Created by Simon Purdue and Savita Maharaj



Universities in the United States have become synonymous with expansion, displacement, and development. As higher education opens itself to an increasingly global market, research opportunities broaden, and investment increases, institutions are increasing their physical footprint onto the communities they exist in, expanding at an almost uncontrollable pace.1 Urban university expansion comes at the expense of local communities as displacement often has a racial element, disproportionately affecting poorer communities of color.2 A prime example is our own campus, Northeastern University, founded in 1898 in Boston Massachusetts. Northeastern University has been continually expanding into Lower Roxbury, a historic Black community, since the early 1970s, despite its original intention as being a commuter school. As time progressed, Northeastern University expanded into a national research institution.

This exhibit explores Northeastern University’s continuous expansion into Lower Roxbury looking at questions of agency in these communities. More specifically, this exhibit delves into how underserved communities like these are able to challenge expansion projects and resist relocation and gentrification. Additionally, the exhibit looks at how institutions transition into these areas, exploring what efforts are made by the universities to appease and integrate with the community.

YMCA building on Huntington Avenue beside the quadrangle of Northeastern University,” Northeastern DRS, 1943, Photograph.

History of Northeastern University

Northeastern University has been spreading almost exponentially since its initial move out of the Huntington Avenue YMCA building in the late 1920s.3 As mentioned before, the university acted as a commuter campus for residents of the greater Boston area for the majority of the twentieth century, utilizing most of the land it owned as parking facilities for staff and students. Only the current core of the campus, situated between Gainsborough and Forsyth Streets, was home to any major institutional buildings up until the late 1980s. However, throughout the 70s and 80s, the university continued to buy land in the Fenway and Kenmore area, spreading its sphere of influence beyond the Fens Parkway. Some of the land purchased was used for further parking facilities while the majority was used for early student accommodation. Local community groups strongly resisted this expansion, opposed to the increasing student population in the area, housing prices impact, and lastly neighborhood reputation. The agency and resistance of these community groups were enough to halt the university’s development and spark discussions at the institutional level.

Whitney, Charles, Boynton, George W, “Map of the town of Roxbury: surveyed by order of the town authorities,” Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, 1843, Map.

Since the 1990s, Northeastern’s stopped any further development in the Fenway and Kenmore neighborhoods and instead shifted their focus to the Northeastern’s new long-term development plan where they would move into the Lower Roxbury area and the Southwest Corridor.4 Northeastern’s plans for their Roxbury expansion were initially much broader and more invasive than what they had initially planned for Fenway, partially because they expected less resistance. Including plans for a 15,000 seat stadium along Columbus Avenue, a sports medical center, and multiple multi-level car-parking facilities, ‘Parcel 22A+’- a land package stretching between Whittier and New Dudley Streets- was seen as the prize goal for the university. Although the plans for the stadium and sports medicine center fell through, it did bring about significant development beyond the Roxbury town line. The purchase of Renaissance Park from the City of Boston in 2000 - followed by the later development of International Village and the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex- marked the beginning of Northeastern’s expansion towards Tremont Street and into Roxbury, and has caused consternation among community groups who see the growth of the university as a cause of gentrification. With more students now living in the Roxbury area, housing prices are rising and local communities are being priced out of the neighborhood which many have called home for years.

History of Roxbury

English Puritans founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, establishing its headquarters in Boston, which was known as the City on the Hill. After European colonizers wiped out the indigenous population living there, the Puritans established several towns, including Roxbury. Roxbury has changed a great deal from when it was first founded, originally including Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury. As time progressed the population of Roxbury began to change from upper-class Yankees to Irish immigrants, later shifting to having a largely Jewish, Scandinavian, Italians, and Latvians population in the 19th century. In the early 1990s, the Black and Caribbean populations began moving into Roxbury. As the Roxbury Historical Society says, “The free Black community that took roots on the north slope of Beacon Hill in the 1800s left Beacon Hill and moved to the South End, then Lower Roxbury (“in town”) and finally throughout Roxbury, especially “the hill” the highland area south of Dudley Square”[v]. The Roxbury community flourished and in the 1960s -1980s. The population mainly consisted of Black people, who were pushing forth grassroots activism that centered on community equality and power. Faced with urban renewal, segregation, and racial injustice, many activists have been looking for equality, and unfortunately, many of the same problems plague our community today.

Rodnell P. Collins and A. Peter Bailey, Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm X, 1998, Photograph.

Northeastern’s Expansion into Roxbury

Roxbury residents had been conscious of Northeastern’s encroachment into their community from as early as 1976. As this was noted in the December 1st issue of The Onyx- a student newspaper which styled itself as “the black student voice of Northeastern.” An article entitled ”Northeastern has contracted Urban Paranoia” argued that the university was pursuing racist policies both in its day to day actions and expansion policies, considering the institution was “spread(ing) across the black community occupying valuable land, which could be used for community purposes or housing.”5 The university lacked the concern they had for the Fenway-Kenmore community for the Roxbury community. Clearly shown by the ability of the predominantly white Fenway-Kenmore community groups to successfully challenge and halt Northeastern’s expansion, compared to the inability of predominantly Black Roxbury residents to do the same. It is indicative of the racial biases and ingrained discriminatory policies that have plagued African-American urban communities throughout the twentieth century. In addition to redlining, urban renewal programs, relocation, and clearance, the spread of institutions into Black communities demonstrates the continuing ways in which society has deprived these groups of their agency.

The Northeastern Onyx December 1, 1976,” Northeastern University, 1976, Photograph.

The Northeastern Onyx December 1, 1976,” Northeastern University, 1976, Photograph.

Community Impact

The “Northeastern Crossing” opened to the public in September 2015, as one attempt to ease the transition of a major institution into local communities. The project claims that its primary goals are to:

“Elevate the voices and visibility of Boston’s neighborhoods, particularly Roxbury, Mission Hill, Fenway, and the South End, provide greater access to resources at Northeastern University for Boston residents, and be a platform where Boston residents and the Northeastern University community can convene, interact, and learn from each other.”6

“NU Crossing Image,” Acella Construction Agency,  2015,  Photograph.

Harmon, Elise, “NU Crossing Image,”  Huntington News, 2015, Photograph. 

Northeastern Crossing aims to offer some sort of co-operation and agency to community groups; hoping to better integrate Northeastern with its neighbors, providing economic opportunity, and framing the spread of the university as having a positive impact on these communities. Northeastern also has free educational programs for community members in an attempt to build a bridge between the community and the university, promoting an “open door” reputation that removes hostility and instead fosters a sense of unity and co-operation, challenging the institution’s negative reputation.7 Although, the effectiveness of the program is yet to be seen and does little to counter the gentrification, which is perhaps the most damaging result of the university’s expansion, seeing that it increasing property values, and driving many residents further from amenities, transport, and jobs.

Very little can be done to counter the worst impacts of institutional expansion. The effects of gentrification are too far-reaching and deep-seated to be stopped. The forced relocation of community members and businesses, the displacement of local families, and the sacrifice of community gains are just a fraction of the negative impacts university expansion has on local populations, and it is no coincidence that black communities are disproportionately affected. The rise of modern city universities only continues the deeply discriminatory urban planning policy that has plagued African-American populations throughout the twentieth century.


1 P. Balaram.‘Higher Education: Globalization and Expansion’, Current Science (2008) pp. 1229-1230.

2 Sisson, Otero Jordan.‘Hospital Tower Ushers In New Era At UConn Health’, The Hartford Courant, (2016)

3 Simon Purdue, Brittany Costello, Ian King and Rachel Schrottman. Northeastern and its Neighbors

4  “Northeastern Development Plans Office of Physical Planning and Design Records”, Northeastern University Archives.

5 C. F. Kennedy.‘Northeastern has contracted ‘Urban Paranoia’’, The Northeastern Onyx (1976) p. 11.

6 “About Roxbury.” Roxbury Historical Society.

7 Northeastern Crossing Mission Statement, Northeastern City and Community Engagement.


Cannon, Katie G. “Jots and Tittles: Dotting Every i, Crossing Every t.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 16, no. 1, 2000, pp. 97–101.

C. F. Kennedy.‘Northeastern has contracted ‘Urban Paranoia’’, The Northeastern Onyx, 1976, p. 11.

Hayden, Robert C. "The African-American Business Tradition in Boston," Trotter Review: Vol. 8: Iss. 1, Article 3. 1994.

Harmon, Elise. “NU Crossing Image.” 2015. Huntington News, Photograph.

Northeastern Crossing Mission Statement, Northeastern City and Community Engagement.

“Northeastern Development Plans Office of Physical Planning and Design Records”, Northeastern University Archives.

“NU Crossing Image.” 2015. Acella Construction Agency, Photograph.

P. Balaram.‘Higher Education: Globalization and Expansion’, Current Science, Vol. 94, No. 10. 2008, pp. 1229-1230.

Rodnell P. Collins and A. Peter Bailey. Seventh Child: A Family Memoir of Malcolm X. 1998. Photograph.

“About Roxbury.” Roxbury Historical Society.

“The Northeastern Onyx December 1, 1976.” 1976. Northeastern University, Photograph.

Simon Purdue, Brittany Costello, Ian King and Rachel Schrottman. Northeastern and its Neighbors

Whitney, Charles, Boynton, George W. “Map of the town of Roxbury: surveyed by order of the town authorities.”1843. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Map.

“YMCA building on Huntington Avenue beside the quadrangle of Northeastern University.” 1943. Northeastern DRS, Photograph.