What is Dorchester not for Sale? (an interview with Kevin Lam)

I have been hearing and seeing ripples of the "Dorchester Not for sale" group.  Upon seeing a video  in one of the articles by Eliza Dewey, I recognized a face I had seen around Chinatown at various events holding the microphone and speaking for the group, Kevin Lam. I recalled that I had meant to interview him long ago in regards to his work at Asian American Resource Workshop.

The son of Lao and Vietnamese immigrants, Kevin actually grew up in a mostly non Asian environment in Poughkeepsie, NY.

He hadn't really connected with Asians as much until college, and much of his initial acivism had to do with the LGTBQ community. In 2011 he had been part of a Youth Student Group of Queer  South East Asian that did a lot of work regarding racial profiling. In 2015 he moved to Boston and now as a resident right in Glover's Corner, the area that the BDPA is planning to develop, he met with fellow residents and talked with them about what they knew about the project.

After going to a few meetings and feeling that the voices of the people who are in danger of being displaced were not necessarily being heard,  a group of residents who also happened to be activists in other groups began organizing. Door knocking, handing out surveys, community barbecues, that sort of thing.

"Mostly of it was to let people know what was going on," Kevin told me in a phone interview, "and to see who was a renter, who was a home owner." From my understanding of that conversation the group came together this past summer of 2017 and initially, were genuinely curious about what the development went. However once they felt that the voices of certain groups were not being heard, they decided to disrupt one of the meetings of the BDPA.   

Much of the same concerns (and visions) about development in Dorchester carry over to Chinatown. And not everything is so clear as lines drawn in the sand. Nor is say Field's Corner, completely unrelated to Chinatown. Many years a Kung Fu school I had been part of went to do Lion dance there, having been invited in by community leaders who were brothers of a sort.

Kevin mentioned a specific concern that South East Asian residents of Dorchester might have. "There is that cycle of displacement. Many people came here as refugees fleeing war. And now to have to move again, not by choice, although it isn't war... it can be traumatizing all over again."

I was curious too about how Kevin, who identifies as Queer, finds a balance between his different activist roles. For instance, residents who might be in fear of being displaced, might also have very conservative view regarding the LGTBQ community.

"I view it all as related" Kevin told me, "But it also depends on which role I am working as. If I am collecting data or working to help offer resources to someone who is in fear of being displaced, then they might not see that side of me. It might not come up. But then one day, if I decide to dress more feminine, they might have a question about it, or maybe they won't. But if they do I'll talk to them about it. And then the question becomes do they still see me as me" (the person who was helping them to find resources because they are in fear of being displaced. "Or do they now just seem me as...just" Other. I had interrupted Kevin with that word in conversation, and in retrospect I guess I should have just shut up and let him finish the sentence.

 I talked with a few other people from Dorchester not for sale and came away with the a feeling that the multi-generational, multi-ethnic group about coming together and finding the most common ground possible (but not at the expense of people most vulnerable of being displaced) was a new and invigorating type of activism. An activism that could actually produce a solution.

Having seen  some of the different sides of the argument in Chinatown, I reached out to the BDPA with some questions. And to be honest, they seemed pretty hopeful for inclusion too. Only time will tell of course, and maybe we have learned some lessons from history. After all, a large part of what makes Boston an attractive place to want to live for the wealthy, are the distinct neighborhoods that make up the city.

How is the BDPA addressing the concerns of residents who feel that they are being pushed out?

The goal of PLAN: Glover’s Corner is develop a shared vision for the future of the area that responds to the concerns in the community about displacement,  development pressures, and to promote equity for all who live and work in this area. Working with the community,  PLAN: Glover’s Corner seeks to identify opportunities for preservation and enhancement, while determining an appropriate approach for responsible new development. Our hope is that the planning process will serve as a guide to discuss the resources we do have, such as zoning and land use tools, to identify strategies to assist residents who are concerned about displacement. It is important for all residents who have these concerns to become involved in this process.

Is it fair to equate BDPA with gentrification? Or the two related? Are they actually just separate things?

The Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) is a regulatory agency that works so that Boston’s neighborhoods and the city as a whole remain thriving, healthy, and innovative. Boston is in the midst of remarkable job growth, stimulated by the city’s highly productive economy, emerging employment sectors and a growing population, all of which have contributed to a remarkable building boom that is reshaping the skyline and the entire city.  The challenge is to harness this energy so that we preserve wisely, enhance equitably, and grow inclusively. The BPDA works every day through planning, zoning and development review to maintain the fabric of our neighborhoods, preserve culture and shape how development can help to create equitable neighborhoods. Planning initiatives like PLAN: Glover’s Corner create an opportunity for thorough dialogue with community members to further these goals.

Is it possible that Dorchester not for Sale and the BDPA come together after all this and solutions are created to better the city for all parties involved? How?

Absolutely. The goal of PLAN: Glover’s Corner is to work together to create recommendations that can help us solve the shared concerns of all neighborhood groups and residents.We all have concerns about preserving the culture of this community, providing housing options that remain affordable, and creating opportunities for small businesses to thrive. PLAN: Glover’s Corner creates a forum for everyone who has a stake in the community to come together.

Some Dorchester residents I talked to said that initially they went to the meetings just to observe and learn more about it. But after a few meetings they felt that they were not being heard. After disrupting one of the meetings they mentioned the subsequent meeting seemed to be in the right direction.  Can you speak on this a little?

Conversations about preparing for the future of the neighborhoods we live in, sometimes our whole lives in, are always difficult. We recognize that and that’s why we are focused on creative solutions to ensure that everyone feels welcomed in the conversation, no matter race, gender, age or background. We will continue our commitment to providing the necessary interpretation services throughout the PLAN: Glover’s Corner process.  We have provided translated materials in both Vietnamese and Cape Verdean Creole and simultaneous interpretation of both languages at our workshops.  As planners, it is our duty and desire to listen to the many different voices within the community whose issues and priorities may vary.

We are appreciative of the community members who have engaged in this process so far, and those who have given us feedback on how to be more inclusive.  We need everyone’s voices as we work to maintain a neighborhood where our residents and small businesses can thrive. We will continue to gather feedback on how the planning process can better serve everyone involved.