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Housing as History: Boston's Columbia Point and Commonwealth Public Housing

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Massachusetts Historical Society

1154 Boylston Street

Boston, MA 02215

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Boston has been a national leader in efforts to bring much needed public and affordable housing to its residents. However, the city’s housing legacy is as complicated as it is innovative. This four-part series will look at the history of six housing sites across the city and examine the conditions for affordable and public housing today, highlighting the challenges—and opportunities—that lie ahead for Boston.

Program 1: Columbia Point & Commonwealth

Wednesday, 2 October
5:30 PM reception | 6:00 PM panel

Location: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston Street

Panelists: Lawrence Vale, Ford Professor of Urban Design and Planning, MIT; Jane Roessner, author, "A Decent Place To Live: From Columbia Point to Harbor Point-A Community History"; Charlie Titus, Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation, Special Projects and Program, UMass Boston

In 1979, after touring public housing sites with deplorable conditions, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Paul Garrity ordered the Boston Housing Authority into receivership. Lewis H. (Harry) Spence was appointed as receiver. As Spence oversaw a massive redevelopment of the fourth largest housing authority in America, two very different housing models emerged: Columbia Point in Dorchester and Commonwealth in Brighton. Columbia Point was the largest public housing complex in New England and had once been a source of pride. However, a quarter century after it opened, it stood neglected, isolated, and mostly vacant. When it was redeveloped into the new community of Harbor Point, less than one-third of the resultant apartments were targeted to public housing residents. By contrast, Commonwealth remained 100% public housing. Nearly two-thirds of its original residents, many of whom had been deeply involved in the site’s redevelopment, were able to return to the site. This conversation will explore these outcomes, situating these redevelopments in the overall history of the Boston Housing Authority.

This program series is generously supported by Mass Humanities and the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.


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Massachusetts Historical Society

1154 Boylston Street

Boston, MA 02215

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