MIT and Central Square's growing pains aren't especially uncommon.
"There are a number of very elite institutions in large cities in the United States — including Columbia, the University of Chicago, apparently MIT, University of Southern California — that really saw the neighborhoods around them deteriorate in the 1970s and '80s in particular," says Richard Lloyd, gentrification expert, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, and author of Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City. "Part of the response to that was for universities to adopt these very fortress-like mentalities. . . . It creates, among other things, a real antagonistic relationship between the university and residents in adjacent neighborhoods that were not part of the university — a peculiar version of town versus gown."
Many universities have attempted to overcome this animus through conscientious planning.
"Hyde Park [home to the University of Chicago] has gentrified an incredible amount since 2000," Lloyd says. "Part of that is because the university has strategically been promoting amenities, such as markets, bookstores, and other entertainment amenities that we associate with gentrification. So they've worked hard to spur that, to make the surrounding community more attractive to upper-middle-class residents and safer for students and for their parents when they come into town.
"Institutions like universities play powerful roles to promote gentrification," Lloyd says, "especially when you get these kinds of tech partnerships, such as has happened with Stanford and Silicon Valley."
In addition to spiffing up the environs of powerful academic institutions and the private sector, gentrification also indirectly benefits those who lived in the neighborhood before the influx of cash. "If you happen to be a homeowner, it means you have equity that wasn't there before," Lloyd says. "Your services have probably improved. You may benefit from increased safety — the police may be ramping up their services in order to protect the affluent, white residents that move in, and they may accidentally have to protect poor black people, too, and poor black people in poor neighborhoods are not well-protected by the police."
But often, once a neighborhood sees its stock portfolio rise, its less-affluent population suffers. "They can find that lots of new stores that open up are either too expensive or don't have goods they're inclined to want, or just make them feel unwelcome," Lloyd says. "Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist, talks about this as 'symbolic violence.' It's a lot better than real violence, but it's still this kind of sense that your claims on space, your way of life, are comparatively devalued as a consequence of the change."
Although MIT students who live in Central Square likely can't afford to eat at many of the new, more expensive restaurants, their presence isn't alienating to them. "At the moment, [they] don't have tons of disposable income, but they're united with more affluent residents in their preferences for certain kinds of consumption amenities that aren't going to be interesting to other groups that might have occupied the neighborhood," Lloyd says. In other words, Central Square may be "going away from a place that has lots of stuff that caters to working-class Bostonians, or Haitian immigrants, and toward a place that's interesting to MIT students and upper-middle-class tech professionals."
So, are universities' gentrification efforts ever successful? "Part of it is what you characterize as successful," Lloyd says. "If success is that you displace poor people, then yes."