Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

Currently on the front page of the UMB website is Chancellor Motley’s appearance on the WBGH newsmagazine Greater Boston, in which he discusses the 25-year Master Plan for rebuilding our school from the ashes. A good deal of the segment, hosted by Boston media stalwart Emily Rooney (Andy Rooney’s daughter!), is devoted to discussion of the plan to build 1,000 dorms (euphemistically titled “living and learning communities”) on campus.

Longtime Mass Media contributor and generally swell guy Jason Pramas weighed in on the proposition in these pages last semester (“Dorms at UMass Boston? Proceed with Caution” 5/7/07) with a moderately anti stance. The reasons given were generally the same as the surrounding Dorchester neighborhood people, an city students from UMB, have long given: dorms bring college-age residents, and college-age residents bring chaos; it’s not students from the city that want or need dorms, but suburban ones; dorms would change the face of the school, to make it more affluent. I don’t really entirely buy any of these arguments.

I’m not enthusiastically in favor of dorms, but I am not against them, either, if the project is developed carefully, and here’s why: Boston is one hell of an expensive city to live in. I’m a longtime Boston resident, and I’ve watched as the city has, over the last decade, grown far more white-collar in its makeup. The O Street of today is not your Dad’s O Street. I’ve watched as the neighborhood my own father grew up in, Lower Mills, has changed from a family oriented blue-collar area to one where a Bud in a frosty mug is tougher to come by than a venti latte. My best friend’s Mom has gotten priced out of her three-decker on Savin Hill Ave. after having rented since the Pleistocene. Mission Hill is now full of Northeastern students, not people Charles Stuart could try to frame for shooting his wife. Working class families are moving out to Quincy and Weymouth, in an odd reversal of the white flight that occurred in the wake of busing. Boston is a small city locked in on all sides by towns it can’t annex; as the tech and biomed sectors grow, the professionals are moving into the city. The people that comprised Southie and Dot and the ‘Bury twenty years ago are being priced out.

To say that dorms would dilute the urban approach of the school is a respectable argument, and one I’d agree with under normal circumstances. But the Boston housing market is not a normal circumstance, and so our administrators need to be resourceful. I’d support dorms if applicants could be screened according to need. Is it fair to say that a nursing student with two kids and a full-time job, who can afford either baby formula or a car, but can’t afford either and a $650 walk-up closet in Mattapan, deserves to live close to school? I think it’s presumptuous to say that every dorm resident would be an upper-middle class kid from Hanover. The majority of students I hang out with are from Boston; many work full or part time, and I think that is a general trend throughout the school.

Furthermore, 1,000 beds is not 5,000. It’s a reasonable number. I sympathize (do I ever) with local hesitations about dorms bringing a party atmosphere to the area. But again, it’s a matter of scale, and who exactly we let into these dorms. They should be need based first and foremost, and I think a good screening process will be able to filter out the night owls from the people who are going to take the latter part of “living and learning” seriously. Perhaps a GPA requirement, say 2.8 or better, would be in order? Dip below it and you’re evicted; stay at or above it, and you have a room. This alone would provide impetus for studying and against partying.

It’s a complex topic, and there’s plenty of room for debate. But, being an urban student myself, in this city at this time in its economic history, I feel that dorms are, not a necessity, but a nicety for students who otherwise would be priced out of the market. Naturally the locals should have the final say – it’s only right. We’re in their neighborhood, after all, they aren’t in ours. The thing is, though, that as a city school, the lines between “us” and “them” blur. Intelligent people, though, can come to reasonable solutions. So I think that if done the right way, we can meet our need (or want, whichever you prefer) for on-campus housing without turning our school into Animal House. Amherst is that-a-way.

ADDENDA: OK. What in blue blazes is going on at CPCS? Anybody? …I was absent last week, because I was kind of, sort of, um… in Africa with one of my classes. More on that next week…Don’t forget to vote in the primary.