Confronting parochialism stood out as a hot button topic at the inaugural public hearing of Boston City Council’s Special Committee on a Livable Boston, at Curtis Hall June 22.
Defining the mission of the committee in broad terms, Committee Chair City Councilor John Connolly said in a press release that, “We’re looking at the reasons people either stay or leave Boston. We’re looking at why so many people struggle with staying in a city they want to make home. Hopefully, by the end of this process, we’ll generate some real ideas to help people build lives in Boston for the long term,”
Speaking in more practical terms at the hearing, he said the committee would run a round of neighborhood hearings, collect ideas through a soon-to-be-running web site, and pick a few ideas to try to act on.
At the hearing, about 50 residents, mostly from JP, Roslindale and West Roxbury, expressed support for things like public safety, public transportation, quality schools and passable sidewalks.
But, in addition to nuts-and-bolts suggestions, some took the opportunity to explore larger issues of how Boston functions as a community.
“People think of the city in terms of the street where you live, the school you go to, the bus stop and the market you go to,” said West Roxbury resident Nancy Waters.
People think of their neighborhoods like autonomous towns, she said. ”But there needs to be a balance between the towns and the sense of the city as a whole…I have been shocked by the bubbles that some of us live in. This is a small city and we are fragmented.”
Others, including JP resident and Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council member Francesca Fordiani, agreed with that sentiment. “I think it is great we all have pride in our neighborhoods, but it can lead to parochialism,” she said.
“People in general only care about the park across the street from their house,” said Julie Crockford. Crockford is the director of the JP-based Emerald Necklace Conservancy—an advocacy group focused on the Emerald Necklace park system, which stretches from Franklin Park to the Back Bay neighborhood.
Taking the Necklace as a reference point, Crockford also noted that, “There is not equity in the way [city] services are provided.”
In terms of snow-removal, “Is Franklin Park in parity with Olmsted [Park] or the Back Bay [Fens]? Absolutely not,” she said.
Fordiani said the problem is that neighborhoods are competing for finite resources. “It’s like, ‘I don’t want to help you necessarily get your park maintained because I want to get my park maintained.’”
Speaking more generally about the provision of city services to different neighborhoods, Waters said, “We’ve got it ok in JP, we’ve got it ok in West Roxbury, but Mattapan is saying ‘its not ok for us.’”
Fordiani and Waters also complained about a lack of citywide development planning by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA).
“I think if you go into any neighborhood, people will tell you they have been screwed by the BRA,” Fordiani said.
“A lot of the vision thing is why the BRA is able to do what they are able to do,” Waters said.
One of the small-group participants, Lisa Link of West Roxbury, compared Boston negatively to her former home, Pittsburgh—a city that, she said, has strong parks and a strong library system. Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh because everybody loves Pittsburgh,” she said.
Roslindale resident Dennis Kirkpatrick made a plug for a project he said has been working on since last year’s Boston Civics Summit—a network of neighborhood associations.
The network would enable neighborhood groups to “share successes and break barriers down,” he said. There is more information about the network, the Boston Civics Exchange, at www.bostoncivicexchange.org.
Roslindale resident Laura Smeaton, who works with the group Rozzie Bikes, suggested, “Neighborhoods can be bridged on bikes,” citing a recent farmer’s market bike ride undertaken by that organization that traveled to markets in Mattapan, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain and Roslindale.
In an interview a few weeks after the JP hearing, City Councilor John Connolly, who chairs the Livable Boston Committee, told the Gazette that neighborhood fragmentation is “definitely a concern,” saying the issue had come up at the committee’s second hearing on July 14 in Dorchester as well.
“Through this process, we would like to find some ways to connect people through neighborhoods who feel there are barriers or have experienced barriers,” he said.
At the JP hearing, Connolly asked participants to attend the six other hearings planned throughout the city, and a few showed up, he said. “I am thrilled with that dynamic,” he said. “I would like to create a where people are coming to meetings regardless of the neighborhood focus.”
City Councilor and mayoral candidate Sam Yoon, who made an appearance at the hearing, praised the format—“a discussion among all in attendance”—as an “innovation.”
At the end of the hearing, local City Councilor John Tobin said he had taken three pages of notes. “It has [always] served me well to be a good listener, particularly to this community,” he said.
Tobin said some of his most high-profile initiatives—including a now stalled effort to get free wireless Internet service installed throughout the city and a successful effort to create a Boston poet laureate position—have come from JP residents.
Yoon and Connolly also praised JP residents for their tradition of civic engagement.
In addition to the hearings, Connolly’s office is building a web site to collect suggestions from residents about improving the city’s livability. The goal is to identify “a few good ideas and turn them into actions…either as city initiatives or by the city supporting a community initiative.”
Contacted b the Gazette in early August, staff members in Connolly’s office said the web site will be up soon.