Third Annual JP State of the Neighborhood Forum Discusses Problems Opportunities
BOSTON/Jamaica Plain - In a neighborhood as diverse—and vocal—as Jamaica Plain, it’s not surprising the wide assortment of problems and opportunities discussed at the third annual State of the Neighborhood Forum.
Everything from bus routes, to the rising cost of housing, to crime, to composting came up at the event Tuesday night, which centered around a panel discussion with state representatives Jeffrey Sanchez and Liz Malia, and city councilors Felix Arroyo and Matt O’Malley.
For the range of concerns, the event was notably amicable, with discussion focusing mostly on shared causes, and community speakers in a mix of English and Spanish inciting rousing applause and appreciation from elected officials.
Between 250 and 300 attendees gathered at Kennedy Elementary School to watch the panel discussion, and then break into small groups to brainstorm ideas. The event was organized by Jamaica Plain Forum, Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, and Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, and sponsored by several local businesses and nonprofits.
Aside from the main conversation in the school auditorium, a big focus of the gathering was simply to mingle with other residents and make connections.
As for the elected officials’ contributions, it was a mix of consolation, commitments to take action or collaborate, and in some cases encouragement for citizens to organize and lobby the rest of the state and federal governments.
That’s because, while some of the issues discussed involved community-based solutions, many were indicative of larger problems in Boston, in Massachusetts, or even nationwide. Common among those recurring concerns—income inequality and government revenue.
Among the issues discussed were:
One of the most-often celebrated recent achievements discussed at the forum was the success of the Egleston Farmers Market, which organizers said started from discussions at previous State of the Neighborhood Events. The market focuses on bringing the diverse, but often separate, communities of JP together.
Dan Bensonoff, urban agriculture activist, addressed the panel and audience about the potential to take such urban food projects further.
“We’re finding ourselves in a huge ecological crisis. We’re confronted with a changing climate that is forcing us to reassess and reevaluate the way we think about food and lands,” he said. “Currently our food system relies heavily on fossil fuels, for pesticide, fertilizer and transportation. Not only that, there’s a huge divide between producers and consumers.”
He encouraged better zoning to create more rooftop and community gardens and greenhouses, and to convert unused areas in schools and municipal buildings for local food growth. Another main initiative he raised was a citywide, curbside composting program in Boston, which he suggested piloting in JP. Such a service has many benefits, he said, including making it more affordable to rehabilitate soil contaminated with heavy metals.
Cambridge is currently starting up such a program, as have many cities across the country. Councilors Arroyo and O’Malley committed to file a hearing order on the initiatives and invited Bensonoff to bring as many people as he can to City Hall to start the discussion.
Members of the senior community, representing JP Elder Care Network, primarily made a plea for improved transit related to routes commonly used by seniors. Specifically, Marcelino Alvarez called for more affordable public transit, and increased service on the 41 bus line, which can have more than an hour wait and is commonly used by seniors. Speakers also called for resumed service of the 48 bus line, another once popular route for the elderly.
“That was the line that connected our community,” he said through a translator. “It went around the whole neighborhood, so for the elderly it was key to keep us connected with our community.”
On this matter, the elected officials could offer little short-term hope, but acknowledged the lack of revenue plaguing the MBTA, and the injustices it’s caused.
“We have a major problem in terms of funding the T,” said Representative Malia. “Transportation is one of the major areas we have to find a way to support. It is going to be very important that all of us work together to raise revenues this coming year. We can’t do it without all of us coming together.”
Teenage speakers from the Center for Teen Empowerment described their experiences growing up in JP, and the tremendous need for youth jobs and community centers. Carol Rogers and Andy Monsanto brought the crowd to its feet by telling their stories and ambitions for the neighborhood, imploring the elected officials to make youth programs a priority.
Rogers, for example, told the story of witnessing her cousin’s shooting, both the trauma it caused and how’s she worked in the aftermath to better her life and community. Monsanto discussed the importance of supporting youth jobs, and specifically asked the lawmakers to support initiatives that would allocate $16 million in funding. Last week, hundreds of youth activists marched to the state house in part to support such initiatives.
Officials were clearly moved by the discussion, with Arroyo citing youth issues as the reason he got into politics, and expressing outrage about the drastic cuts in federal funding. Representative Sanchez also sympathized.
“When I hear you guys speak I see a little of myself from that same time,” he said. “The thing that upsets me is that we’re still having the same conversations.”
Speakers from local businesses asked officials what they could do to improve the permitting processes, seeking more easily accessible resources. They also generally asked what they would do to improve the conditions for small business in JP.
Arroyo offered up the legislation “Invest in Boston” that he’s been pushing for years, and said he would get a vote on this year. The plan involves changing the way the city does its banking, by putting Boston’s $1 billion in invested funds only in banks that will make community loans for housing and small business.
Councilor O’Malley took the opportunity to encourage residents to buy local.
“If you spend a dollar at a big box store, five cents will go back to the community. If you spend a dollar at a chain store, 20 cents will go back to the community. If you spend a dollar at any of these great local businesses, 60 cents goes back into the community.”
Curdina Hill, with economic justice nonprofit City Life/Vida Urbana, outlined her organization’s current initiatives, which include post-foreclosure eviction defense, and working to keep people in black and Latino neighborhoods in their houses. They’re also working to combat the trend of investors swooping in following foreclosures, raising rents and throwing out tenants.
Elected officials said they’d continue to advocate for things like mandatory mediation, and getting banks to the table to negotiate before it gets to the stage of residents being dragged out of their houses.
Following the panel discussion, the crowd broke into small groups by issue, which mostly involved introductions, exchanging information, and freeform brainstorming around the topics from the forum.
For example, at the urban agriculture discussion, members lamented over the enormous cost of removing heavy metals like lead from soil, and the options for getting around the obstacle, whether raised beds or more costly investment in soil replacement.
And at the affordable housing discussion, residents addressed some of the most difficult and pervasive problems facing Boston residents today, as wages stagnate and working class citizens funnel an increasing percentage of income toward housing.
After the forum, Hill said that despite the wide array of backgrounds in the discussion, there was a lot of common ground.
“Everybody was interested in keeping the neighborhood affordable and diverse, and diversity meaning not just racial and ethnic, but income diverse,” she said. And as for the more challenging economic issues, such forums have value for both starting discussions and providing basic information to get people involved in the social justice movement.