Soricelli?

All-knowing Google didn’t have answers. She was important enough for her neighbors to memorialize her, but not hits on Google? Since I didn’t have any reporting experience I gave it to you as more of a tip, that there might be a story here. But I guess I came to you at just the right time for BINJ to enable me to research and write the story myself and it was immensely fulfilling.

The internet was a good resource to a point. The Harvard Crimson has an online archive that goes pretty far back, which was great. The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the BRA,  has many digitized documents on their website, too. For books, A People’s History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel, and Allston-Brighton in Transition: From Cattle Town to Streetcar Suburb by William Marchione both have chapters on Barry’s Corner. I also read parts of Brookline, Allston-Brighton and the Renewal of Boston by Ted Clarke, Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal 1950 to 1970 by Thomas O’Connor, and Rogues and Redeemers: When Politics Was King in Irish Boston by Gerard O’Neill.

The most valuable resource, however, was the Boston Public Library. (Who knew?) There is a large collection of BRA documents that have not been digitized, and it was really cool to spend a couple hours going through 50-year-old newspaper clippings.

Image of Barry’s Corner circa 1960 (left) via City of Boston Archives and today (right) via Jason Pramas

One reason that we thought it would be great for you to write it is that you live in Allston. What is your history there, how long have you been there, do you face rent problems, and how did any of that play into this reporting?

Hock: I’ve lived in Lower Allston for just over a year, but I’ve been an inhabitant of Allston, in one form or another, for nearly six years. I pay a good deal more than the recommended 30 percent of my income on rent. It’s worth it to me to have a nice apartment in a good location. But my rent goes up every year and my income doesn’t, so at some point it will become untenable. If you look at the map of the boundaries of Harvard’s Institutional Master Plan, my building is right on the other side of the line. On the one hand it would be awesome to have the neighborhood enlivened by new businesses, but on the other, it won’t make a difference to me if I can’t afford to live here anymore.

Being an Allston resident also meant that the things I was researching were things that mattered to me here and now. I went to Harvard Construction Mitigation meetings as a reporter and as a resident.

What is the word among younger people who live in Allston about all the development that Harvard is doing, and how would you like this article and the conversation around it to impact that discussion?

Hock: I canvassed about a dozen Facebook friends who live or lived in Allston to get a sense of the word on the street, and most people I heard from didn’t know very much about the construction besides, “It makes my commute worse.”

There’s so much construction all over Boston right now that it’s really easy to see construction sites as just part of the landscape. I’d love this article to make people take notice of development and find out about what’s going on in their neighborhoods — Who owns the land that’s being developed? Who does the development benefit? It’s not just a matter of “Oh great, more luxury apartments,” but of who is putting the luxury apartments there.

What did you know about Annie Soricelli from the very beginning, and what was the most fascinating thing that you learned about her in the writing process?

Hock: I was able to find out from a census record that she lived at 168 North Harvard Street, and for a while that was all I knew about her. The first thing I checked in the library was The Boston Globe archive and it was discouraging to see nothing but a death notice and a Secret Santa dedication. But it turns out that’s because The Globe didn’t cover the protests in Barry’s Corner. When I dug into the BRA’s clippings from long-defunct newspapers, I found Annie all over the place (though often with her name misspelled). She was very outspoken, and many articles quoted her. It’s a cliche, but she really came alive to me.

Image by Rachel Hock.

What was the most harrowing thing that you learned in your research, and what was the most promising thing about the future of Allston, if any?

Hock: Early on in my research, 1960s BRA Administrator Ed Logue emerged as a villain. The BRA was exempt from all kinds of regulations and it had really a lot of power, and it used that power to just stomp on people. One of the most sickening realizations I had while working on this piece was that Ed Logue was relentless about kicking people out of their homes because they fought back. It wasn’t just that he had a vision for the city and didn’t let anyone stand in his way (which is true); it was vindictiveness — retaliation for activism.

I think what’s most promising about Allston’s future is how resilient the city and its people are, on both sides of the Pike. Allston won’t be ignored.

I’ll be asking Rachel some more questions on October 20 during a panel on Lower Allston development. It’s free and open to the public.

Emily Hopkins is a journalist in Boston. She tweets at @genderpizza.

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