The City of Boston and the Newmarket Square Business Association, which formed the Newmarket Business Improvement District (NBID), have developed a strategic partnership spanning three consecutive mayoral administrations. The collaborators have regularly and repeatedly shared their goal of “decentralizing” unhoused community members from the Newmarket Square area, where the City of Boston previously corralled people, to prevent stable street-based encampments and communities. This serves as a means of moving forward in their quest to redevelop Newmarket Square as a 21-century mixed-use life-science hub.
While the City of Boston claims to promote solutions that center public health and service provision, unhoused residents are actually experiencing increased policing and criminalization following the formal establishment of the NBID. This partnership enables city officials to publicly distance themselves from the displacement, erasure, and criminalization of community members who are surviving poverty in public, including people who are unhoused, people who use drugs, and people with mental health concerns.
The area, now called “Newmarket Square,” is nestled between three historically Black and Latinx Boston neighborhoods–the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester. Intentional policy decisions including redlining and underfunding public transit in the area have historically created a culture of local disinvestment. More recently, public and private reinvestment has boomed in the area driven by a desire to extract more profit from land in the form of urban renewal programs, construction of luxury housing, and ongoing gentrification. The result of this history is a current crisis of displacement of the low-income and working-class residents who have called this area home for generations.
The Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), formerly the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the planning and economic development agency for the city of Boston, has held a central role in the displacement of thousands of people, mostly consisting of poor Black and Brown communities, as part of urban renewal projects. At the same time, some of the fiercest struggles and greatest victories for community control of land in Boston have been won in these neighborhoods: from stopping a highway that would have bisected neighborhoods, to Puerto Rican residents of the South End winning control of land to build community resources in 1968, to the unprecedented win of eminent domain in the Dudley Street corridor after years of dis-investment by the city and arson by landlords. In the present day, grassroots organizers with Reclaim Roxbury are demanding true community oversight of the development of a publicly owned parcel of land in Nubian Square, a historic Black neighborhood in the heart of Roxbury. Nubian and Newmarket Square, which abut each other, are experiencing simultaneous master planning processes in which the BPDA is enabling developers to engulf these neighborhoods.
The five block area within Newmarket Square commonly referred to as “Mass and Cass” (referring to the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard), or “the Ave”, is home to numerous service providers for unhoused people, people who use drugs, and the greater Boston community. Some of these services include the City’s two homeless shelters, two private shelters, Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, Boston Medical Center (a safety-net hospital), AHOPE (the Boston Public Health Commission’s syringe service program), three methadone clinics, and a city-run daytime engagement center that through run by the Boston Public Health Commission is under the purview of, and surveilled, by the Boston Police Department. It should be noted that one of the largest institutions and most heavily utilized as a tool of the City of Boston and NBID in the area is the South Bay House of Corrections.
This concentration of services and people is the current outcome of historic policy and zoning decisions made by federal, state, and most frequently City government – spanning several administrations that rely on ineffective and inhumane police and public works strategies to corral unhoused people who use drugs to the Mass and Cass area. With only four hours notice, former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh haphazardly closed the Long Island Bridge in 2014, which shuttered 742 shelter beds and all 225 substance use treatment beds leaving many people who were once accessing shelter and recovery services without meaningful alternatives. Under such conditions, people did what they could to stay with friends, family, or gain access to alternative services, but many people simply returned to the streets. And as people try to survive living in public, the police continuously move people along and dismantle encampments in different areas of the city, while directing people to Mass and Cass. The conditions that people are surviving under at Mass and Cass have been created over time through abandonment by the city.
With the convenience of so many services co-located in the area and public transportation that is well-documented to be unreliable and unsafe, it’s no accident that Mass and Cass has become a site where many people surviving poverty in public and people who use drugs spend time and access resources. The community people have built and connections to trusted providers in the area are supporting people in their survival. It is this very community and these systems of support the NBID and City of Boston are seeking to dismantle. To be clear, the City of Boston created these conditions and now uses them to demonize the very people they’ve set up to help while partnering with the NBID to ensure that all action is done under the guise of “revitalization”, “beautification” and “safety”.
In 2016, shortly after a $670,000 rebrand, the BPDA announced their plan to redevelop Newmarket Square through “PLAN: Newmarket, The 21st Century Economy Initiative.” The BPDA planning initiatives typically engage “community representatives” to envision needed redevelopments to the planning area, including zoning changes. People who own businesses, land, and homes in the area are heavily overrepresented. The BPDA and City of Boston make little to no attempts to engage renters, unhoused people, people who use public services in the area, or non-English speakers. The goal of PLAN: Newmarket is to develop a mixed-use neighborhood including current “legacy” industrial businesses and new “21 Century” industry such as labs, offices, and housing. The BPDA’s initial plans prioritized preventing the displacement of the substance use service providers in the catchment area. The current plan, however, does not include these protections, revealing that maintaining adequate healthcare resources in the neighborhood is not a priority. At the crux of the city’s approach to development lies private investment, luxury high rises, and uplifting large business interests.
The NBID formed and cultivated relationships and built power in the context of city-planned gentrification. The NBID Board is composed of powerful developers, construction companies, and property owners in Newmarket Square. They are the second largest BID in Massachusetts, with 400 acres of land within their catchment area and a total assessed value of $3.75 billion dollars. They have developed strategic partnerships with businesses, city leadership, neighborhood associations, the Boston Police Department (BPD), and their frequent partner, the Sheriff of the Suffolk County House of Corrections.
Both the Executive Director of NBID, Sue Sullivan, and Board members have positioned themselves as leaders and key stakeholders in PLAN: Newmarket. Sullivan sits on the advisory board for the initiative as does one of her employees, two Board members, and the President of the NBID board. The NBID has played a central role in informing and moving the PLAN: Newmarket plans forward, regularly stating their goal of services for unhoused people and people who use drugs to be “decentralized” from the area and working with the city to clear unhoused people from public space.
Working in partnership with the City, the Newmarket Business Association (NBA), the organizer of the NBID, has played a key role in the displacement of unhoused residents in Newmarket Square, especially during the encampment sweeps that began in the Fall of 2021 and culminated in the January 12, 2022 removal of all tents from the area following the City’s Executive Order banning tents. Over the summer of that year, unhoused community members established an encampment in Mass and Cass. About half of the people living in the encampment received daily medications, including Medications for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD), PrEP/PEP (medication to prevent HIV infection or to take after an exposure), and HIV treatment. Over a dozen overdoses were responded to by nurses daily. The encampment offered stability and safety in the absence of investment in long-term solutions.
In response, the NBID called on the city and the BPD to demand that people be moved from specific areas and oversaw eviction actions – including coercing unhoused people to evict each other from encampments for $30 each day without providing them proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or tools. The NBID cleared the streets alongside the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), and coerced people to give up their belongings to storage (overseen by the NBA) and go to shelters and later hotels framed as “housing”, without regard for people’s concerns.
The NBID also relies on strategic partnerships to accomplish their goals, including with Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins. When the NBID and the cleaning crew cleared the streets, fences were put up, preventing anyone from returning to the area. Between FY2021 and FY2022, Sheriff Tompkins funded over $135,000 worth of fences on Bradston and Topeka Street to shutter encampments and drive people away. Sheriff Tompkins and NBID executive director Sue Sullivan’s goals closely align, laying the groundwork for even more harmful partnerships.
Around the same time, the City actively removed services from the area by shuttering the engagement center where people could meet with healthcare providers and access port-a-potties, showers, and food; and reducing the hours and geographic reach of community outreach. Due to the City’s removal of meaningful basic services, Mass and Cass earned a reputation for public drug use, syringe litter, violence, and trash build-up. In response to these City cultivated issues, neighborhood associations, city leaders, and business owners moved to support expansion of NBA to become NBID.
The role that the NBID took in the initial 2021 sweeps, especially their role in street cleaning, positioned them to take over the provision of the services that the city had stopped providing to the Mass and Cass area. These “services” include providing a street cleaning team through their “workforce development program,”initiating sweeps of people and their belongings, and advocacy for the decentralization of care and to increase the police presence and criminalization of people. They have also implemented their own 24/7 private security force, Newmarket Public Safety, who patrols and “removes unwanted trespassers” from private property. Sullivan said, “we are going to work to bring about real systemic change by working closely with the city on the homelessness and the addiction issues that plague not only Newmarket, but the city as a whole.” Her statement signals that the NBID has situated themselves as an organization that wants to ‘solve homelessness’. However, solving homelessness for people like Sullivan includes no solutions at all, rather a strict campaign to remove people from public spaces and work to prevent the return of people surviving poverty via aggressive cleaning, increased presence of pseudo-law enforcement and the removal of services from the area.
Simultaneously, in the fall of 2021, Boston initiated two major steps towards privatization of public space and the criminalization of people surviving in public space. On October 19th, acting-Mayor Kim Janey signed an executive order that banned encampments and gave legitimacy to move-along orders and the arrests of unhoused people. Soon after, the Boston City Council unanimously approved the Newmarket Business Association’s proposal to form a business improvement district at a November 8th hearing.
In May 2022, Mayor Michelle Wu announced a “Warm Weather Plan” and “Strategic Outlook” for Mass and Cass. In discussing the strategic plan, Mayor Wu identified the NBID as a key partner in preventing new encampments from popping up in the area, without appearing like the city has an official policy of criminalization. An important aspect of Wu’s approach is the “decentralization” of shelter, housing, and addiction services, and the people who use them, from Newmarket Square. Wu’s current plan for decentralization is based on a goal of increasing property values not the well-being of unhoused community members and people who use drugs, to be accomplished through coercive means, including move-along orders, arrests, and use of involuntary commitment, strategies she has adopted and codified from Operation Clean Sweep but is making more publicly palatable through public relations messaging and distancing herself from through administration’s partnership with the NBID.
The NBID, in partnership with the Boston Police Department, does scheduled street cleaning Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. NBID has continued the exploitative program developed during the 2021 sweeps that offers unhoused residents from the area a flat pay rate for a day’s work that is far beneath minimum wage to assist with the displacement of other unhoused residents, referring to it as a “work development program”, although there appears to be very little programming or development that would benefit individuals in the long-term. This coercive strategy effectively destroys the community ties that unhoused people rely on for survival and acts as a reward system to elevate certain community members above others. The NBID is actively supporting the city in upholding the encampment ban, using labor practices that would be illegal for the city to use directly. Mayor Wu has said that the city hopes to “expand this work program” naming it as an “example of something that is part of our long term strategic plan.” The fact that the city and the BID have created this symbiotic relationship in which transparency is low, workers rights are being infringed and communities of people and providers are being decimated should cause grave concern for all the people of Boston and beyond.
The city has reduced public services and amenities, while increasing policing in Newmarket Square, and the NBID has positioned itself to step in to provide services, while actually further contributing to the displacement, erasure, and criminalization of unhoused people.
The city and the NBID have a mutually beneficial, private-public partnership that centers so-called “solutions” to homelessness on the displacement, erasure, and criminalization of people. The consistent presence of police and increased private security – and their entrenchment in social service provision, is an implicit reminder of the looming threat of arrest. The city and the BID have created the illusion of a resolution to the “issues” at Mass and Cass under the guise of public health and providing social services. The city and the NBID serve and uplift each other’s goals to further displace and criminalize unhoused community members, privatize public space, and gentrify the Mass and Cass area.
ABOUT Stop the Sweeps! Stop the BID!
Stop the Sweeps! Stop the BID! is an organizing group anchored and organized by the Material Aid and Advocacy Program, a grassroots organization that offers direct support to and organizes alongside unhoused people. STS! STB! is directly accountable to and follows the lead of the MAAP organizing group and community members who are unhoused and people who use drugs – who have the solutions to the interconnected crisis they are surviving.
Our organizing group consists of individuals who are actively involved in housing justice, harm reduction, and abolitionist organizing, who understand the ways that these struggles are connected. We know that the City of Boston, their state and private partners, and the NBID are strategically working together to increase surveillance and policing, and thus criminalize and displace unhoused people in service of development and gentrification.
We condemn and fight against the City of Boston and their public and private partners’ punitive and carceral practices through public education, community organizing and mobilization, and research.
ABOUT the Material Aid and Advocacy Program (MAAP)
MAAP understands the crisis of homelessness and persistent poverty to be the culmination of the intersection of stark inequality rooted in racism, systems failure, and the skewed priorities of people in power. As such, we actively and continuously work to end the systems that are causing harm and engage in social justice advocacy and organizing that supports the creation of just and healthy communities for all.
MAAP follows the leadership of, amplifies, and organizes with people who are unhoused and people who use drugs for evidence-based solutions to the interconnected systems and policy failures they are surviving. Housing justice, racial justice, ending the war on drugs, prison abolition, decriminalization of homelessness, and accessible and comprehensive healthcare for all are our work. While doing this we support people in meeting their self-identified needs through outreach and sweep support, and at our low-threshold drop-in space where people access material aid and meals; have risk reduction conversations and safety plan; connect to resources and providers; build community; care for each other; and organize. One member described MAAP as “a community where I can actively work towards escaping my homelessness, meet my basic needs and help others do the same. Where my contributions are valued and I’m able to fight for my community”.