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In 1954, Massachusetts planners decided to route their futuristic “highway in the sky”—known now as the Central Artery—in part through the city’s Chinatown district. The swathe of destruction that construction of the highway brought with it was enormous: throughout the city, over 1,000 structures were demolished—displacing 20,000 people. Chinatown lost churches, public buildings and residences in the construction of an on-ramp. According to Chinatown activist, 300 families were displaced in the seizure of the land in Chinatown, and complaints have been raised for decades that the compensation provided to those families was far less than fair market value.
The completion of the Big Dig, is an opportunity for Boston to rectify the mistreatment of Chinatown almost half a century ago. While up to 70 percent of the land freed as a consequence of the Big Dig due to the destruction of the Central Artery is slated for open space in most plans, the remainder will be developed in parcels to improve the economic viability of Boston.
The future of the Chinatown’s 1.5 acre parcel, called “parcel 24,” has been particularly contested of late. Activists have introduced a bill into the state legislature calling for that parcel to be given back to the neighborhood for the future development of affordable housing and community institutions in compensation for its initially inadequate payment.
Introducing special legislation to return the land to Chinatown will likely lead other neighborhoods to push for their own entitlements and compensations. Approving the bill would set a bad precedent for eminent domain and also lead to an uncoordinated building effort for downtown Boston—a veritable planning disaster.
But history indicates a mistreatment of Chinatown during the 1950s that has yet to be righted. Consequently, area planners have a special obligation to ensure that plans for the Chinatown site accommodate community need, and the legislature should consider other compensation methods for the neighborhood.
A special trust for Chinatown would help remunerate for the past wrongs that have burdened Chinatown for decades. Similar accommodations are made regularly: East Boston has a ‘mitigation fund’ for the developmental and environmental harms that Logan Airport causes on a daily basis, and James M. Kelly, the City Councilor for South Boston effectively lobbied for mitigation funds to offset the hassles caused by the recent construction of the new convention center located in his district. It is a shame that Kelly has not moved to secure similar funding for Chinatown, also in his district.
Chinatown was clearly wronged in the construction of the Central Artery. But its destruction signals an opportunity to right this wrong. While the special bill before the state legislature is not be the best way to compensate Chinatown, Boston must seize this moment to settle this account of history.
Eminent domain is an important power that citizens allow the government to exercise for the common good, but with this power comes special responsibility to use discretion in planning and protecting particularly vulnerable communities. Boston’s cheating of its Chinatown residents needs to be remedied, but financial compensation, rather than disruption of the urban planning process, is the more equitable solution.
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