Residents reflect on what it’s like to live with the highways in their backyards
The Somerville Wire recently received a Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grant, through the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute. This article is the second in a series about how roadways like I-93 and others in East Somerville have posed health risks to residents, many of whom are immigrants, people of color, or working-class individuals. Not only do highways present barriers, dividing East Somerville from other neighborhoods, but residents face the prevalent threat of air and noise pollution. Advocates have said that this is not an accident. Here is a look at how residents feel about the situation.
(Somerville Wire) – Residents living in East Somerville or by the Mystic River Development, better known as the Mystics, have to deal with the impact of highways on a regular basis. Interstate 93 and McGrath Highway pose safety risks, generate air pollution, and serve as walls dividing the city, and the neighborhoods affected by their presence are predominantly composed of multiracial and immigrant working class families. While politicians see the situation as an environmental justice issue, it is the residents who must struggle to live in the shadow of the highways.
Emily Vides is a union organizer who formerly worked as a receptionist, while her husband was a janitor who used to work for East Somerville Main Streets. She considers her family working class and has lived on Mystic Avenue since 2010. People living in her neighborhood are experiencing the burden of the highways in their daily lives.
“They had to build the highway someplace, so they put it in a poor neighborhood,” said Vides. “It’s right next to the river, so it blocks the river from use by people.” She added,
“To get to the supermarket, I walk down Mystic Avenue and have to cross McGrath Highway, so it’s a part of my weekly life. I have kids, as well. They’re old enough now to explore by themselves. One day, they went out, and I didn’t think I needed to tell them not to go certain places, because I thought they would understand that they shouldn’t be walking across McGrath or that part of Mystic. When I checked in with them, they were like, ‘Oh, I’m at Louie’s [Ice Cream]!’ I kind of freaked out, because it’s scary and dangerous to think of your children crossing a highway. That is what it is.”
Angie Mejia lives in the Mystics and works with the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership. She said that buildings nearest to the traffic are frequently dirty, explaining, “You see, just on the outside of the buildings, the ones that are closest to the highway are way dirtier than the ones farther. If you look at the river, as well, the river is really, really dirty. … Most people leave that area for cars. You don’t see people walking, unless they’re going to the convenience store or Stop and Shop. The truth is, people try to avoid it because it is somewhat unsafe.” People going to the grocery store usually tend to go by themselves and not bring their children, she said. Noise from cars frequently affects people’s sleep patterns. Mejia added that the neighborhood does not have the kind of care that other, more affluent areas, like Assembly Row, do.
“When the highway was first put up—I talked to some teachers who grew up here in Somerville, and they talked a little bit about the story, that Somerville used to be called ‘Slummerville,’ because Somerville was poor back then,” said Mejia. She added, “Now that Somerville is a city that has a lot of gentrification, a lot of people coming in, and bringing a lot of money, people are seeing these issues. Because of the way the highway is, the people who live around the highway are poorer than the people who don’t live by the highway. People are more aware of these issues, but some people ignore them, like, ‘It’s not my business.’ … These are working class people, and this is a part of Somerville where there’s a lot of diversity here. … What are we doing to protect the people who live around the highway?”
Candidate for City Council Stephenson Aman lives on Memorial Road in the Mystics, right by I-93, and he said that from his bedroom, he can hear the noise from the highway. He called McGrath Highway an “eyesore” and asked, “Why do we even have McGrath in our community?” He had several ideas for improvements that could be made to the highways.
“[After talking with City Councilor Mark Niedergang], I went into great detail about the highway, air pollution, and its effects on our community,” said Aman. “I would love to see the sound barriers get put up, first and foremost. Obviously, I-93 is here; it won’t be going anywhere.” He added, “Obviously, there’s taking steps and making safer cars, so that that would reduce emissions. Hopefully that would be better. Then three, trying to add more trees on Mystic Avenue and along McGrath Highway and I-93. I’m trying to figure out how we can get more trees along McGrath Highway, because there are literally none, whereas I-93 has a little bit more vegetation…”
Vides said that she would like to see the Massachusetts Department of Transportation held accountable and reflected on the injustices that she sees people in her neighborhood encountering regularly.
“A lot of what I talk about is the indignity of life on Mystic,” said Vides. “Every day is filled with a series of indignities. When it snows, and people don’t shovel, you have to walk on a state road with people going way too fast. When they do construction, and they don’t put the manhole covers back correctly, and people are going 50 miles an hour over it, it’s maddening. Just having a highway there, blocking the view of the river. Just that moment when you go under the highway at Shore Drive and go on the other side, and it’s so much quieter. Then you cross the street, and a car almost kills you. And that’s just Tuesday. My kids go to the Healey School, and they have friends who live in the projects. I don’t know many of their parents, but I know some of their parents. I’ve asked, ‘Have you ever called the City?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, I did once, but nothing happened.’ That’s the end of it, because that’s what you learn. You don’t have a voice, and your problems are not as important.”
This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.