Foundation chief talks JP’s success and challenges

March 30, 2012
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(Courtesy Photo) Paul Grogan, president and CEO of The Boston Foundation.

As president and CEO of The Boston Foundation (TBF), Paul Grogan is one of Boston’s top policy-makers. He is also a Jamaica Plain resident who recently told the Gazette that JP embodies Boston’s urban revival, while now sharing its challenge of a shrinking middle class.

“[JP is] a uniquely special place in Boston because of its incredible diversity,” Grogan, who lives on Moss Hill, said in a phone interview this week. “I just wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

TBF provides tens of millions of dollars in civic grants each year and issues highly influential reports and policy recommendations about the state of Boston. Grogan has headed it since 2001.

He first came to Boston in the 1970s to work on neighborhood revitalization programs under former Mayors Raymond Flynn and Kevin White. At that time, he lived in a triple-decker on Adelaide Street in central JP.

In the 1980s, he went to New York City to head the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a major policy-making organization that heavily supports nonprofit community development corporations (CDCs). He returned to Boston—and JP—in the 1990s as a Harvard University official before taking the TBF leadership role.

That personal history and experience gives Grogan a broad view of how JP has changed along with the rest of Boston.

“Centre Street was a very sort of dreary, dark, kind of forbidding place in the 1970s,” Grogan said.

He said a “signature impact” of TBF in JP is its ongoing support of the local CDCs Urban Edge and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, which were major factors in reviving local housing and businesses.

“The neighborhoods are so strong now that people forget what terrible shape the city was in in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said, recalled the boarded-up buildings and trash-strewn lots. “It’s very hard to find those conditions in Jamaica Plain.”

But today, many residents express concern about JP being a victim of that success, with high housing costs and debates about gentrification. TBF this month released one of its regular Boston Indicators Project reports on the state of the Boston economy. It described many strengths, but also a shrinking middle class—a demographic squeeze JP appears to feeling, according to U.S. Census data.

“That’s a challenge,” Grogan said, while also downplaying concerns about gentrification.

“The urban crisis [of 40 to 50 years ago] was brought about by the departure of people and wealth from the city,” he said. “I’m not going to be the first to complain that some of that is coming back.”

He said the biggest current challenge is not housing—“It’s the lack of confidence in the [public] schools.”

Grogan noted the pattern of couples moving to the city, having children, then moving to the suburbs when school age arrives. While Grogan’s family has stayed in JP, he acknowledged that his three sons went to private schools.

“It’s a problem in every major American city,” he said. “It’s a hurdle to having a strong middle class.”

But JP remains in good shape. “There’s obviously great strength in the neighborhood,” Grogan said, noting how well it weathered the recent recession.

He noted such assets as an “urban section” and a “suburban dimension” in one neighborhood; a large amount of park space; and the “ease of getting anywhere.”

And there is JP’s famous ethnic and class diversity. Grogan said his sons played in JP’s youth baseball leagues, which are among the most diverse local institutions.

“It benefited them enormously,” he said, describing how it created a “comfort level with people who are different from them.”

Grogan is slated to be the target of an honorary comedy roast April 4 at Roxbury’s Whittier Street Health Center. The roasters include JP resident Larry DiCara, a prominent attorney and former Boston city councilor. The ceremony will be opened by another prominent JP resident, Rev. Ray Hammond of the local Bethel AME Church, who is also a former TBF board chair.

For more information about TBF, see tbf.org.