Food, clothing, and shelter make up the holy trinity of basic needs. Yet even in the 21st-century United States, people struggle to find adequate housing that is within their means. For cities to thrive, they need to offer housing options for people of all income levels and household types. Those options also need to be in close proximity to jobs and a decent quality of life. As Boston struggles to meet this need within its tight 48 square miles, Gateway Cities already are equipped to lend a hand.
For centuries, Gateway Cities — roughly defined as older industrial communities such as New Bedford, Lawrence, or Holyoke — have offered immigrants a place to launch new lives and build on their aspirations for a better future. To these new residents, homeownership is an important first rung on the ladder of opportunity. Yet the abundance of amenities and housing opportunities that Gateway Cities offer still remains unknown to many.
The shape and form of these older cities are what all communities are striving toward: smart-growth, mixed-use, and pedestrian-focused for a multigenerational population. And they are a housing bargain: According to Banker & Tradesman, the year-to-date median sale price in Lawrence for a single-family home is $229,000 versus $3.24 million in downtown Boston. They are places where you can find work opportunities, invest in an education, meet friends for dinner and entertainment, raise a family, and rest your weary head at night.
I speak from firsthand experience. My family moved to Massachusetts from Korea in the 1970s. The city of Lawrence was our first home — and it allowed us to move from a small apartment to a duplex purchased with another Korean family in a brand-new subdivision. Although we eventually moved out of the city, without the opportunity to find that affordable apartment and home, we might not have been able to move past that first rung. I remain convinced that if not for my family’s ability to find a place where we could live within our means, we would have struggled. Instead, within that first generation, my parents’ four children have become professionals in real estate, engineering, urban planning, and education — the great American success story.
About 80 percent of the people who live in Lawrence work elsewhere. Jobs in Boston are being filled by people traveling from other communities, which means lower-cost cities within reasonable commuting distance are helping Boston meet its housing needs. What could go a long way to ease Boston’s housing crunch — and help Gateway Cities achieve their full potential — would be to increase investment in public infrastructure and transportation, whereby trains and buses could offer greater frequency of service, with stops that match journey-to-work patterns.
Because Gateway Cities have always offered a welcoming beacon to new immigrants, they are frequently seen as disadvantaged from a socio-economic standpoint. What the numbers do not reveal, however, is the beautiful diversity of people, the sheer goodness and generosity of residents, a coexistence of neighbors from absolutely every walk of life, and a can-do spirit born from years of overcoming long odds.
Those who are late to realize the beauty of Gateway Cities will have missed a great opportunity to be agents of change in a dynamic and innovative renaissance of old postindustrial cities. Their past glory is being reawakened every day, as new residents mix with old to shape and transform the cities of the future.
Kyle Nelson is an illustrator and art director at Stoltze Design.