Boston is a city in transition. Despite the economic successes of the last few decades, the building boom that has reshaped the city‘s skyline, and an influx of new residents, disparities remain.
The wealth gap among city residents has only been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Boston’s Black and brown and immigrant communities still face obstacles in obtaining health care, economic opportunities, and in education.
Whoever is elected to replace Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who is leaving the post to become Secretary of Labor for the Biden administration, will face daunting challenges. A housing crisis has forced many longtime residents from their homes. The pandemic has shuttered small businesses. Neighborhoods are battling gentrification and street violence remains a concern. The population spike that underscores the city’s popularity has also created traffic congestion. Meanwhile, rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten.
The Globe asked some of the city’s activists, leaders, and experts in their fields (who are not running for mayor) how they would want the next leader of the city to address the coming challenges. Here are some of their answers:
Douglass Williams the chef-owner of MIDA in the South End, said he’d like to see the next mayor create a coalition of hospitality representatives to tackle big issues such as licensing, the minimum wage, and labor policies as they work to help the industry recover from the COVID crisis. “There’s such a broad spectrum of issues that need to go into understanding the hospitality industry and so much that happens within it,” he said. Williams, who is Black, also said the possibility of a Black mayor in Boston could redefine the city’s reputation. “It’s exciting,” Williams said. -Janelle Nanos
Carolyn Chou is executive director of the Asian American Resource Workshop and an organizer with housing group Dot Not For Sale. She says the whole structure of city government — with such a strong mayor — makes it hard to tackle the complex issues facing the city. Any chief executive, no matter how well-intentioned, has blind spots. So, she says, charter reform — redesigning City Hall to push power closer to the people — must be on the agenda. “It’s not a flashy topic but as we think about true civic and community engagement, we need to communicate with people in ways that reflect the diversity of this city, and really be more systematic about language access,” she said. - Tim Logan
Stacey Beuttell, executive director of Walk Boston, said one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that streets and sidewalks can have many uses, from dining to art to providing a place to gather. The Walsh administration expanded outdoor dining this summer and fall but she’d like to see the next mayor do more, to make those sort of street closures and sidewalk activations permanent and push more of them into the neighborhoods where most Bostonians live. “So many different walking spaces have been loved again, as places where people can simply be and exist, as opposed to parked cars,” she said. - Tim Logan
Elizabeth Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, called on the next mayor to make Boston a national leader on climate change. “As a city on the front lines of climate change, our continued economic prosperity depends on the mayor protecting our infrastructure, improving air quality and human health, transitioning to renewable energy and reckoning with decades of environmental injustice,” she said. “The city needs a visionary leader who can make the City on a Hill a beacon for decarbonization, climate adaptation, and racial equity.” - David Abel
Malia Lazu, a community organizer and former Berkshire Bank executive, said the next mayor should strive to make Boston appeal to young talent, especially millennials. That means creating an economic development plan that helps small businesses from restaurants to art galleries to festivals thrive, whether through zoning changes or capital. “The mayor has to lean on small independent businesses to build the Main Streets in all neighborhoods to give people a vibrant quality of life,” said Lazu. “The mayor is one of the only people in a position to move all of those pieces.” - Shirley Leung
Betty Francisco, general counsel of Compass Working Capital, said the mayoral race is all about equity. She wants someone who can close the racial, educational, economic, and health gaps that have held back neighborhoods like Mattapan and Roxbury. To achieve that, Francisco sees a leader who is not beholden to special interest groups or what she describes as “traditional Brahmin leadership that has dominated Boston.” To Francisco, the new mayor is someone who “represents Boston’s new majority, and who will fulfill the promise of making this the most inclusive, equitable and welcoming city in the country.” - Shirley Leung
Gustavo Quiroga, director of neighborhood strategy and development for the Graffito SP real estate group, said, “It is certainly time for the city to be led by a person who understands firsthand the racial injustices that are deeply rooted in every aspect of our society, from policing to housing to running a small business.” He said even as we emerge from the COVID-19 health crisis, “we still remain in a deep and significant housing crisis, and now we’re in an economic crisis brought on by COVID that we need to be really thoughtful about in terms of who who has been affected the most: Black and indigenous [and] people of color throughout our city and the immigrant community . . . racial and economic justice can’t just be goals, they need to be key metrics of our success on every issue City Hall touches, and that will allow us to recover in a stronger way.” - Janelle Nanos
Tayla Andre, a parent from Roxbury, wants the next mayor to change the charter to allow for at least some elected school committee members. Under current rules, the mayor appoints all seven members. “The mayor can’t be the end all be all for education,” said Andre, who has a 2-year-old and two children at Brooke High School, a charter school in Mattapan. She also wants the next mayor to be a parent, unlike Walsh. “He never had to enroll a student or sit down for a parent teacher conference. He never had a child be bullied,” she said. “He doesn’t know what’s important to a parent.” - Bianca Vazquez Toness
Julia Mejia, an at-large city councilor, urged the next mayor to create an elected school committee, abolish a police gang database that she says racially profiles city youth, to invest in public education, to remove barriers to exam schools, and to prevent housing displacement. “We need a mayor who will be unapologetic about championing economic status and class, centering the lives of the working class, those who have been undeserved and under-valued for far too long,” she said. “We need someone who will disrupt the status quo, dismantle systems of oppression, set clear goals and actionable objectives, and will have the political courage to confront and defeat racism in Boston.” - Milton Valencia
Monica Cannon-Grant, a community activist, called for the next mayor to be more accountable and transparent about efforts to help the city’s most at need, with food resources and access to anti-violence programs. “I would like to see accountability, real accountability. I think it is truly amazing to have someone in that position who is a representation of our city, but often we get caught up in that and forget about accountability. We would love to get past the optics and get to ‘what have you done, and what will you do for the city of Boston?’ What is the plan, an actionable and equitable plan to address the violence in the city? . . When it comes to food inequality, what is the plan around food access? I am more interested in plans than speeches.” - Milton Valencia
State Representative Russell E. Holmes said the next mayor should be “intentional” about addressing inequities, including the hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts the city awards — only about 7 percent go to minority- and women-owned businesses — and the lack of diversity among the city’s highly paid police and firefighters. “Everything should be looked at through an equity lens. Transportation, education, health care. You can name anything,” said Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat. “I’m not going to say it must be a person of color. But if it’s not, I want to see a long history that you have consistently, over years, delivered for people of color and for those who have been disproportionately negatively impacted by the structural racism in this system. I think that’s hard to deliver for someone who’s not a person of color.” - Matt Stout
Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust, urged the next mayor to continue the effort to build affordable housing in Chinatown to stabilize the community against gentrification. “Under the Walsh administration, Chinatown has added over 400 units of affordable housing, protected affordability of existing subsidized housing, begun planning for a permanent Chinatown library and for zoning changes to protect and stabilize Chinatown’s future. We have seen important stabilization policies advance ,” she said. “I hope that the next mayor of Boston can continue to expand on this work, particularly in taking an aggressive approach to removing properties from the speculative market for more permanently affordable housing.” - Milton Valencia
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the next mayor should be committed to police reforms, for instance by boosting efforts to diversify the police department. “Boston’s next mayor should be a genuine ally to racial justice groups,” he said. “Instead of wasting scarce taxpayer dollars continuing to defend discrimination cases, the next mayor should work collaboratively to address injustices often experienced by people of color and immigrants, particularly with Boston’s police and schools. Public safety jobs and city contracts should also reflect the city’s vibrant diversity.” - Milton Valencia
Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts, urged the next mayor to finalize energy performance standards for existing large buildings and to set zero energy requirements for new buildings; to require rooftop solar on all new buildings when possible; to expand the recently launched community choice energy program so that renewable energy is the default option for residents; and to build a network of alternative transportation methods to cut down on car traffic in the city.“Boston should be the first major US city to meet 100 percent of its energy needs . . . with clean, renewable resources like the sun and the wind.” - David Abel
Colette Phillips, who runs a communications firm in Boston and recently won a tourism promotion contract with the city, said one big challenge will be improving the city’s less-than-stellar track record for hiring contractors owned by people of color. The city could use its contracting muscle to drive more money into the neighborhoods, helping them recover from the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “When you have economic inclusion, everyone wins,” Phillips said. “Think about what stabilizes the neighborhoods. . . . It ain’t the downtown businesses. It’s the mom-and-pop businesses in the community.” - Jon Chesto
Kevin Phelan, co-chairman of real estate brokerage Colliers International’s Boston office, said the next mayor needs to resolve the realignment of the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston. State officials have yet to find an adequate funding source for the project, and are turning to the city and to Harvard University for help. Phelan said the opportunity for the city to unlock the value of that land, currently bisected by the elevated highway, is too good to pass up. “That’s a huge economic opportunity for lab space, when that thing gets straightened out.” - Jon Chesto
Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said priority number one should be convening a group of business and community leaders to address how best to help Boston recover from the pandemic. He suggested bringing some prominent academicians with “some of the big thinkers” into a room with executives to plot a recovery strategy. “We should have everybody come together, bring together the best and the brightest minds we have from our universities, from the Federal Reserve bank, from our financial institutions, and talk about how we get our economy back,” Vasil said. - Jon Chesto
Dan Kenary, chief executive of Harpoon parent Mass. Bay Brewing Co., said fostering employee-owned businesses like his should be crucial, in part because these businesses can help “promote community in a very direct way. . . . I know one thing we would like to see happen is for employee-owned companies to be included in programs for purchasing and promotion by government agencies,” he said. - Jon Chesto
Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, said the next mayor needs to focus on the twin epidemics of homelessness and opioid addiction. Efforts to build a new addiction campus on Long Island have run into resistance in Quincy, primarily because of the traffic, but Sansone said the issue needs to be addressed quickly. “The concept of a recovery campus makes a lot of sense,” Sansone said. - Jon Chesto