Connecting Bowdoin Geneva: A Plan for Community and Commerce

Connecting Bowdoin Geneva was a Spring 2017 Main Streets Practicum taught by Karl Seidman and Mary Anne Ocampo which explored the planning process for Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets with the intent on creating a plan that would be respectful, responsive, and meaningful for the commercial district and nearby residents.

As graduate students who are keenly aware of the problematic history of planning in low-income neighborhoods of color and immigrant communities, we knew that creating a commercial district plan for Bowdoin Geneva would require more than gathering information and making recommendations. Our work had to consider power, politics, representation, and history.

Accordingly, we have confronted a range of complex dynamics with excitement, many iterations, and plenty of internal and external debate: how best to interact with community members; how to properly balance competing stakeholder interests; how to begin to fully account for the local dynamics of race, class, and immigration status. Throughout, we attempted to balance the desire for a plan informed by residents, community members, and business owners in Bowdoin Geneva with the complexity of planning and the goal of making specifi c, actionable recommendations. Our hope is that readers of this document will recognize those attempts to plan in an ethical and inclusive manner and our sincere desire to create a guide for a stronger and healthier commercial district.

We also imagine there will be questions about why certain things do not exist in this plan. This was another concern of our team — what would the scope be? What might — despite a clear connection with the life of the commercial district — necessarily fall by the wayside? We understand a commercial district plan as a tailored approach to addressing the economic and physical conditions of a unique place informed by the shared vision and goals of its many stakeholders. A plan should aspire to and help envision possible futures while remaining grounded in what can reasonably be accomplished. Plans achieve this balance by proposing recommendations that require various levels of time and resource commitments, from projects that can be completed immediately to others requiring significant investments and long-term stewardship.

Despite our fairly intensive approach in this regard, we also know a commercial district plan cannot fully account for all the infl uences shaping the life of the district, among them long, complicated histories and political and economic forces spanning far wider geographies than Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue, Dorchester, or Boston.

Commercial district plans are not comprehensive community economic development agendas or targeted strategies around job creation, wealth building, public safety, and education. In many communities, these issues are understandably at the forefront of residents’ concerns.

In Bowdoin Geneva, where public safety is paramount, we repeatedly bumped up against the boundaries of the plan when considering our recommendations meant to improve the current situation — largely physical interventions and proposals for organizational processes — and the many elements necessary to appropriately address the whole issue — among them good and dignified jobs, quality education, access to health care, and decriminalization. Yet recommendations in a commercial district plan can have significant public safety benefi ts, some of which, we believe, sit within these pages. This balance between the inability to entirely address a priority area for the community yet an ability to still have an impact was at the forefront of our minds across of this work.

Commercial district plans are also unlikely to completely balance the goals and needs of all their stakeholders. At times the priorities of these groups may, in fact, directly conflict with one another. These are tensions inherent in any planning process. While some interests might appear more represented than others, we hope you find that this plan adds value for the broad diversity of people who are invested in the district, from the barbers to the churchgoers, the medical providers to the property owners.

Before moving on to the meat of this document, we want to thank you for your interest and investment in this work. Proclaiming that this could not have happened without the community is trite but true; the ultimate test of its relevance and quality will be whether it is put to use — a process that requires far more work than the analysis and recommendations here. But if there is one takeaway that is not as well represented in this plan as we would like, it must be that Bowdoin Geneva is a highly capable community full of individuals deeply committed to its future. We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to work alongside you, and we hope this plan does your work and your investment in this community justice.