Frank Shea began work as Urban Edge’s fourth director in its new office space on Columbus Avenue on November 3.
It is the fourth office space for Urban Edge. He is also the first director who did not come out of senior staff at the agency in its 41-year history. Proudly he said, “I am the first director born and raised in Jamaica Plain.”
Born in 1961 as a small boy living in the St. Thomas Aquinas parish on Rosemary Street he saw the razing of large chunks of Forest Hills for I-95.
“There’s really a lot of good people here (in Jamaica Plain),” said Shea. He spent some time talking about his prime emphasis as director. The good people of the Egleston-Jackson crossroads of Columbus Avenue-Washington Street and Columbus Avenue-Centre Street. He wants very much to connect them to each other, to their neighborhood and to the agency.
And Shea knows about how important it is for neighborhood residents to be connected to each other.
He remembers growing up on Rosemary Street in JP. It was a dead end street that faced the NYNH railroad coal yard. Shea remembers the old HP Hood Plant on Percy Street behind Fordham Court; refrigerated rail cars puffing up to the siding and clanking milk trucks pulling out at dawn across the community. This is now the Southwest Corridor Park. Shea’s father lived to see all these mighty changes; he died still living on Rosemary Street in 2005.
“My childhood defined the work I did,” said Shea. “A lot of it was in response to the Southwest Corridor. Watching the demolition.”
The place Shea knew as a boy would be transformed into a new place and as he said in a conversation with Jamaica Plain News, when he went to work in Providence it was a “place-based focused.”
In 1988 Shea worked at the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, which gave him the experience and insights to go to work at a small CDC in Providence, the Olneyville Housing Corporation.
The Urban Edge of 1974 when Ron Hafer opened up shop in a Centre Street storefront near the Jamaica Plain Baptist Church is not dissimilar from the Olneyville Housing Corporation that Shea started working at in 2000; both were small, laser focused, resident driven agencies confronting economic and demographic change.
Interstate 95 and its feeder highways defined and divided Providence. Indeed I-95, a feeder highway, bisected where Shea and his family lived in East Providence. These highways also separated the Olneyville neighborhood from the business, financial and political districts of downtown Providence.
“Olneyville is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Providence,” said Shea. “It was the hardest hit area by the foreclosure crisis. A poster boy for foreclosure.”
“It was an early entry point for immigrants,” said Shea. “Today it’s 60% Hispanic. There are five Catholic churches with progressive, activist leadership. Our office is in an old Polish social club building. It was a forgotten neighborhood when I began in 2000. Its defining characteristics were the river and the mills.”
Then the river was rediscovered in 1998 by the Woonasquatuckett Watershed Council. Over the next few years they turned it into 9-acre waterfront park with a bike path. “This amenity was a game changer,” said Shea. “Between 2002 and 2008, 100-million dollars was invested in the neighborhood using historic tax credits. We bought several trouble properties that fronted the river and turned it into 60 rental and 20 homeownership housing.”
“But in 2004 to 2008 we were devastated by foreclosures. Property values shot up 450%. Outside investors came in and housing prices went from $75,000 to $575,000.”
Shea said Olneyville Housing Corp was formed by residents and is a “resident driven planning process. They wanted to define our work geographically. A comprehensive place… We wanted to focus on corner lots and the biggest nuisances. Highly visible, neglected properties. Other investment will follow.”
Buying and revitalizing abandoned and boarded up foreclosed homes has been the hallmark of the Olneyville Housing Corp since it was funded in 1988. Olneyville Square and Olneyville Village are two significant achievements during Shea’s 14 years as agency director. In his last year Shea worked on a $9 million project on seven foreclosed properties that have been built out into 36 apartments in 2-3 family buildings.
Talking about Urban Edge, Shea said, “We’re a real estate developer, yes. But the agency will work better when we’re able to build and sustain housing for a range of incomes.”
One of the lessons learned from the Olneyville triangle he wants to bring to the Egleston Jackson crossroads. “Our mission is pretty clear. The needs of the neigborhood come first. We have to be aggressive with opportunities.”
Shea is comfortable with and thrives from partnerships. OHC had many which supported each other; the Joslin Community Garden on Florence St., Safe Streets Initiative, Olneyville Unidos which works on voter registration, Olneyville Youth Council and the popular Neighborhood Circles.
Frank Shea is back on I-95. Now he’s part of a team completing the work to knit back a community amputated half a century ago for an ill-fated superhighway; what the interstate razed is being replaced slowly by a place again like the one he lived once in at Rosemary Street.
Reflecting on that Shea said, “CDCs are not doing work on this scale. We need private-sector partners. Jackson Square has huge goals. Its bigger than Urban Edge and JPNDC.”
Partnerships are what Shea wants Urban Edge most to build. Among the residents of the properties Urban Edge owns and manages under contract; with new properties soon to be built like Walker Apartments on Walnut Park; with the existing neighborhoods of the Egleston-Jackson crossroads and with its social housing and progressive housing colleagues. Frank Shea is coming back to his old home to be the Urban Edge Community Organizer in Chief.