“I’ve paid them over $250,000 in rent, been here twenty years, and this is how they treat me? A letter telling me I’ve got six months to leave? Some Christmas card.”
His name is John Brown. He’s a master woodworker, a maker of cabinets and furniture. “Them” is Tufts University, the owner and long-time landlord of 574 Boston Ave. Managed by Tufts’ rental agent Walnut Hill Properties, the space is currently home to over thirty small businesses, mostly artisans—woodworkers, metalworkers, fine artists, and instrument makers—many of whom, like Brown have been there for decades. In a letter dated November 30, Tufts informed all residents that “the decision has been made” to “renovate and repurpose” the building. They must all move out by May 31. Thus, right around the time when seniors at Tufts will be participating in their commencement procession, these long-time tenants will be participating in a forced march, just downhill.
574 Boston Ave, is hardly a stone’s throw from Anderson Hall, Tufts pristine Engineering Building. But the contrast is stark. For one, this giant building, full of professional designers and makers of things, has never been given a proper name, nor a sign. From the outside, the four-story, 96,000-square-foot building looks neglected, not like the shrub-snuggled bright brick buildings and white pillars on Tufts campus. Here and there a street level window has been punched out and replaced with particle board. Other windows on the upper floors are discolored yellow by water damage. Much of this window damage, tenants inform me, dates to when Tufts drilled holes in the roof to install a series of cell-phone towers, causing leakage.
Some have said 574 looks “abandoned.” And indeed, it was abandoned, as a factory space, decades ago. Upon buying up the building, Tufts first looked for a large corporate renter. But following the crash of the housing market in 1989, they settled on allowing dozens of smaller tenants to move in, creating over time —perhaps inadvertently—a community of artisans inside the old industrial shell. The post-industrial space now serves the existing tenants well, with large rooms, high ceilings, wide hallways, quality electricity supply, abundant natural light, and large industrial elevators between floors. To Tufts, the space has served as a source of reliable rent, to the tune of approximately $1 million per year.
But some would say that the most important resource at 574 are the people, the talents, and the rare and precious bonds that have developed between them. The very bonds that Tufts now promises to break.
“People help each other out in the building,” John Brown tells me, “If I need a metal part I go to Ricky. If I need a bracket, I go to someone else. There’s interaction up and down.”
Even late on a frigid Friday afternoon, inside 574 it’s warm, buzzing with life and camaraderie, with people making and moving things, and helping each other out. People joke as they pass in the hall, walk in and out of other’s workspaces without knocking.
Walnut Hill Properties representative Bruce Ketchan has stated via email that: “While many small businesses occupied space at this location, the building has never functioned as a ‘community of artisans’… Its principal attraction has been low rent, a model which is no longer sustainable as Tufts’ own needs increase.”
But while most of the businesses in the building are single-person operations, the communal, cooperative aspect of the work-space are everywhere apparent. “People help each other out in the building,” John Brown tells me, “If I need a metal part I go to Ricky. If I need a bracket, I go to someone else. There’s interaction up and down.”
Just inside the loading dock, I speak with Ricky, a metal worker who can’t be much over thirty. He’s been at the site for only around five years now, but often spends as many as 80 hours per week here, running a small shop that makes everything from tools to machine parts to bicycles. He emphasizes “the intrinsic value” of this place, where, in stark contrast to today’s “throwaway society,” people genuinely care about quality craftsmanship, about making things that last for people to use. He shares the irony of all the Tufts students he’s helped with engineering projects over the years, and talks of his relationships with local small businesses, how restaurant owners will come in needing him to make a part on the spot to keep their ovens working.
More broadly, Ricky discusses the ecological and social virtues of a working model where people share information and expertise, and where there’s no need to ship products across the world by plane to get them tweaked; you just walk them across the hallway. “There aren’t many places like this in the whole country left,” he says. Like many I talk to, Ricky laments how Tufts, supposedly an educational institution with a civic responsibility, doesn’t see the value here. “It’s right under their nose. But I just don’t think they care,” Ricky says. “All they see is a big money investment.”
“It’s bigger than just Tufts,” he adds, pausing to choose his words carefully. “It’s an educational-industrial complex.” Ricky then tells me how he grew up working-class in East Cambridge, watching Harvard and MIT do the same thing, buying up property and pushing the working and middle class people out of the neighborhoods. As Ricky breaks it down: “Tufts is getting somewhere around $10 per square foot on average as rent right now,” a figure that translates into more than a million dollars a year. But “if they put in some fancy windows and spruce up the place a little, they can probably get triple that from some biotech company.” As he says, “We live in basically the Silicon Valley of biotech.”
While clearly upset by what Tufts is doing, Ricky sees it as a product of “deeper, systemic issues.” Feeling “solidarity” with those who have been here for decades, like many, he’s already scrambling to find a new place for his shop.
Many tenants here are especially concerned about the financial costs and the disruption of the forced move. Brown says that with all the heavy equipment involved in his wood-working business, it could cost him as much as $10,000 to relocate, not including the lost business during the transition. Brown’s moving costs appear to be typical—another woodworker puts the figure higher, at $20,000—meaning that the total moving costs across the building will amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tufts has not yet pledged any financial or logistical assistance for these long-time tenants.
“They haven’t even said so much as ‘We’ll help you move,’” says Brown. “Not so much as offer a dumpster for the huge amounts of trash….It’s a real kick in the teeth.”
Another woodworker, who asked not to be named, tells me that “He can afford to move, or to pay rent, not both.” At least a half dozen others have decided to stop rent payments, to protest the eviction, or just because they cannot afford the cost of moving.
Currently, all the businesses at 574 are “tenants-at-will,” meaning that the either the lessor or lessee can terminate the lease at any time. Brown admits that Tufts may be within its legal rights. “But just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right,” he adds.
From his standpoint, it is an attack on the broader Somerville and Medford communities. “We don’t just work here,” he says. “We eat and shop and get our cars fixed here. We are local businesses and we support local businesses. We work local and buy local. They are planning to steamroll all that.”
Thus, despite Tufts legal position, John Brown feels like times are ripe for a fight. “People are tired of universities taking over towns and turning them into Disneyland,” he says. “Look at Tufts now. It looks more like a country club than a place of higher learning.” While it’s not labeled as a Tufts academic building, there’s much that area students could learn from visiting 574 Boston Ave: whether about community development, mechanical engineering, the human cost of economic “progress,” or the hidden life of their alma mater.
“Our door is always open,” Ricky tells me, and I head into the cold, back up the steep hill towards Tufts.
Joe Ramsey is a graduate of Tufts University and a resident of Somerville. He can be reached at [email protected]