The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
BROCKTON — A statue of the never-defeated boxer Rocky Marciano still towers 22 feet tall alongside the high school football field here.
Downtown, Marvelous Marvin Hagler stares out from a mural on Main Street, a few blocks from the gym where he learned to fight.
There are even remnants, here and there, of a shoe industry that a century ago powered hundreds of factories. They employed waves of immigrants who came to this city to build a life.
But lately Brockton — in earlier times known as Shoe City and the City of Champions — is making a name for itself in other ways. It’s a rare place that’s relatively near Boston ― about 20 miles south ― yet still affordable for middle-class home buyers. It’s one of the most diverse communities in Eastern Massachusetts. And it has a downtown where new buildings are going up, and new residents are moving in.
All of it points to a resurgence for this long-struggling city of about 95,000, close enough to Boston that many residents commute north each day, but with a culture and orbit all its own. The comeback has been a long time coming. But as it begins to take place, many people say, care must be taken to make sure current Brockton residents ― not just newcomers ― are part of the turnaround.
“We’re building all this housing, and it’ll change the landscape. How much is it going to change the culture?” said Kimberly Zouzoua, a Brockton resident and nonprofit executive. “We do want to change somewhat. We want to be more progressive, more upscale establishments. But we can’t push out the people in our community who have given and lived their lives here.”
In some ways, Zouzoua herself is an example of the change washing through Brockton. She moved to the city about 20 years ago from Medford, in part to raise her two sons someplace where, as she put it, "They wouldn’t be the only people of color at their school.” Now her sons call it home. One has “Brockton” tattooed on his arm.
In recent decades, the city — long populated by Irish and Italian immigrants and their descendants — has become home to many Black families, often drawn by the chance to buy a house for far less than they could in Boston. That trend has accelerated lately; a recent study of mortgage data by MassINC found that the number of Black home buyers in Brockton tripled from 2011 to 2017, and that nearly twice as many Black families bought in Brockton as in Boston, which has seven times the population.
New immigrants have come, too, with growing communities from Haiti and various African nations, as well as from Cape Verde. With about 19,000 first- and second-generation Cape Verdeans, Brockton has by some counts the largest Cape Verdean community in North America.
That diversity shows up in the aisles of Vicente’s, a popular supermarket near downtown that stocks everything from plantains to Portuguese rolls to giant bags of rice stacked against a wall. It shows up in the schools, too, where 44 percent of students speak a language other than English at home.
And it’s shaping Brockton’s image of itself, said Mary Waldron, a former city economic development official who now heads the Old Colony Planning Council.
“We are no longer the Shoe City. A lot of young people who live here don’t know who Rocky Marciano is. There’s a lot to be said for our history, but my hope is that we talk about the future, too,” Waldron said. “We are a gateway for a lot of people.”
People like Scarlee Marseille. The 27-year-old and his family immigrated from Haiti about 20 years ago. While a student at Brockton High School, Marseille said, he got interested in computer hardware, designing better screens for MacBooks and mobile phones. In college he launched a startup and spent his afternoons and evenings at a WeWork in Boston trying to build a company.
In the early days, Marseille made the commute to find connections and a startup vibe that he couldn’t get in Brockton. Lately, though, he’s been finding more collaborators closer to home, among creative people like himself who don’t come from the well-trod innovation pathways of Cambridge and Boston.
“We lacked infrastructure and opportunity. But we created a community first, of likeminded creatives who are trying to tackle tough challenges,” Marseille said. “Now we’ll be able to justify building that infrastructure here.”
To Marseille, that means not just incubators and co-working spaces, but also coffee shops and restaurants — places to mingle. It’s crucial, he said, that those places look and feel like the people who call Brockton home today. Together, they can create critical mass for the city, turning it into more than a satellite for that bigger city to the north where he used to work.
“In five or 10 years,” Marseille said, “I like to think that when people talk about going downtown they mean downtown Brockton, not downtown Boston.”
That’s also what city officials have in mind.
Under a former mayor Bill Carpenter, who died last year, and the current mayor, Robert Sullivan, who was elected in November to replace him, Brockton and its Redevelopment Authority have put a number of city-owned buildings and parking lots downtown into the hands of new developers, offering an array of tax breaks to spur construction.
That strategy has generated about 400 new apartments, said Planning Director Rob May, with 700 more in the works. There’s a parking garage, named for Carpenter, that just opened downtown, and a handsomely redone headquarters for the office supply company W.B. Mason, the city’s most prominent homegrown business. The goal, Sullivan said, is the sort of full-service downtown that will draw people 18 hours a day.
“My hope is the sort of development that brings people here. Some of them will live here. Some will work here,” he said. “After COVID is through, we’re working on more restaurants, more coffee shops."
The efforts are made easier by an essential asset: the train. Ask developers what stands out in downtown Brockton, andm across the board, they mention the MBTA’s commuter rail. The 35-minutes-or-so ride to South Station is a quicker trip than to many places closer to Boston.
"For me, it’s faster to get to South Station from Brockton than from my house in Jamaica Plain,” said Ted Carman, a longtime Boston developer who’s working on two historic rehabs in Brockton, both of them steps from the train station.
One of his projects, in a twist that reflects Brockton old and new, is the former home of the Petronelli Boxing Gym, where Hagler learned to fight and trained as he climbed the middleweight ranks in the 1970s. But the gym is closed, and the four-story brick building — built in 1890 for the St. Patrick’s Temperance Society — has sat vacant for about a decade on a side street.
Last year, Carman bought it from the city, with plans for apartments aimed at people who want high-end living at rents far lower than in a comparable building in Boston.
“The demand is there,” Carman said. “People will come if you can build the right product.”
That’s been the case at another building nearby, XLVII West Elm. It opened last month and has leased 41 of its 44 apartments, with one-bedrooms starting at $1,600 a month. That price is a something of sweet spot, said developer Geoffrey Anatole, significantly cheaper than similar buildings in Boston but high enough to justify new construction in Brockton, especially with help from city incentives. He said tenants are a mix of priced-out Bostonians and Brockton locals looking for nice apartments.
It’s Anatole’s second building downtown, and he’s eyeing other sites. The more market-rate apartments the neighborhood can fill, he said, the more customers there will be for the kinds of restaurants and amenities that will make it a welcoming, thriving, place.
“There’s already a change in the vibe here,” he said. “People are excited about where downtown is going.”
Any revival, many say, must include Brocktonites of all backgrounds.
This summer, following protests over George Floyd’s death, Shaleah Gilmer launched Black-Owned Brockton, a social media platform that promotes, and tries to connect, the city’s small-business community.
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95K residents in Brockton. 42% of the population is BLACK. ✊🏾 Economic harmony is a must in order to break the cycle. We will not lose, 10K COMPANIES in the city less than 3K are black/minority owned. LETS BUILD. - We’ve protested, we spoke to officials, now it’s time to take matters into our own hands. - Allies & those who stand in solidarity with us in the Brockton community are encouraged to buy black as well. - EMPOWER EACH OTHER LETS LIFT AS WE CLIMB ♥️🐾 - TAG ENTREPRENEURS + BUSINESSES + START UPS #brocktonma #brocktonmade #brocktonmass #blackoutday2020 #blackoutcoalition #508 #plymouthcounty #brocktonhighalumni #discoverpage
She’s launching a website and planning events, around her day job as a youth career counselor. In a city where people tend to stick to their neighborhoods, she said, it’s easy for good ideas, and good people, to slip through the cracks.
“It’s super-challenging," Gilmer said. “Even before COVID, a lot of these businesses were not getting much exposure. But there are so many opportunities.”
Zouzoua has a similar view. She walks the streets of her adopted hometown and sees people from all over the world who also have adopted it. She welcomes the new investment and the newcomers — she was once one herself. But Zouzoua wants to make sure there’s a place in a new Brockton for everyone who’s there now.
“I love Brockton, and I’m glad we chose to settle here,” she said. “I do want Brockton to be more metropolitan. But I don’t want it to lose its Brockton feel.”
Read more about Brockton and explore the full On the Street series.