Mary Ellen Ehrenreich by Luke DomsHousing

Mary Ellen, a former art teacher of Meridian Academy, is a resident of the Egleston Square neighborhood, and someone who interacts with the square with varying degrees of frequency. She has three daughters, two of which are grown up and out of the house, and a third who is adopted and in high school. Her husband is a teacher at Boston University, and currently she holds no main job, but goes into the hospital every week to teach kids how to paint, in addition to a smattering of other commitments. She is a part of a local group that works to better their community, via methods such as picking up trash or protesting unjust local foreclosures. Overall, the places she tends to hang out at are not located in Egleston Square, typically opting to frequent places in Jamaica Plain instead. However, living not two blocks from the heart of the neighborhood means that over the years she has had to engage with the community in a myriad of ways, and is quite familiar with the area.

In order to acquaint me with her perspective and understanding of the area, we would walk around Egleston, and she would talk to me about her experiences there. At first I was somewhat discouraged to find that I would not be able to really observe her in some kind of natural routine, just as she would typically go about her life, however in certain ways gaining this overarching perspective from the way she described her previous encounters and experiences in the neighborhood was more valuable. A comprehensive image was slowly able to form in my head of who Mary Ellen was in relation to the square. In addition to this image of the individual, a comprehensive image was beginning to form in my mind of an entire class of people, one that I am a part of, that might be best known as gentrifiers.


A theme that kept coming up throughout our meetings was a desire for so called engagement, or interaction within Egleston, and with its residents. Much of our conversation revolved around her explaining to me, and to a certain extent justifying, why she does not often choose to buy from local businesses. Her perspective on the matter is that most of the businesses are not really catered toward her interests so it makes more sense for her to shop elsewhere. More generally, she feels as if there is a prevalent culture in Egleston Square that she either cannot figure out how to become a part of, or feels she is not welcome to join. She divulged this information quite early on, when we were talking about local businesses on the main street leading into Egleston. It seems that most of the places that she feels more comfortable going to are newer places, such as a bar called The Gate that recently was opened in Egleston by someone who owns another restaurant in JP. This distinction drawn around a “prevalent culture” native to Egleston was made many times over the duration of our meetings, and is important to understanding the duality of the mindset of the gentrifier. This duality is exemplified by a simultaneous desire to become engrained in the community that is becoming upended as a result of gentrification alongside a resulting discomfort and, at points, fear experienced as a result of the upending. There is an attraction and repulsion inherent within this dynamic that is intriguing.


So, starting at the beginning of this assertion, why is it that people are attracted to the neighborhood, or at least express interest in interacting with it? At one point in my walk with Mary Ellen we passed a Dunkin Donuts, and she exclaimed that although she doesn’t necessarily like the coffee all that much, she still will occasionally buy some from there for the sake of community interaction. This was a pretty vague assertion, and it seems counterintuitive to buy from a place simply because of their location. Although no concrete answer from Mary Ellen was elicited for that question, it seems like the general public consciousness might have a role to play in this phenomenon. Gentrification is a controversial process, but generally tends to be looked upon negatively, not only by native residents of affected areas, but also somewhat ironically by the white liberals responsible for it. People are often aware that local businesses being bought out and people being forced out of their properties so that their land can be sold to developers is, to a certain extent, their fault, which naturally leads to some guilt about the process. Perhaps this is what lies at the root of Mary’s vague interest in engaging with the local businesses in Egleston, as it can be construed as showing some form of financial and figurative support for the locals of the area most affected by, in essence, the gentrifiers presence. When walking by this Dunkin Donuts, we came across Jamie, a local resident who knows Mary Ellen. He is begging for money along the road at the time, and proceeds to strike up a conversation with Mary. He addressed her formally, and explained that he was in need of money for a medical procedure. Mary acts surprised, and gives him five dollars. As we walk away, Mary exclaims that was one of the people she had told me about before. Jamie and another man named Wayne currently have a sort of tacit agreement with Mary Ellen that if they go to her house, and she has any work at the time that needs to be done, like stacking firewood or some analogous task, then she will pay them to do it. Their living situation is uncertain currently, but it is pretty likely that they are both addicted to drugs, and it's quite obvious that things are rough for both of them. I would not be as brash as to say Mary feels some kind of guilt for their addiction as a result of her stance in the neighborhood, because that is ridiculous, but it is another example of a way she tries to engage with the neighborhood in a way that could be viewed as helping out, which was interesting.


In addition to these more subtle examples, there are the more obvious instances of a desire to reduce the effects of displacement that she relayed to me. For example, she is active in a group comprised of individuals within Egleston that tries to improve the neighborhood in a myriad of ways. One such way is by protesting unjust foreclosures on people’s house by showing up at the house and creating a chain to block people from entering it. This works, as one might expect, for about a day, and then the foreclosure goes through. We had a conversation about how many people really only care about social issues while they are still a spectacle publicly, in an effort to display how keyed in they are to pressing social issues, but are nowhere to be seen once the initial hype dies down. There is real meaning behind these protests, because the cause is important, but the end result is pretty much always nothing because after people have felt like they contributed, they don't follow up on the issue. Mary seemed pretty aware of this phenomenon, but uncertain of how to go about changing it, and as a result, feels like at least going is better than doing nothing at all.


The aforementioned examples and analysis get at the desire to interact and be a part of the community, but what about this simultaneous repulsion that was referenced earlier? This was a theme that was prevalent a lot in my meetings with Mary, and something she was pretty explicit about. This was evidenced earlier in our first longer meeting as described earlier when discussing storefronts, and why she rarely bought from businesses in the area. However, it came to light most clearly later when we were in the center of Egleston. Not only did she exclaim that she felt that there was a separate culture within Egleston, but while we were in the little area with the outcroppings of stone to sit on, she openly critiqued the culture she felt she observed as being disrespectful. It took some prompting to get her to admit this, as her prior statements were somewhat vague on the matter, but eventually she vented that she didn’t understand why “poverty had to come with disrespect,” while motioning towards a box intended to hold books for public use that had its door ripped off. Hearing this statement from someone who actively engages in protests against housing foreclosures, offers temporary housing to undocumented citizens, and acknowledges racism as a prominent systemic force at play right now in our country was pretty disorienting. However, this quote really spoke to the ways in which, as humans, it is easy to occupy two states of mind at once, getting back to the duality referenced earlier. It is not uncommon for individuals to blame problems plaguing black and Latino communities on supposed cultures of violence perpetuated by members of those communities, a position which eerily harkens back to Mary’s statements about a culture of disrespect that she felt was somewhat pervasive in the area. When viewed from both of these perspectives, a complex image of Mary Ellen starts to develop. There exists this element of violence that she tries to link to culture, but that occurs alongside this pretty genuine interest in the neighborhood, and in making it better for people there. It seems like there is a certain degree of confusion, and at points hopelessness, around how to achieve this great community for everyone, maybe partially because of these conflicting sentiments, which is prevalent in her character.