On Tuesday, I met with Chad Shabazz in the cafe of the HMart on Central Square. I know Chad through a friend, though this was our first time meeting.
He had just finished a training session at his job as a youth advisor at the YCMA. He was wearing a black motorcycle jacket completely covered in patches; “People look at me and they’re surprised that I work with children. And the parents are surprised. And I take pride in that,” he told me.
Chad’s 33 years old. He’s from the Cambridge Coast, and grew up in Cambridge around Central. He’s written a song about his experience growing up between MIT and Harvard.
His mom grew up in Boston, he tells me, around the Blue Hills area. Right now, he and his family live in in Cambridge Port. He spoke immediately and passionately about his experience, and struck me as someone with a sense of urgency—and at the same time, optimism.
He shared his observations, and also his experience being evicted by Wynn Management as a young adult. I’ve clipped and transcribed parts of our conversation that moved, frustrated, or interested me. (Read more…)
K: How have you seen the area changing?
Cambridge in generally was a lot more run down. A lot more mom and pop stores. They used to have a jewelry store, a music store you could buy bootleg music. There were a lot more fast food stores…
Cambridge itself is a very diverse city. I mean it was still segregated. You got your white people, your black people, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans… [sic]
There was a lot more inner city people walking around. Whereas today, I see a lot more college kids. I see a lot more college people in the inner city parts, instead of just on Mass Ave.
The part I’m from, the Port, which is probably like the roughest area. There’s a lot more street stuff happening. You got police around the basketball courts just to make sure things are going smoothly.… Lot more shootings, lot more stabbings.
And they’re doing that part over too. Newtowne, and Washington Elms. Because that’s right next to MIT. You got these people going to MIT, they wouldn’t even know. That they’re directly next to the Projects…
Neither of us were sure why the gentrification was just happening now, when schools have been around forever. Like Chad said, there were always differently-incomed and segregated areas, living in close proximity.
Growing up in Cambridge, there’s always white people with a lot of money…
I mean people would be mowing their lawns, walking their dog, across the street there are kids fighting, they could be fighting and beating each other up, and no one would think twice.
It sounded like the different demographics were used to co-existing. The college students, though, lived completely in their own bubble.
A Harvard girl said something at a party… She said, I didn’t realize there were any black people in Cambridge. I was like, well you just go to Harvard. That’s not the city. If you go to school here, you just go to certain points.
Chad said he doesn’t mind the visual changes. He told me he actually feels safer being around nice businesses, and around college kids. Still, the part that bothers him is the reason that it’s happening. And the effects that it has on the people.
The gentrification visually in the stores, we’re seeing a physical change in the business aspect. And we know that’s a direct impact of the schools. That has nothing to do with making life better for low income families. That’s more a business moves for schools, not a human move…
I never seen a MIT or Harvard brochure, but I guarantee you they don’t put Newtowne projects on the brochure. I mean it’s almost on [their] property. They ain’t putting those places on there. I think it’s embarrassing to corporate America— they don’t want people to know about it.
They fixing it up through the reputation of these business, instead of making it better for low income, native families here who are going through financial struggle, and it’s not just financial struggle, but mental struggle, emotional struggle… and when you have that kind of struggle, you don’t know how to dialogue in your household, you’re yelling, you got kids growing up with low self esteem, they don’t know how to communicate, they can’t cherish markers, crayons. You trying to talk to them how to write, they don’t wanna read! And it all trickles down to these things. I mean you really wanna make the schools better, not just make things look better.
People obviously feel the changes, but there wasn’t a good sense as to why. There isn’t much questioning going on, because people don’t have the transparency, education, or resources to resist.
When you come from a low income, impoverished background, you’re not even thinking about it on a higher level. It’s just, I got evicted, I gotta leave. They’re not looking at the bigger picture in that way. It was like, OK, just something else negative happening to me.
We’re not educated enough, growing up. There needs to be more being said… there needs to be more people explaining what’s really going on.
And I have friends, they’ll blame, oh you know, white people want us out. Or, rich people want us out. But then that’s as far as it goes. And that’s all kind of easy.
Towards the end of our conversation, he shared his own experience being pushed out of 808, which is a building on Memorial Drive. Harvard had been trying to purchase those as dorms “for a long time,” and in the late 2000s, Wynn Management started “fixing the area up.”
He told me about the roach infestations, followed by mice infestations (that ate the roaches.) Finally, an accident with an electrical fire was used as an excuse to push their family out.
…They were giving us eviction notices for a long time. And we were paying our rent. I mean I was working since I was 14 years old. And my sisters. And the rent was goin’ up. And when they were doing our building over, I knew, they wanted us out.
K: How did your family feel about it?
It was very frustrating. Because you had no choice. I mean [I] had a fire in the kitchen, and microwave exploded, and I was home alone, and I just called the fire department. And I was outside the house, it was an electrical fire in the wall, I couldn’t really do anything about it.
And all they couldve done was fixed the building and have us go back inside. But somebody lives there now. We know the people who live there now. There was no reason to kick us out. Like, that part was already messed up then. Then just having people blame you for it, because I was there, so you added like, being emotionally vulnerable. And then being forced to pick out of options: “We got this, this and this for you.”
I got forced to move into a room that wasn’t really a room. It’s like a closet pretty much. It’s really small. I had to take my bed out. I sleep in a chair— I mean I got an air mattress— but I choose to sleep in a chair. Because it’s fine.
But I think whenever anyone doesn’t have a choice in something—when you’re forced to do something—it’s unpleasant. But at the same time, I don’t let my situation define me. I use it in a way that I can build character off of.