HOW WE LIVE
5:00 am
Fri December 20, 2013

New Development, Old Challenges In Chelsea

  Since the city went bankrupt in the 1990s, Boston’s neighbor to the north- Chelsea- has been seen as a down-and-out city. But new development is helping the city shed that reputation. As part of an ongoing series Where We Live, WGBH News has been exploring our changing cities and towns.

For 10 years, Joe Greene has lived in Chelsea and he wants to show it off. Greene is a photographer, so his view is sharper than most. What he sees everyday in Chelsea are creative people, working class people, and positive development.  

"I really think this town deserves some positive imagery, because that’s what I see everyday," he said as he showed me development along Chelsea's waterfront.

"All these docks, this whole marina here, all brand new. All rebuilt. It’s absolutely pristine," he said.

Across from that pristine marina, Greene points out some ships he likes to photograph.

"I call them salt ships. Now-a-days I photograph them from a distance to show how huge they are. They come from all over the world," he said.

We drive past salt piles topped with a statue of Santa Claus and his reindeer, down Cobblestone streets Greene calls Beacon Hill-esque, and past a new park that replaced an abandoned asphalt plant. Then he takes me to see what he says is a million-dollar view of the Tobin Bridge.

"I photographed this bridge from so many different angles and I never get tired of it," he said.

Greene said what sees in Chelsea isn’t just his vision, it’s reality. He believes Chelsea is on the upswing. The 1.8 square mile city used to be known as the "junkyard of Boston". Now there’s hotel construction and new housing, plans for the expansion of the Silver Line and for FBI offices that promise to bring hundreds of new employees to Chelsea.

But despite all of this development, Chelsea is still one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, and it has its fair share of problems.

At the foot of City Hall lies Bellingham Square. As the center of Chelsea it's where the buses let off, and it’s less than a mile from a methadone clinic.

On a weekday afternoon, a man hands out free food in Bellingham Square to passersby, some of whom look strung out.

Dan Cortez started learning about Chelsea in May, after he was hired to help tackle the problem of substance abuse in the city. His position was created by Massachusetts General Hospital after a 2012 report found that substance abuse was the number one health concern for people in Chelsea.Cortez said that Chelsea’s problems are visible in Bellingham Square.

"Over the years, you know, I don’t know when it started, but it became a hub for all sorts of activity, of which one of them is drugs," he said.

One of those people concerned is Carolyn Boumila-Vega. She’s the co-director of a family services agency, which has a storefront window on Hawthorne Street, just down the street from Bellingham Square.

"Working here at this office, it can be ten o’clock in the morning and we’re seeing women and men literally falling over. Guys out there smoking marijuana, parents are trying to walk to the Early Learning Center, and they are walking through it, and its right out, we can get the smell into our office, I mean, it’s really bad," she said.

Vega said she hopes new development in Chelsea could help clean the streets.

"I would like to think its going to bring new blood to the community, hopefully people who will become invested in the community, not just people who are going to live here, go over the bridge to work, come back to sleep and that’s it," Vega said.

A 230 unit market-rate apartment building is going up near Vega’s house in Chelsea. She said she is looking forward to the increased security and streetlights she expects will come with the complex.

But photographer Joe Greene said people shouldn’t wait to appreciate Chelsea.

It has a little grit, it has a lot of heart, and it has a charm that goes back to the 1700s.

Chelsea is an old city, on a new frontier.