By Peter Shanley and John Ruch/Gazette Staff
Growing up in Dudley Square in Roxbury during the 1970s and 1980s, Boston mayoral candidate John Barros said, other parts of the city seemed inaccessible to him. And though the city has changed, he said wants to do more to unite the neighborhoods.
“Boston did not feel inviting,” said Barros in a recent interview at the Gazette’s office, citing images of the busing crisis in South Boston as one example.
He said a lot has improved under Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration, but more needs to be done do away with the city’s parochialism. Barros said if he is elected mayor he would do that through improved transportation among neighborhoods and facilitating conversations among the city’s civic associations.
“We still need to open up more,” he said.
The hour-long interview also touched on Barros’ time spent as executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), the difficulties starting a restaurant in the city, being a member of the Boston School Committee and his vision for Boston.
Born to Cape Verdean immigrants in 1973, Barros said he was raised during the “height of gang warfare” in the city. He talked about how just walking to school was unsafe and having to worry about wearing certain colors and sports paraphernalia because they were associated with gangs. Barros said he knew so many “brilliant men” who “lost their way on the streets,” either ending up dead or in the correctional system.
Barros also discussed his involvement with DSNI, which he first encountered as a 14-year-old. DSNI is a planning and organizing nonprofit. He returned to DSNI as an adult after serving a short stint in the corporate world, saying he felt “a need to come back to the neighborhood.” Barros has been there for the past 13 years, working closely with Menino over the years and seeing the impact of municipal government.
Barros talked about his leadership of DSNI, which he said has 15 employees, an operating budget of $1 million and $6 million in assets. Among those assets are 1,000 affordable housing units, commercial space and parks, according to Barros.
Barros said DSNI has many collaborations and partnerships with entities in the city, such as with Project Hope, which attempts to lift families out of poverty.
“We have a big footprint,” he said.
Asked if heading an organization that covers Dudley Square is enough experience to lead the city, Barros replied he would put his record—in terms of budget, planning and development—against any city councilor’s. Five of his opponents in the mayoral race are city councilors.
“It’s amazing how little they’ve managed and how little outcomes they can put out there,” said Barros.
Asked about his vision for the city, Barros said there needs to be more comprehensive city planning with inclusiveness and benefits. He said Menino has done a “good job” of removing blight, but that that has to be translated into improved quality of life for people and families.
“Menino has set it up for us to do better community building,” he said.
Barros also said that the City has not been successful spanning the income levels for housing needs, saying the middle class has been left out. He said the City needs to have development without displacing the people who currently live here. Barros talked about creating a comprehensive regional housing plan that would look at spreading affordable housing along transit lines.
“Other communities need to share,” he said.
Barros said the City should to take planning away from the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) to ensure the public is more involved. He said there is “too much ambiguity” now, with an ever-changing planning process that leads to many interpretations and a “lack of integrity.”
Through his leadership of DSNI, Barros has had the opportunity to be involved with many development projects, such as the building of the Kroc Community Center. He said that project was able to be “highly participatory,” while still being expedient. Barros said that developers need to know what the process is, the time that it will take and what they will get out of it.
Barros has also interacted with the City through the permit process, opening a restaurant with several of his friends. The Cape Verdean dining establishment, called Restaurante Cesaria, was opened in Dorchester because they wanted to go to another neighborhood and be “entrepreneurs in that way,” said Barros.
Barros described a permitting process that sounded Kafkaesque, finding it difficult to find a department staff member who knew what they were talking about and being bounced from one department to the next. He said they were able to deal with it because they were not highly leveraged. They were also moving into a location where another restaurant had failed, allowing them to pick up where that restaurant left off, according to Barros.
He said the permitting process is as if the City is “holding the cookie jar, saying, ‘If you’re nice enough, maybe we’ll give it to you.’”
In addition, he knew some people within the City that helped him with the process. But, Barros said, most businesses don’t have those advantages and that, “As a city, we have to be more customer friendly.”
An issue that has and will continue to play a prominent role in the mayoral race is the Boston Public Schools (BPS). Barros is no stranger to that organization, as he was a Boston School Committee member before resigning to join the mayoral race.
There has been a debate whether members to the School Committee should be elected or appointed by the mayor. Barros wanted it known that he falls firmly on the side of appointing members. He said that is the best structure for a school district and it has proven true across the country.
He called the time on the School Committee “the most rewarding experience to date,” as there are very few things in life that the results can be seen from smiling faces in classrooms. Barros said that is what kept him going to meetings that stretched late into the night.
Barros said there needs to be more transparency and public discourse with BPS. He said an example of that happening was the External Advisory Committee, a group that helped form a new school-assignment plan this year. Barros said that that was a “solid process” with participation from stakeholders that yielded “innovative ideas.”
That was contrasted with the last year’s school-closing process, which was controversial in Jamaica Plain. Barros said that was “not a good process,” as data was not provided and there was no conversation.
“We learned from that. Hopefully, we don’t have a short memory,” said Barros.
The candidate also spoke about JP, saying he was a “big fan” of the neighborhood. Barros said JP “is a model of development and where we can go with our neighborhoods,” but also said that the neighborhood “needs to think about affordability and how to build the whole neighborhood together [and do more] community-building.”