Growth and changes in Hub: looking back on the decade
Last 10 years saw political gains for people of color
News in the decade that began with 2010 was dominated by major political and social shifts local and national that have fundamentally altered both Boston’s landscape and American culture.
Nationally, the rise of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements demonstrated the power of social media to drive social change. The rise of Donald Trump to the presidency and the army of Russian internet trolls who sowed division and disinformation during the 2016 election underscored the possibilities and dangers of the new technology.
In Boston, booming real estate development mirrored national trends, with the increasing income and wealth disparities in the U.S. reflected in the steel and glass facades of 60-story, multi-million-dollar condo buildings towering over Chinatown’s working-class row houses.
As much as Boston’s built environment changed with new neighborhoods like the Seaport District and the so-called SoWa section of the South End, so too did the complexion of local elected representation, with African Americans having occupied the offices of governor, 7th U.S. Congressional District representative, Suffolk County Sheriff and Suffolk County District Attorney, and people of color for the first time holding a majority of Boston City Council seats.
Below are more highlights from the decade.
In Boston’s political scene, the decade could be characterized by the rise of the black woman as a political force. As the decade dawned, Ayanna Pressley became the first-ever black woman elected to the Boston City Council, winning one of the four at-large seats. As the decade got underway, Pressley became the body’s top vote-getter and then was joined first by Andrea Campbell — who wrested the Dorchester-based District 4 seat from longtime incumbent Charles Yancey — then by Lydia Edwards, who defied the odds to win in the predominantly white and Latino District 1, which includes the North End, Charlestown and East Boston.
With Barack Obama in the White House and Deval Patrick in the corner office of the State House, the possibilities for people of color to succeed in the political sphere seemed unbounded. The city’s political scene was awash with that sense of possibility when Mayor Thomas Menino in 2013 announced he would not seek re-election, bringing to a close a 20-year stint heading the city. Among the 12 contenders for the office were Felix G. Arroyo, John Barros, Charles Clemmons, Charlotte Golar Richie and Charles Yancey.
With black and Latino votes fractured, two Irish American candidates emerged from the preliminary: former at-large City Councilor John Connolly, backed by voters in his West Roxbury base, and former state Rep. Martin Walsh, backed by voters in his Dorchester base. While the black and Latino candidates were out of the running, they weren’t out of the race. The ex-candidates of color, as well as virtually all sitting black and Latino elected officials, backed Walsh in the race, helping him secure what was seen as an upset victory over Connolly.
When Donald Trump ran on a platform that was expressly anti-immigrant and overtly sexist and racist to eke out a narrow Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton, it appeared the political winds in the U.S. had shifted to the right. A year earlier, Republican Charlie Baker had begun his first term as Massachusetts governor, signaling a shift from the progressive-leaning administration of Deval Patrick. But Trump’s 2016 election signaled a shift far to the right of the socially-liberal-leaning Baker.
Rather than throw a damper on Massachusetts politics, however, Trump’s election appeared to fire up Boston’s progressive base. At no time was that more apparent than in the 2018 election that saw Pressley unseat long-time incumbent liberal Democrat Michael Capuano in the 7th Congressional District, Rachael Rollins secure an upset victory in the race for Suffolk County District Attorney and Nika Elugardo take out longtime incumbent Jeffrey Sanchez in the 15th Suffolk House district.
The progressive fervor carried over into 2019, when Boston voters for the first time elected a council that is majority women and majority people of color. This year also brought with it the first Latina elected to the City Council, Julia Mejia.
Fervor aside, elections in the 2010s were low-turnout affairs, with some precincts mustering less than 10 percent of registered voters. Among those is Boston’s Seaport District, a precinct that now has 7,907 residents and 6,026 voters registered, but in the 2019 preliminary municipal election had voter turnout of just 4.7 percent.
Real estate/community development
The Seaport is one of the city’s newest neighborhoods, and the highest-earning neighborhood as well, with a median income of $176,266 — more than twice that of the city as a whole. The neighborhood’s rise over the last 20 years points to a growing trend in Boston. The well-paid inhabitants of those gleaming glass and steel towers are 80 percent white, 10 percent Asian, 3 percent Latino and 2 percent black. Fifty percent of them live alone.
Much of the city’s building boom, which accelerated in the years since Walsh took office in 2014, has been in service of such residents, many of whom work in the city’s growing technology and financial sectors. The majority of the new luxury units that have altered the city’s skyline and streetscape are priced far beyond the reach of the average Boston-area household, even those earning the median family income of $69,000.
Early in his mayoral term, Walsh set an ambitious goal to build more housing both to accommodate the city’s growing population and to decrease pressure on rapidly-rising rents. The Walsh administration called for 69,000 new units of housing by 2030, 20 percent of which are to be affordable to a range of incomes (though just 9 percent for those earning 60 percent or less of the area median income). Yet, while real estate developers have exceeded the city’s benchmarks for production thus far, rents and housing prices have risen beyond the means of the average Boston family, leading to what housing activists say is a displacement crisis.
Towering above the city’s triple-deckers and row houses are the condominium towers that have altered the city’s skyline over the last 10 years — One Dalton Street, the Millennium Tower, the Mandarin Oriental. A 2018 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that 35 percent of the luxury units in 12 of the city’s largest, most expensive condo towers are owned by limited liability corporations hiding the identities of their owners, and 64 percent do not claim residential exemptions that would give their owners a lower property tax rate. Those findings suggested that rather than solving the city’s housing shortage, the city’s growing stock of luxury units is helping foreign nationals park their money in a safe investment.
Outside of the downtown and Fenway areas, in neigborhoods where building heights are restricted by zoning codes, residents have been facing pressure from developers slotting multifamily buildings into vacant lots or tearing down single-family homes to pave the way for more units. The indictment and conviction of a city worker for taking a bribe from a developer and the resignation of the city’s Inspectional Services Division chief in 2019 provided a window into the city’s tangled permitting process that has done little to slow well-connected developers.
Civil rights/criminal justice
The Ferguson, Missouri protests of 2014 that came in the wake of the police-shooting of Michael Brown sparked demonstrations against police brutality in Boston and other cities major and minor across the country. The excesses on display in police departments across the country, and the trail of victims left behind, opened up a public conversation.
Although Boston hasn’t seen protests directly related to the shooting of an unarmed black man or woman recently, public scrutiny focused on the Boston Police Department after the American Civil Liberties union of Massachusetts obtained records of the BPD’s stops, searches and interrogations showing vast disparities between blacks, Latinos and whites. The department’s data dump proved what many had for years suspected: Blacks are disproportionately singled out for stops and often illegal searches by police officers. In 70 percent of stops, officers cited no reason other than “investigate a person” as a reason for stops and searches, a seeming admission that police were routinely stopping blacks without any reasonable suspicion — a clear violation of Fourth Amendment rights.
In other news, Boston police came under fire after the department’s liaison with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was found to have shared information about non-criminal cases that resulted in immigrants being taken into custody.
On a positive note, the department in 2018 named its first-ever African American commissioner when William Gross was appointed to the seat. The Dorchester-raised career cop worked his way up through the ranks during his 33-year career on the force and gained respect for his accessibility and hands-on approach to community relations.
With Rachael Rollins sworn in as Suffolk County District Attorney in 2019, Steve Tompkins leading the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and Kenneth Green serving as chief of the MBTA Transit Police, the top local law enforcement positions in Boston were all occupied by African Americans.
Efforts to expand the charter school movement and to increase funding for all schools were the major developments in the state’s K-12 education realm.
In 2014, charter expansion advocates suffered a loss when the state Senate blocked legislation that would have lifted the statewide cap on charters, which limits local spending on the privately-run, publicly-funded schools to 18 percent of a school district’s budget. In December of that year, the now-defunct New York-based charter advocacy organization Families for Excellent Schools kicked off a $26 million ballot campaign to lift the statewide cap on charters.
The push ultimately failed, with the state’s teachers unions providing the bulk of the $14 million spent to defeat “Question 2” and municipal leaders and parents mobilizing against the measure, which lost with 62 percent of voters voting against it in November 2016.
The push to increase state funding for K-12 education — district schools and charters — began in the early 2010s as municipal leaders and school officials saw state education dollars dwindling. The state’s funding formula had not been adjusted since it was set in the 1993 Education Reform Act, which didn’t anticipate the increasing share of state funding going to charter schools and the rising costs of employee health care and educating English language learners and special education students.
In 2002, state education dollars accounted for 31 percent of Boston’s K-12 education funding, but by 2018 that funding had dropped to below 10 percent.
In 2015, the state Legislature’s Foundation Budget Review Commission recommended increasing state school funding to account for the increasing costs of health care and the education of English language learner, special education and low-income students. It took another four years of pressure from education advocates and the threat of lawsuits from struggling school districts, but in 2019 the Legislature voted in a phased-in funding increase that will hike state spending on K-12 education by as much as $2 billion within the next seven years.