The grass of Blackstone Park on Friday morning was invisible under a layer of glassy snow-ice that had formed over the past several days of alternating winter and spring temperatures. Most people were dashing by the park, likely on their way to work,
We walked a few blocks over to a tall building of glass and cement. The Buddhists from the Peace Pagoda continued their song and prayer and when they were finished the group met to go over the details of their meeting. The building that stood behind them represents a real threat, one they’ve been fighting for a long time.
“I have deep concerns for the health of the children, for the community, for the whole world,” said Claire Carter of the Peace Pagoda.
This was it. This tall, imposing thing, set back a bit from the street, glass panels reasserting its modernity although it’s been left mostly vacant for several years. Nearby is a café called Biosquare and a little further than that is a City Convenience, the line of corner stores aimed toward college students.
The imposing building sits several yards from the street, behind a wrought iron fence. The lab was conceived as part of the nationwide response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the idea being that the United States was ill-prepared to research infectious diseases.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases (NIAID) awarded grants for two such labs, which when approved and opened, would study incurable pathogens like SARS, Ebola and anthrax. One of them sits facing the Gulf of Mexico on the coast of Texas, in a town of about 50,000.
The BU biolab, by comparison, is nestled in the middle of Boston, a city 10 times that size.
There are many questions that face the BU biolab, many of them going evaded and unanswered by BU representatives and health officials who are in support of the lab. In response to questions about potential spills other accidents, they have responded that these things are just too improbable to think about. At a community hearing over the summer, in response to a question about putting the lab in such a densely populated area, a public health official responded that there was no increased risk, because even people in rural areas go outside.
Although BU hasn’t heard the community’s outcry, the government has responded to the concerns. Public hearings and community organizing have slowed the lab’s progress. In 2008, the opening was pushed back because an independent review of the facility said that the NIH safety review had been insufficient to deem the lab secure for the study of such dangerous diseases.
This spring will mark a 10-year anniversary in the tense relationship between BU and the South End/Roxbury communities.
Ten years of resistance. Ten years of fighting back. Ten years of successful delays, but also 10 years of slow and diligent progress by BU to open the higher-level labs. Safety concerns have been voiced, and then addressed, at least to the satisfaction of the NIH.
But what Safety Net and the Coalition to Stop the BU Biolab and other groups as well as individual residents have expressed is that no safety review will placate them. Some have called this a “not-in-my-backyard squabble,” and though it reaches further than that (organizers are generally against the propagation of biological weapons anywhere, not just in their neighborhood), calling it a NIMBY argument is not, unto itself, inaccurate or diminutive. The tension surrounding the biolab, between a rich and powerful institution and the working-class neighborhood with a high proportion of people of color, raises questions about a neighborhood’s autonomy and their right to control their space.
I think few people would disagree that we each individually have the right to control our immediate space, generally speaking.
Of course, we make compromises, like when you’re on a crowded T. Likewise, does a community not have a right to say what’s going on in their neighborhood? Does the ability to foot the bill take precedence over the wishes and demands of the people who call those streets home?
With the most recent assessment by the NIH giving the BU biolab the green light, the South End and Roxbury communities are that much closer to housing a number of dangerous infectious diseases. And while the past 10 years have seen only a slowing and not a stop of the biolab, these organizers are not prepared to stop fighting.
“We seem to be at the 11th hour, or maybe a little after 11,” said Carter, “but it’s not 12 yet.”
Video from a 2012 Biolab hearing.