In the nearly 200 years since the job of Boston mayor was created, 54 white men have filled the role of city executive.
Kim Janey ended that streak Monday.
Janey, the 55-year-old city council president, took the reins Monday night from Martin J. Walsh, who officially resigned the post after the Senate confirmed him to be the nation’s next labor secretary. While she plans to hold a swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, Janey immediately became acting mayor — and made history as the city’s first Black mayor, as well as its first woman mayor.
“I want to congratulate Secretary of Labor Walsh, a proud son of Dorchester, on his confirmation. He will serve the working people of our country with passion in Washington D.C., and I know he will bring our city with him,” Janey said in a statement.
“Now, we look ahead to a new day — a new chapter — in Boston’s history.”
In Roxbury’s Nubian Square — a neighborhood where Janey’s family roots run deep — some constituents, such as Danny Hardaway, call her political success a tangible sign of progress in a city with an extensive history of racism.
“She means a lot to this community,” he said, speaking with a reporter ahead of Janey’s promotion. He recalled a time when the city “was not a place you wanted to be as a Black person.”
Hardaway, who owns a boutique, Final Touch With Class, in Nubian Square, said that he believes Janey cares about all of Boston’s communities and that her largest challenge will be helping small businesses get back on their feet amid the public health crisis.
Being mayor, Hardaway said, “is going to be a lot of work, that’s going to be a hard task.”
Outside Hardaway’s shop, the daily bustle of the Nubian Square bus station continued apace. Buses rumbled in and out of the bays. Vendors hawked wares, including T-shirts and phone covers. A couple of panhandlers asked for change, while a group of men smoked outside a convenience store as soca music drifted over the scene.
This is the heart of Janey’s district, a district that she has called “ground zero” for issues confronting Boston as a whole, including economic and racial inequities, an affordable housing crisis, an opioid epidemic, and transportation problems. Roxbury is among the poorer neighborhoods in Boston, with a median household income of about $30,000, the lowest of any in the city. Twenty-three percent of its population did not finish high school, and nearly a third of residents are living in poverty, according to city data.
During the past year, Nubian Square was the launch point for many demonstrations and marches protesting police brutality and systemic racism.
Janey lives a short walk away, on Copeland Street, and spent part of her youth in a duplex on Norfolk Street less than a half-mile from the square’s bus station. Her sister, Kai Grant, owns the Black Market retail incubator in Nubian Square. Grant, along with her husband, Chris, are planning to acquire the two-story, 4,300-square-foot building at 2136 Washington St. that has housed the market.
Janey was first elected to the City Council in 2017, to a seat representing District 7, succeeding Tito Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor. She became council president in early 2020, marking the first time someone from Roxbury had served in that role since the mid-1980s.
Janey spearheaded Boston’s first ordinance to bring racial and economic equity to the burgeoning marijuana industry. She also has pushed to probe the process by which the city hands out municipal contracts for services such as trash pickup and food distribution, an effort that spurred the city to explore new ways to diversify its contracts. The issue of city contracting has received more scrutiny recently, with the release of a study that shows businesses owned by people of color and white women were massively underrepresented in contracts awarded by the city.
Janey gave a preview of her agenda in a March 11 speech, in which she emphasized the importance of an equitable recovery from the COVID-19 public health crisis, including making sure hard-hit communities of color get equal access to vaccines.
Overseeing the continued reopening of the district’s schools and the implementation of a new city police watchdog and addressing the city’s ongoing affordable housing crunch are other tasks facing Janey.
Now that the transfer of power is complete, Janey also will face more pressure to finally say whether she plans to join the already crowded race to be the next full-term mayor, a question she has so far sidestepped. Many in Boston political circles expect her to do so.
Regardless, Janey will remain a historic figure in the city.
Referencing Boston’s lengthy record of racism, Grant, a Roxbury resident, called her sister’s mayoralty “an incredible moment.”
“I don’t know if there’s been a turning point that has signaled change and representation in a way that is authentic to the demographic” quite like Janey becoming mayor, she said.
In Nubian Square, several people said they know Janey and recognize her from walking the neighborhood. Others met the news of her impending mayoralty with indifferent shrugs. Only one of the more than a dozen people on the street asked about Janey’s ascension had anything negative to say about her. That woman, who declined to give her name, said she felt Janey only showed up when she was campaigning.
Many had opinions about the issues facing the square, the neighborhood, the city. Joe Benzan, who works at a tax services shop, said homelessness, and its underpinning mental health issues, is a major challenge.
“The people with mental issues, they need to do something, they need to help them,” said Benzan.
Destry Jenkins, who is staying in a homeless shelter, called street violence his biggest concern.
“We need that,” he said of a Janey mayoralty.
Joe Figueroa, owner of Joe’s Famous Sub Shop, called Janey an exceptional leader and an advocate for small businesses, someone who understands that “people can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Indeed, Janey has highlighted her personal experience with gentrification in the past. In a 2018 Bay State Banner piece, she wrote of her family losing a South End brownstone they had owned for decades on West Canton Street when the neighborhood “began to gentrify in the 1980s.”
“We have to have more women in power,” said Figueroa as a grill sizzled from behind the counter. “If this world was run by women, we’d be much better off.”
Rebeca Bachier was among those unaware that Janey would ascend to the post of acting mayor. Informed of the news, Bachier, sitting in the office of a Warren Street repair shop, was pleased: “It’s really good, especially a woman, because it’s hard for women out there.”
“We’re breaking barriers,” she said.
A short walk away, Beverly Roberts, a Roxbury seamstress, took a break from her sewing machine inside a Warren Street shop not far from Janey’s Copeland Street home to give her assessment of Boston’s soon-to-be mayor.
“For me, I think it’s a great thing,” she said. “She’ll go down in history books.”
Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.