On a grassy Grove Hall lot littered with makeshift campaign signs, activist Joseph Chevalier handed out campaign literature and hope: The city is changing, he said. In the first open mayor’s race in a generation, Boston’s long-neglected inner city has become the political battleground.
“I just have to now find a way to get this energy and maintain it,” said Chevalier, a Malden property owner who recently moved his family to the Grove to work with city youth.
But soon, he encountered voter Alicia Hopkins, who expressed deep cynicism. Yes, she will vote, but for a write-in candidate, rather than supporting one of the two finalists now showering Roxbury with attention. Both already hold public office, she noted. Where have they been all these years? “I think they’re just merely looking for the vote,” Hopkins said.
In Roxbury, a neighborhood rarely regarded as a political stronghold, voters are divided not only on their pick for mayor, but on their sudden status as a valued voting bloc in Tuesday’s election. While some see their prominence as a welcome sign that Roxbury is rising, along with new buildings in Dudley Square and property values in Fort Hill, others remain deeply suspicious of the candidates’ attentiveness and are wary of being used.
“If it weren’t for the election, we wouldn’t see them here,” said Ronald Gregory, 64, a retired cook at Tufts Medical Center, who lives in city-owned senior housing in Dudley Square. “You catch my drift?”
Since the preliminary, the finalists — state Representative Martin J. Walsh and City Councilor John R. Connolly — have repeatedly come calling, shaking hands in Grove Hall and touring businesses and barbershops, while mentioning endorsements from people of color in the hope that their allies’ credibility will rub off on their campaigns.
The two Irish politicians claimed voter-rich neighborhoods in their bases of Dorchester and West Roxbury, but neither won this neighborhood, where the vote is traditionally thinner, and where many black and Latino voters backed unsuccessful candidates of color in the preliminary election. As a result, the campaign has been unusually focused in the most impoverished areas of the city, where problems are endemic and voters have heard all these promises before.
Voters’ willingness to put their faith in either candidate seems to depend upon their vantage point and their readiness for change. Sure, it may seem opportunistic for politicians who need votes to focus on their neighborhood now, some say, but they can still seize the opportunity.
“We have to use those opportunities to put out our ideas about what we want to see happen in the city,” said Kalila Barnett, 33, a Roxbury native who is executive director of Alternatives for Community and Environment, a Dudley Square nonprofit, and who is leaning toward Walsh.
Dudley Square, already a congested transportation hub, is gridlocked with construction, as the city redevelops the old Ferdinand department store and adjacent buildings. After years of false starts for the square, the city is relocating the Boston School Department headquarters to the neighborhood and making a concerted effort to spur economic development there.
“Roxbury has experienced this renaissance of sorts,” said Tamika R. Francis, who spoke of her excitement about Roxbury’s prominence in the election inside Haley House, a hip cafe with exposed brick walls that has become a meeting place for local activists.
“They’re paying attention to what used to be almost neglected,” said Francis, who works for MOVE, a nonprofit that takes city children to local farms. “I’m hoping they recognize not just a trend, but an opportunity to pay attention to what the community’s working-class values are and what used to be the center of Boston.”
After supporting City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo in the preliminary election, Francis is now leaning toward Walsh, the candidate Arroyo endorsed.
“I believe in his [Arroyo’s] ideals, so I trust his judgment in going toward Marty Walsh,” she said.
Walsh’s campaign has been trying to capitalize on that currency, emphasizing the backing he picked up from three of the preliminary race’s unsuccessful candidates of color — Arroyo, who is Puerto Rican; Charlotte Golar Richie, who is black; and former School Committee member John Barros, who is Cape Verdean. Walsh’s campaign signs in the neighborhood show him flanked by the three, at one of two endorsement events he held that emphasized support from his former rivals.
Connolly, meanwhile, has been advertising his support from clergy and community leaders in the Grove Hall area. On Friday, he picked up the on-air endorsement of another unsuccessful mayoral candidate, Charles Clemons Jr., on TOUCH 106.1-FM, the unlicensed radio station Clemons cofounded. And Connolly was joined for a reendorsement by several other activists and black clergy members who prayed for him and said they would press him on his campaign pledges if he is elected.
“We’re going to hold him to his promises,” Clemons said, “because there will be no more broken promises.”
Some of those interviewed voiced uncommon criticism of the legacy of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, long a beloved figure in Roxbury, where he spent plenty of time and focused many city resources. The Menino administration has changed the face of the neighborhood, some said, but has not solved the more systemic problems of crime, inequality, and troubled schools at the root of it.
“Mayor Menino is trying to make Boston like New York City,” said Antonio Barros, a black laborer who is backing Walsh after supporting his cousin, John Barros, in the preliminary election. He and two neighbors on Highland Avenue in the Fort Hill area griped about their neighborhood’s rising popularity and new development. Proposed new townhouses will further squeeze the availability of on-street parking spaces, they said. Their street light has been out for years.
“We are not getting any government services,” Barros said. “We’re getting decisions made for us.”
Neil Poole, a radio host and Dudley Square barber, said his shop is losing business as construction squeezes on-street parking: “With the new development going in the neighborhood, it’s been a struggle to keep these doors open.”
Poole, who is supporting Connolly, questions whether city residents are even benefiting from all the new construction; he sees out-of-state license plates on cars that he assumes belong to the construction workers.
Likewise, some black Connolly supporters on Friday questioned whether the labor unions supporting Walsh’s campaign are inclusive to people of color. Unions not only in Boston but also from around the country have poured money into Walsh’s campaign, said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper.
“They’re going to come in and help him and go right back and leave us with what we have right now,” said Culpepper. “We need a mayor who has been with us all the way.”
Yet Melvin Carter, 29, a union laborer interviewed in Dudley Square where he was picking up his daughter, said he was a personal beneficiary of Walsh’s help.
Carter, who is black, said he had worked in a series of low-paying jobs, including at Dunkin’ Donuts. A year ago, Walsh helped him join Laborers Local 223 and “gave me a second chance,” he said.
Chevalier, the activist who moved to Grove Hall with his family, understands why some in the neighborhood are skeptical about the election. “This district has been largely neglected,” he said.
On Tuesday, he plans to vote for Connolly, but he is pleased with the energy coming from both campaigns.
“If either one wins, I’m happy,” he said. “There’s definitely going to be a change in the dynamics of the city and how it’s run.”
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.