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Diverse Legacy

Blacks appreciate Menino, yearn for more

Mayor Thomas M. Menino talked with students at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester. Menino enjoyed strong support among minorities in a recent Globe poll.

Tom Landers/Globe staff/File 1995

Mayor Thomas M. Menino talked with students at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester. Menino enjoyed strong support among minorities in a recent Globe poll.

In Grove Hall, a once decrepit corner of Dorchester where Mayor Thomas M. Menino built affordable housing and a gleaming shopping plaza, most everyone seems to know him.

“I know him personally,’’ says one man, Bob Pittman. “He’s always asking me about me about my cigar.”

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“He’s a good guy,” says another, a retired police detective named George Bishop.

The mayor of Boston may be loved nowhere as much as he is in the communities of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, where minority residents adore him as a leader who speaks their language, who walked Bowdoin Street every Christmas Eve, chose to move police headquarters to Roxbury, and found millions for the renovation of the historic Strand Theatre, a major cultural landmark in Uphams Corner.

An astounding 60 percent say they have met him, according to a recent Globe poll, and his approval ratings among blacks is a full 9 percentage points higher than even the stratospheric 71 percent among whites.

Under his tenure, more than 6,000 new affordable housing units were built, neglected parks that harbored loiterers and violence now have swings and slides, and on Blue Hill Avenue, businesses thrive along with potted trees and plants.

“He does not make a lot of fanfare about the work that’s being done,’’ said Ted Landsmark, president of the Boston Architectural College, who became an icon in Boston’s racial violence when he was photographed in 1976 being attacked by an antibusing protester with an American flag. “But there is no African-American community in Boston that one can drive through today without seeing dramatic, positive physical changes.”

The Rev. Raymond Hammond, who first met the mayor dishing out meals at a shelter in Dorchester, said the black community has long appreciated the mayor for taking the time to listen to them and stay on top of their issues.

“He was there,’’ said Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. “He was there when their successes were celebrated. And he was there when people were crying and working through their difficulties whether it was violence or susbtance abuse.”

Still, after 20 years with Menino at the city’s helm, many also say they are disappointed in strides in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods — in education, in crime, and in jobs. Unemployment among the city’s black community is about 20 percent, according to the 2011 American Community Survey.

Blacks and Latino represent 77 percent of the city’s public school population, and 53 percent of the students are eligible for food stamps. Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, which have the highest concentrations of the city’s minorities, still feel largely neglected and misunderstood.

“I think that people have been complacent because things have been a lot worse,’’ said Lisa Martin, 34, of Dorchester, as she left a Walgreen’s store in Bowdoin-Geneva Thursday. “But from where I sit, things have not changed. When I walk through here, I still see boarded up housing. Crime in the area is increasing, even when crime [overall] is really down.”

She has a 3-year-old son and said she does not plan to enroll him in public schools, which she says are underperforming.

Bishop said that while he likes the mayor, he is disappointed that more blacks are not in command positions in the department he served for 28 years.

“The only fault I have with him is about the gains black people made in the city’’ since Menino took office, Bishop said.

In Dudley Square in Roxbury, where plans for major redevelopment have taken years to get off the ground, blacks were mixed about their views of the mayor, with some trumpeting his achievements and others saying he has not done nearly enough.

“Nothing’s changed,’’ said A.K. Kelly, a 20-year-old from Roxbury. “We don’t have any jobs.”

But Shenita Benjamin, 44, of Dorchester, said the mayor did what he could for the entire city. “He can’t do it all,’’ she said. “He can only do what he can do.”

Kevin C. Peterson of the nonprofit New Democracy Coalition, which promotes political participation in minority neighborhoods, said Boston’s black community supports the mayor but also feels let down. He said Menino’s administration has made promises to improve the quality of life in urban areas that have fallen short of community expectations.

“If you ask the average black person in the city, he or she would say that they have not been overwhelmingly positively impacted during his tenure,’’ said Peterson.

With the mayor’s planned exit, some say a door might be open for a person of color in the city’s top post. Boston has not had a viable black mayoral candidate since Mel King ran in 1983.

“I think it’s great that he’s leaving,” Martin said of Menino. “This is a great opportunity for a person of color to run,’’

At the corner of Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue, Theodore Hopkins, 73, placed a heavy package of water bottles on his shoulders and balanced his wobbly frame with a cane. He’s been watching Menino through the years. He’s devotedly watched mayoral speeches and gone to neighborhood events where Menino appears. He feels like he knows Menino personally and worries that when the mayor leaves, there will be one else to fill his shoes.

“He could have done better if everybody was with him,’’ Hopkins said, as he walked away. “No one can replace him.”

Robert Gavin of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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