By John Lynds
Cooler heads prevailed Monday night at the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) sponsored community meeting at the Mario Umana Academy regarding the future of the Meridian Street Library building.
The emergency meeting was called following a contentious meeting between the designated developer, East Boston Community Development Corporation (CDC), and members of the Eagle Hill Civic Association (EHCA) . At last month’s meeting of the EHCA , residents felt their concerns were not respected by CDC head Al Caldarelli and the CDC’s partner on the project Frank Ramirez of the East Boston Ecumenical Community Council (EBECC).
While that meeting ended in a stalemate with some residents calling on DND to send the project out to bid, Monday night’s meeting had more civility. One of the biggest concerns among residents was the fact that the EBECC, who will be on the deed of the building, by its own mission statement services only Latino residents. Their role in the project as well as some of the other tenants has some residents concerned that the building would not be open to ‘all’ keeping with the spirit of DND’s original Request for Proposal period.
However, the four tenants of the building attended Monday’s meeting to set the record straight and show how their programs would be open to all Eastie residents.
First up was Ernani DeAraujo of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. DeAraujo said EBNHC would replace the Social Centers Day Care on the first floor of the library building that was first proposed by the CDC during the RFP process. DeAraujo said the Health Center would house its Let’s Get Movin Program, that helps young people that are clinically obese get healthy through nutrition, exercise and other activities. This program would include a test kitchen with programs and cooking classes open to the public. Also the concept is to have the area an open floor space so programming like yoga, meditation and circuit training classes can be offered to the entire community. There is also talk of an indoor farmers market during the winter months.
Next up was the Urban College of Boston (UCB). The UCB is an independent, co-educational two-year institution. UCB is chartered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to offer programs of study leading to the Associate of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education, Human Services Administration and General Studies. UCB also offers a range of certificate programs and continuing education courses. Again representatives said the UCB would be open to ‘all’ but according to the statistics they presented Monday night the UCB seems to target low income minorities with 76 percent being low to moderate income, 30 percent speaking English as a second language and 96 percent of the student body being minority. Also on March 1, 2015, the Federal Department of Education released the names whose federal aid it has restricted because of concerns about their finances or compliance with federal requirements.
Next up was EBECC’s Frank Ramirez who read from EBECC’s mission statement as an organization founded in 1978 to promote racial harmony and promote the advancement of Latino immigrants of all ages through education, services, advocacy, community organizing, and leadership development. Ramirez explained that the building is important to EBECC’s mission because demand and need for these services are growing as well as wait lists for these crucial programs.
However, some in the audience had concerns about UCB and EBECC as being geared towards one segment of the population. Eagle Hill resident Joshua Scott, who has been a vocal critic in the past about the plans for the library building, suggested that organizations like the UCB and EBECC should consider changing their mission statements before occupying the building so it includes helping to advance every nationality and heritage in Eastie.
Longtime Eastie activist Mary Berninger agreed and said, “If their stated mission statement is to support Latinos primarily, it might be time to craft a new mission statement that more broadly reflects what they told the audience tonight: that is, programs will be available to all.”
While the UCB and EBECC presentation, and parts of EBNHC’s presentation, were still met with skepticism by those hoping the DND sends the project back out to bid, the presentation by Veronica Robles of the Veronica Robles Cultural Center was met with widespread praise and admiration.
Many at the meeting felt Robles plan to have a multicultural art and dance studio should be the anchor business in the library that all other tenants base their mission on. Robles received several rounds of applause as she described her vision of using her Mexican heritage and love for the arts as a catalyst to bring the entire community together and showcase all the cultures in Eastie that make up the fiber of the community. Her programs would include community celebrations, salsa and other dance classes, cultural cooking events and other showcases and parties that would welcome and encourage the entire Eastie community to take part.
Robles’ presentation was so warmly received that many told the DND that aside from EBECC, Robles should also be put on the deed of the building.
In the end, the head of DND Sheila Dillon said the conversation is not over and the dialogue of how to make the building a gem in Eastie is by no means over.
East Boston CDC head Al Caldarelli addresses the crowd at Monday night’s community meeting as Boston DND Project Manager Reay Pannesi looks on.