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Year 2020 marked by pandemic and protests

George Floyd murder kicked off wave of social change

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Year 2020 marked by pandemic and protests
Demonstrators lead a June anti-police violence march through Roxbury en route to the State House. BANNER PHOTO

When 2020 dawned, the coronavirus wasn’t yet considered a pandemic. A few experts  were eyeing it as a worrisome development in China. The first U.S. case wouldn’t be confirmed until late January. By March, however, much of the nation ground to a halt as local governments geared up for a fight against an unfamiliar adversary.

While the COVID-19 pandemic came to define 2020, the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd in May and the racial reckoning that came in its wake dominated headlines for much of the year as well, leading policymakers, business leaders and the news media to grapple with racial inequality in its manifold forms for much of the year.

The November election drew unprecedented voter turnout after a long and bitterly divisive campaign season.

Even as the year’s events shattered lives and drew out the worst and best in communities across the nation, local communities grappled throughout the year with typical issues affecting residents’ lives.

Here are a few of the issues that made news in Massachusetts and Boston.

Politics

The year was dominated by presidential politics, as Bostonians settled on Democratic nominee Joe Biden as the party’s greatest chance to defeat Trump. While Massachusetts is not a battleground state and thus is not a high priority for Democrats or Republicans, political activists and observers in the Democrat-dominated state watched with considerable anxiety as Republican-led states sought to restrict voting rights of African American and Latino voters, dropping many from voting rolls, closing voting locations and restricting early voting and mail-in ballots, and the president himself sowed fears with false predictions of widespread election fraud.

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (left) and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy. BANNER FILE PHOTOS

U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (left) and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy. BANNER FILE PHOTOS

A large majority of Massachusetts residents joined Democrats across the country in heaving a collective sigh of relief when Biden’s win was cemented during seemingly interminable late vote counts in November.

In state contests, at the top of the Massachusetts ballot was U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy’s challenge of incumbent Sen. Ed Markey. The race dominated the state’s political scene, drawing contributions and political talent some argued would be better put to use in the battleground states where Democrats were battling the Trump campaign.

In the end, the Markey campaign’s push to cast the incumbent as the progressive choice in the race seemed to prevail, with Markey winning among voters of all age groups.

Mayor Martin Walsh swears in the most diverse City Council in the city’s history in January at Faneuil Hall. BANNER PHOTO

Mayor Martin Walsh swears in the most diverse City Council in the city’s history in January at Faneuil Hall. BANNER PHOTO

In the state Legislature, the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus gained new members. Among them were Springfield City Councilor Adam Gomez, who secured a state Senate seat, knocking off an incumbent senator, and Brandy Fluker Oakley, who won the 12th Suffolk seat formerly occupied by Rep. Dan Cullinane.

Education

Schools in Boston and many other cities closed in mid-March as the pandemic emerged as a serious public health problem. Efforts to return K-12 students to in-person learning schools in Massachusetts became heated battles, at times pitting state education secretary Jeffrey Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker against local school districts in cities and towns with high COVID infection rates and teachers unions whose members feared for their safety.

Boston Teachers Union President holds a joint press conference on school reopening plans after reaching an agreement with the Walsh administration. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

Boston Teachers Union President holds a joint press conference on school reopening
plans after reaching an agreement with the Walsh administration. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

While many suburban and rural school districts reopened in fall, along with private and parochial schools, public schools in major cities remained either partially or fully closed. Boston opened schools only for students with exceptional special needs, accommodating fewer than 2,000 of its more than 50,000 students. Like other districts with large numbers of Latino and Black students, the city struggled with high rates of COVID infection in the communities where most of Boston Public Schools students live.

Tellingly, a national survey of parents released in December found that among black parents, racism and COVID were the top two concerns. Among Latino parents, racism was their sixth highest concern and COVID their eighth. Among white parents, however, neither racism nor COVID ranked in their top 10 concerns.

Parents at Boston Latin School demonstrate against a proposed one-year change in the admissions policy for the city’s three selective admissions schools. BANNER PHOTO

Parents at Boston Latin School demonstrate against a proposed one-year change in
the admissions policy for the city’s three selective admissions schools. BANNER PHOTO

For the first time in more than 50 years, Boston’s three selective admissions high schools will not use entrance examinations for next year’s entering classes. City officials cited unsafe conditions for administering standardized tests to large numbers of students in the midst of the COVID pandemic. During the one-year reprieve, students will be admitted by grade point average, with special weight given to students from low-income zip codes.

Business

Black- and Latino-owned businesses struggled during the pandemic. While a majority of their businesses were unable to secure federal Payroll Protection Program funding, local efforts such as the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA) Greenwood Challenge and the Business Equity COVID-19 Equity Fund gathered nonprofit and for-profit entities together to provide assistance, raising millions of dollars.

Black bars and restaurants banded together to form the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition to advocate for relief as their industry was pummeled by limitations on indoor dining and limited space for outdoor dining.

Real estate development

Although the city ground to a halt in March, with Mayor Marty Walsh prohibiting construction in the city for several months,  Boston’s overheated real estate development scene didn’t remain quiet for long. One of the largest development projects to move forward this year is the Nubian Ascends proposal, a Black-led project that in December won Boston Planning and Development Agency approval to develop commercial, cultural and culinary space on the Blair Lot in Nubian Square, currently a surface parking lot. The proposal also includes artist housing and parking.

An aerial rendering of the Nubian Ascends project. COURTESY PHOTO

An aerial rendering of the Nubian Ascends project. COURTESY PHOTO

Still in play in Roxbury are Parcel 8 at the corner of Harrison Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and the Nawn Factory on Washington Street, adjacent to the Eliot Burial Ground.

A profusion of smaller projects moving forward in Roxbury and Dorchester have continued to put pressure on neighbors and neighborhoods. At 52 River Street, neighbors appealed to Mayor Martin Walsh to halt a four-story building abutting their back yards and blocking their sunlight. After a months-long pause, the project was permitted to move forward over neighbors’ objections.

That same scenario has played out throughout Boston’s neighborhoods as developers push for greater density and higher profits over the objections of abutters concerned about loss of parking, increased traffic, rising housing costs, and loss of neighborhood history and character.

Looking to 2021

As a new year dawns, many are pinning their hopes on COVID vaccines to vanquish the virus and allow the economy, schools and civic life to reopen.

In local politics, Walsh, should he decide to run for reelection, will face challenges from City Councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, both of whom have been raising funds and building organizations to challenge the two-term mayor.

Their expected departure from the council to run mayoral campaigns, and that of District 6 Councilor Matt O’Malley, who will not run for reelection, could mean at least three council seats will change hands in a campaign season that will likely see higher than normal turnout for a municipal election.

Should the vaccines succeed in restoring a modicum of normalcy to civic life, Boston will see schools, restaurants, theaters and museums reopen. But Bostonian families have experienced a wrenching year of remote schooling, remote working, online shopping, virtual meetings and performances and family gatherings canceled or taking place over Zoom and other online platforms.

In the coming year, Bostonians will find out to what extent life will return to normal, if at all, and whether changes brought about by the pandemic response and the groundswell of racial justice protests will have lasting effects.

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