No April Fool’s: JP’s responses to census questions won’t count for the real neighborhood

April 2, 2010
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Radio and TV commercials and government officials the past month have been broadcasting widely that placement of traffic lights, schools and most other services in neighborhoods will be affected by people’s response to US Census questionnaires.

The cover letter that came with the questionnaire says: “The amount of government money your neighborhood receives also depends on these answers.” The problem is, in Jamaica Plain—and all Boston neighborhoods—that’s not quite correct.

Responses of residents in Forest Hills and Woodbourne will influence the amount of money Roslindale receives.

Everyone who lives between the Orange Line tracks and Franklin Park from Green Street/Glen Road to Egleston Square will be counted with Roxbury.

As an added surprise, most Mission Hill residents’ information will be included with what’s left of JP’s.

Huh?

Good question. The answer lies with the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) census data map of Boston, contrived in 1967, when it was even then inaccurate, for pre-digital-age ease of analysis of data from the census bureau.

Like anything technical that hasn’t been updated since 1967, the BRA census map is in desperate need of revision. First, the quasi-city agency sees only 17 neighborhoods (including the Harbor Islands) where the City of Boston itself recognizes 23. Second, it chops up the real Boston neighborhoods willy-nilly.

Most of us picture JP as the roughly oval-shaped neighborhood it is—according to the United States Postal Service and just about everyone else, including the BRA’s own, different, zoning map. But the BRA’s census map called “Jamaica Plain” is a tall rectangle stretching from the Casey Overpass at Forest Hills along the South/Centre/S. Huntington corridor to include Mission Hill in the north.

According to the BRA’s census map, the Jamaica Plain Police Station and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation are in Roxbury. The land included in the extensive BRA-led JP community planning process for Forest Hills, according to the authority’s “other” map, is in Roslindale. But Mission Church is in JP.

This bad map underlies and infects every service and resource Jamaica Plain residents need. Data from this bad map not only forms the basis for city planning and services, but also gets passed on to state and federal agencies, as well as other researchers.

Want to know about foreclosures in JP? City stats are wrong about those and all housing data as it applies to neighborhoods.

As JP residents worry about the Boston Public Library (BPL) deciding which branches to close, based partly on how many libraries are in the neighborhood, they need to know that, according to the BRA map the BPL is using, the Parker Hill Library on Tremont Street is in “Jamaica Plain.”

When the Boston Public Health Commission determines health service needs for JP, the illnesses it looks at belong to people in Pondside, Moss Hill and Mission Hill but not Brookside, Parkside, Forest Hills or Woodbourne.

BRA and City of Boston officials have been aware of this problem for years. They don’t voluntarily tell the public or individual agencies about it. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council and state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez have asked them to redo the map. Claiming neighborhood boundaries are “subjective” and comparing current data to previous decades would be hard, the BRA doesn’t want to fix the problem. The City of Boston has said it doesn’t care, either.

At least one local non-profit has to use staff time and energy to analyze the raw census data for JP and nearby neighborhoods, so it can responsibly report on reality to funders and constituents.

Yes, JP residents should certainly fill out and send in the census questionnaire, despite the current bad map.

But they should follow up by telling every government official they can find they want to be counted as living and using services in the real Jamaica Plain.

Sandra Storey

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