Despite the cloudy day and sporadic cold gusts of wind, Olivia Ehrenreich Marks sat at the outside seating section of Ula Cafe to drink her tea. To combat Boston’s frigid and blustery spring weather, she wore a grey knee-length coat and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. As a 20-something returning from a months long trip to South-East Asia, one would think her recent adventures abroad would be the main topic of conversation. Instead, Olivia talked mostly of her childhood and teenhood.
This was due, in part, because of my own connection to that part of her life. My brother, Dustin, was a member of the close JP friend group that both he and Olivia had been part of since they were kids. I would often here snippets of stories from my brother, but it fascinated me to hear about those stories from Olivia’s perspective. For starters, Olivia grew up in the Egleston neighborhood, a section of JP that, as Olivia stated once, was often called “Jamaica Spain” due to its prominent Hispanic population. Save for one person, most everyone else in Olivia and Dustin’s close knit friend group lived in other parts of JP. This made Olivia’s stories about her childhood differ slightly from the ones I had heard from Dustin.
In the time we spent together, Olivia would often talk about how she had to convince her friend group to hang out in “her side of JP.” They were often wary to because they thought it was “super sketchy.” Although Olivia remembered that she felt fine to walk home by herself (often refusing an escort from a male friend), she did understand why people thought that way about her neighborhood. She remembered always having to be aware, which felt draining at points. She remembered how she was the one of her friends who was put in a self defense class by her mom when she was 8. But despite these things, Olivia loved growing up in Egleston, and when asked about her favorite aspects of the neighborhood, she didn’t seem to have a lack of things to talk about.
She loved being able to hear Spanish on the streets and especially being able to speak the language and engage culturally in that way. Along with Hispanic culture also came the good food, the music, and generally a different atmosphere.
A lot of the conversations during my observations with Olivia were centered on how much Egleston, and JP as a whole, changed from before she went to college until after. Some of these changes were for the worse and some were for the better. For example, although by the time of late teenhood her other JP friends had grown more accustomed to Egleston and would even sometimes seek out her house as a place to crash late at night, there was still a sense of discomfort for her friends in Egleston. She felt this had changed when she returned from college. As she said her friend Sienna, the other Egleston resident within their JP friend group, put it, it wasn’t as scary to walk home at night anymore. There was an influx of wealthier, predominantly white people who “couldn’t quite afford Brookline, [and so] settled for JP.” With them came nicer parks, more “Ula Cafe” types of places--the kind of JP that now “catered to everything that millennials look for.” But it also changed JP in negative ways, too, Olivia told me.
Olivia paused before continuing. She held her hands out, as if physically offering her explanation. She told me about how as she became older and JP started to change, there was a loss of cultural diversity in her neighborhood, and she noticed that brought more consequences for those not directly in her personal community. This became something that greatly concerned her, especially since her family and many of her friends all had the privilege, security, and wealth to still live comfortably in JP, but she knew that this was not the case for many in Egleston and JP.
When asked what she thought the future of JP looked like, Olivia expressed worry over what JP would become, but she also had hopes for what it could be. She hopes it stays, or becomes, more of an inclusive place, for both the residents that have lived in JP for generations, and for those who are moving into JP for the first time. She hopes that it stays a haven for artists and activists, which she believes is still the base of JP, but may not be why people are moving to JP anymore, as her parents did. Her parents moved sometime in the 1980s to JP because of the strong art scene and activism that came hand-in-hand (along with the cheapness of living at the time), but Olivia talks about how now people seem to move into JP for different reasons. They move in because they like the changes that have happened to JP; the nice parks, the coffee shops, the chic stores that Olivia had witnessed the arrival of along with the wealth.
As she told me this, she let herself pause to smile, gesturing past me to Mike’s Fitness, the small gym that also resided inside of the Brewery complex. She laughingly told me, “The Brewery used to be a shit hole and now people are like ‘Whoa, you go to Mike’s?’” She told me how Mike’s is a good representation of JP’s change over time, specifically how the influx of wealthier residents has influenced the businesses that have been in the neighborhood for years. With these wealthier folks, however, came more political capital. It was these things Olivia noticed in her later teen years, and more so when she came to live at home again after graduating from college.
Perhaps as an outcome of these observations, Olivia started working with the Boston Student Advisory Council, BSAC, with which she continued to work for even post college graduation. Through BSAC, even though she mainly worked in the section of BSAC that dealt with local environmental issues, she would often hear stories from people who lived throughout Boston who were evicted from their houses or moved since they couldn’t afford to live in their neighborhoods anymore due to the same causes that was making JP change.
The kind of experiential education Olivia received through working with BSAC seemed to be a very valuable piece of her teenhood and early adulthood. But by the time her one and half year contract was up for the job she took post graduation, Olivia was left with some essential questions that seem to face many 20 somethings, she jokingly acknowledged. She wasn’t, and still isn’t, exactly sure of one goal to set herself on. She currently is doing an array of things since she’s come back from a long trip throughout South East Asia, some of which include helping her mom prep for Kids... Together in the ARTS!!!, the arts camp her mother runs every summer, and working some evenings and nights as a waitress downtown, but she says she feels a lack of fulfillment, and she’s hoping she can figure it all out within the next year or so.