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John Connolly determined to address urban ills

A sign of support stands near Warren Street, where candidate John R. Connolly talked about violence in the city and who is trying to do something about it — and who is not.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

A sign of support stands near Warren Street, where candidate John R. Connolly talked about violence in the city and who is trying to do something about it — and who is not.

Councilor John R. Connolly steps from his car at Humboldt Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, an expansive intersection in the heart of Roxbury with subsidized housing on each corner, save one. On that one, a vacant lot sits next to two hair salons in a brick building.

He quickly ducks down and into the garden level, Charlene’s Hair Salon, looking for the boss. It turns out she’s not there.

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“Tell her I came by,” he says before heading next door to Hair Kingdom.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, so only one woman sits under a hair dryer with her hair in curlers. Come back on a Friday evening or Saturday morning if you want to catch a crowd, Hair Kingdom owner Mamie Dorsey-O’Neal tells Connolly.

But since he’s here, she wonders something: “You know some architects?”

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Dorsey-O’Neal wants to relocate, transforming her nearby home into her business. So as soon as she has said her hellos to the mayoral candidate, Dorsey-O’Neal’s first order of business is asking about architects.

“Did you get the permitting done and all that?” Connolly asks.

“No, we need the architect,” she says.

“We can help you try and figure that out,” he assures her. “You have to start with the designs.”

He pulls out one of his business cards, writes on the back of it, says goodbye, and is out the door.

This, he would later say, is a business like so many others, woven into the social and economic fabric of the community. “She is employing other people, and her business is a community gathering spot.”

At the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Connolly starts walking and talking about economic development and job creation — and, even more crucially, wealth creation — in a neighborhood that has triple the unemployment rate of the rest of the city. This neighborhood, his camp says, “represents one of too many communities in the city that are facing high crime and a daunting income and equity gap.”

By strengthening schools, creating jobs, and investing in businesses owned by women and people of color, he says, crime will go down and safe and healthy neighborhoods will flourish.

“So often the complaints, very validly, are about too many liquor stores, too many check cashing operations, you know, not enough real small businesses, new businesses owned by women and people of color,” he says, mentioning florists, restaurants, and contractors. “And a whole series of jobs related to tech and the tech world,” he says, “and trying to bridge those connections between the neighborhoods and business downtown.”

To see where gaps in access exist, Connolly wants to commission a business disparity study his first month in office. It will be costly — he estimates more than $1 million — but necessary, he says, because “that’s going to open the door to change some of the red tape and regulations . . . the bidding process, how we prioritize contracts, how we could stress joint ventures.”

Nine-and-a-half minutes into the tour, walking down Humboldt and past Charlame Park Homes, he approaches Walnut Avenue, where a 101-year-old brick school building sits. When students walk into the Higginson-Lewis K-8 School, a backpack full of urban ills comes with them. The school’s academic performance has remained stubbornly mediocre, not deemed to be in such a state of crisis that it receives additional resources but far from blue ribbon worthy.

Connolly stops at the back of the school, where the new playground sits empty as class is in session. He grabs the black iron gate encircling the campus. “All right, so here’s the next obvious place why we’re on Humboldt. This school is really struggling . . .”

He stops abruptly to greet a custodian tidying up the schoolyard, giving the man a fist bump so he doesn’t have to remove his rubber gloves. Then, Connolly picks up where he left off, continuing down Walnut Avenue and with his pitch about education, the cornerstone of his candidacy.

“So, this school is really struggling. Yet, right up the street where my daughter goes, walking distance, is one of the best schools in the city,” he says. “They’re both serving roughly the same student population. They’re both serving a majority of children of color living in poverty, so why is one getting the job done and one isn’t?”

The answer, he says, lies in the administrative freedom and flexibility that the Trotter School, once a “turnaround” school, has when it comes to curriculum, hiring, budget, and the length of the school day. In addition to administrative flexibility, the state gave the district more than $22 million in school improvement grants to help “turnaround” schools, those deemed to be in such academic crisis that the state intervenes. Those are resources Higginson-Lewis doesn’t have.

“Resources are important. And there’s no doubt about it, money makes a difference,” Connolly acknowledged. “But the biggest piece is the hiring freedom and the curriculum and instruction freedom. The number-one thing they need is the ability to hire the teachers they know are going to get the job done in the classroom.”

Connolly is still talking about education almost 10 minutes later when he’s interrupted again, this time by a driver honking a car horn near the Warren Gardens housing development.

“Jamarhl, what’s up!” Connolly yells to Jamarhl Crawford, a community activist who recently started a sticker campaign for the District 7 City Council seat.

“You running for mayor of Boston or just mayor of Roxbury?” Crawford shouts back, jokingly.

“I’m running for Roxbury. You know that’s where my heart is,” Connolly retorts.

Crawford tells Connolly that he’s got a campaign trailer going up in Grove Hall. “I want your stuff in there,” Crawford says before driving off.

As Connolly turns onto Warren Street, the conversation turns to violence, collective trauma, and the previous night’s meeting to talk about both. Who was — and was not — in the room during those discussions, he said, is indicative of what’s working, and what’s not, in the city’s efforts to combat violence.

“I was there, law enforcement, grief counselors, outreach workers. Who’s not in the room? The schools,” he says. “Sorry to beat a dead horse, but why isn’t BPS there? It’s all connected. What are we doing to foster the connection on response and on prevention?”

Humboldt Avenue is part of a larger area that saw 35 shootings during the summer, nearly twice as many as during the same period in 2012. To make sure those numbers go down, Connolly said, there must be more communication between the schools and community. Schools, he said, need to talk to community centers and health centers, street workers and youth workers, police, and clergy.

“We talk about it, but we don’t ever actually do it,” he says. “We’re not willing to run and knock down brick walls to make sure” it happens.

Connolly is temporarily distracted by trash strewn in the grass near the stone wall along Warren Street. “You can find this crap everywhere in Boston, but particularly in our underserved neighborhoods. It’s gross.” He waves his hand at the discarded fast-food bags, soda bottles, and mini-liquor bottles called nips.

The two trash cans along this stretch of Warren Street are separated by about 500 feet. Connolly says he would like to see more recycling bins in city parks and next to all trash cans. He also wants there to be a deeper connection to the community, more civic leadership, so people take ownership of their neighborhoods.

But first, he said, there must be a culture shift in how local government operates, starting with increased listening. City employees must aggressively reach out to residents so more people become involved. He wants police officers knocking on doors and introducing themselves to residents, and he wants department heads keeping office hours in the neighborhoods.

The conversation returns to violence as he nears the Roxbury Mall, where Connolly campaign signs sprout from the grass. There needs to be a “a comprehensive plan,” he says, that connects people with city resources “so when a young person feels unsafe, there’s another way in which they feel connected to someone or some organization so they know they can go and get help.”

And yes, he said, there is a “resource dilemma” — which is to say, not enough — when it comes to police officers and youth workers. But, he said, there also needs to be better alignment of what’s already out there “to get the bang for the buck. These are as much an issue of communication and outreach and engagement as anything. We’re trying to empower individuals and then, in turn, empower communities.”

As the tour circles around to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the neighborhood’s business district, economic development comes up again.

“Right here, you have two things: super liquors and check cashing,” he says, passing a group of people, bottles in hand, leaning against a chain-link fence. “I’d like to see an entrepreneur center in Roxbury where we partner with a nonprofit and you create that sort of start-up space. Everyday you see people out here drinking who are very much struggling on the margins, but then you look at the business mix right there, and you get a good sense.”

The entrepreneur center, he said, would function as an innovation hub where ideas can grow into reality with technical assistance, and once the business is ready to flourish, the entrepreneur would receive storefront space in the area.

“We want to breathe new life into our neighborhoods and have new people come in,” he says, “but we also want to make sure that doesn’t come at the expense of lifelong residents being priced out.”

But how do you strike that balance between breathing new life into a neighborhood while preserving its original character?

“I don’t think there’s easy answers there,” he says, a phrase used more than once while walking. But it starts with the Boston Redevelopment Authority working to help come up with a plan that creates more workforce housing, affordable housing, and middle market housing. “And that means you need to reform the BRA in real ways,” he says.

The tour has lasted 47 minutes, and as Connolly waits to get in his car at Warren Street and MLK Boulevard, a Department of Public Works pickup rolls to a stop. Troy Rodriguez leans out the passenger window and asks to take a picture with Connolly, who then recognizes the truck’s driver, longtime friend and supporter Kenny “Juice” Johnson.

“You got Juice right there! You got the captain right there!” Connolly jokes. “What’s going on, Juice?”

“Man, I’m just running along with the man.” Johnson parks the truck and hops out, coming to greet his friend. “I wish they would’ve told me [you were going to be in the neighborhood.] I would’ve taken the day off.”

“I don’t wanna cost you the days work, man,” Connolly says.

“That’s all right. You worth it,” his friend responds.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com.
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