My first stop is Model ACE Hardware on Harvard Avenue, where the owner, Bob Webber, is also president of the Allston Board of Trade. Commissioned to address health and business-related issues in the city’s northwestern throes, Webber’s group has wrestled with heavy rat infestation since 2001, when he says the vermin began to appear in unprecedented numbers. “We’ve always had a rat problem in Allston,” says Webber, whose store stocks roughly two-dozen different rodenticide devices. “We have a very dense population here, so there are a lot of sources for rats to find food. But in the past year or two — with the city dealing with limited funding and resources — there’s no doubt that it’s been exacerbated.” Adds Webber’s saleswoman Elaine Powers, who holds up a 3”x8” back snapper: “I just sold one of these right before you walked in here.”
Education, commerce, green space, and taxes were secondary issues in the most recent Allston-Brighton district-councilor’s race, in which pests took center stage. During the final debate between incumbent Mark Ciommo and challenger Alex Selvig, the latter complained that, because of rats, parents are afraid to let their children play outside— to which the councilor replied that he has “the local rodent-control team on speed dial.”
“It’s quite clear that rats have been displaced by construction and vibration out here,” says Selvig, who, in his unsuccessful bid for office, mailed literature featuring a life-size picture of a rat, claiming that he would go to work on this public-health and quality-of-life issue. “There’s also been quite a bit of work in realigning the sewers,” continues Selvig, “and what makes everything worse is when they come out and find all the food they want.”
According to the director of sales at one of America’s leading rodent-control-technology companies, dormant work sites provide ideal opportunities for rats to build elaborate burrow systems and procreate rapidly — especially if there are ample food sources nearby (as there always are in urban areas). “It all comes down to conducive conditions,” says Mark Westover of Bell Laboratories. “All they need is warmth, food, and water.”
Considering the relationship between rodents and rubble, Downtown Crossing business owners complain that massive, prolonged construction projects have brought rats — especially near One Franklin Street, where the skeleton of Filene’s overlooks Boston’s urban Grand Canyon. That location, slated for a $700 million multi-use luxury facility, arrived at a sudden impasse one year ago this month.
A few miles away, many Allstonians scapegoat Harvard University for rampant infestation. Since the Cambridge-based school cracked open the 8.5 acre site of its future Upper Allston annex in early 2007, allegations of neglect have been leveled on Web sites, blogs, and message boards, and at community meetings by, among others, members of the aggressive Allston-Brighton Neighborhood Assembly. Advocates with that group say the connection is obvious: “It’s pretty clear that there were not a lot of rats in Allston [before Harvard construction began],” says assembly co-founder Jake Carman, who recently moved out of his Lothrop Street apartment that was just steps from the science- complex site. “Now I live in Brighton Center, and there’s no rat problem there.”