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In Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, a tale of two neighborhoods

Divisions among voters spark introspection in the Black and white progressive communities

Gina Sanders wanted to hear from the candidates about her congregation’s fight to get back in their Grove Hall church.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

As a Black man in his 60s, Rudy Goodwin had seen enough to know that history was on the line when he showed up at his polling station Tuesday.

“It was like having Obama on the ticket,” said Goodwin, a retired pipefitter from Roxbury. “We had a chance to elect our first Black mayor.”

It had seemed a dream well within reach, with three strong Black candidates in the field of five. But none of them landed one of the top two spots to compete in November, a factor Goodwin blamed on Black voters splitting their ballots among the three.

It’s actually more complicated than that.


The failure of a Black candidate to advance to the final election was driven by a range of factors: dismally low turnout across the city and notably among black voters; political burnout and redoubled distrust in government in an age of nonstop social tumult; and pandemic-era limits on campaigning that put a damper on rallies and door-to-door outreach.

But it is also a story of what transpired in two key Boston neighborhoods: predominately Black Roxbury, where City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Acting Mayor Kim Janey, the two Black candidates with a realistic shot at the November final, spent their childhoods, and where Janey still lives; and Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood thick with progressive voters, but where soaring home values have crowded out diversity of both race and income, a place, that is, with many more Black Lives Matter signs than Black lives.

To win City Hall, a Black candidate needs more than the votes of just the Black community; there simply aren’t enough of them. White progressive communities have to turn out as well. But in Jamaica Plain, perhaps the most progressive neighborhood in the city, strong support for the Black candidates just didn’t happen.


Rather, Jamaica Plain went decisively for another candidate of color: City Councilor Michelle Wu, a Chicago-born Roslindale resident who is of Taiwanese descent. (Campbell ran a distant second in Jamaica Plain, trailed by Janey, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, and John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development.)

“Instead of focusing on certain neighborhoods, [Wu is] going to unite Boston with her policies,’’ said Benjamin Jaffer, a 19-year-old Jamaica Plain resident who politically identifies as center-left, and is half Indian and half Greek.

The divide is more than political, for this is a tale of two very different Bostons, one shouldering much more hardship than the other, according to recent census data. The poverty rate in Roxbury — at 32 percent — is more than two times higher than in Jamaica Plain, where the median family income is $117,000. That’s nearly triple the median in Roxbury.

More than a third of Jamaica Plain’s population has advanced degrees, compared to only 8 percent in Roxbury. And the percentage of owner-occupied housing units in Jamaica Plan is 46 percent, more than double the rate in Roxbury.

Roxbury went decidedly for Janey in Tuesday’s election — where she garnered more than 50 percent in most areas — though there weren’t enough voters there to lift her to an overall victory. Wu, the top finisher, trounced her competitors in Jamaica Plain and did sufficiently well in much of the city to outrun the field by a considerable margin. Now she will likely look to Black Boston for support in the final, in hopes of prevailing over Essaibi George, who ran second overall, narrowly ahead of Campbell and Janey. Connecting with voters in these neighborhoods — close geographically but far apart culturally — is essential to victory, especially for a Black aspirant but also for a progressive like Wu.


“We needed all of us to vote,” said Goodwin, who voted for Janey. “If we want a Black mayor to win, we have to come together. Too many spread the votes and split them up.”

Disharmony in Roxbury

Martin Luther King Boulevard, a half a mile stretch where dreams and challenges converge, winds through a core of Boston’s Black community.

Janey dominated here, in Ward 12, the very center of Roxbury; it is where she grew up and still calls home. She won here with 56 percent of the vote, while Campbell and Wu battled for second place, each picking up 18 percent.

Janey also captured Ward 14 — which crosses over the Blue Hill Avenue corridor and into Campbell’s City Council district in Dorchester — receiving 50 percent of the vote there, while Campbell received 25 percent.

Turnout was 21 percent in Ward 12, making up a 3 percent share of the total city turnout; it was 19 percent in Ward 14, making up 4 percent of the total.

The two wards make up the hub of Boston’s Black community, the area that stretches from Nubian Square to Morton Street and along the Blue Hill Avenue corridor. Nearly 90 percent of the residents in each of those two wards are Black or Latino. White residents make up less than 5 percent. (Janey also triumphed in Campbell’s council district, in Dorchester and Mattapan, with 4,059 votes to 3,175 for Campbell.)


As they contested the vote, in Black enclaves and across the city, the City Council colleagues emerged as foes, with Campbell repeatedly needling Janey on a range of issues, and Janey seemingly slow to respond. The resulting divisions helped quash both women’s mayoral prospects in a low turnout year where only a quarter of the eligible voters, 108,000 people, cast their ballots.

In their concession remarks, Campbell defined this moment in history as a triumph for Black women. Janey said there is “so much to be proud of,” noting the “multiracial, multicultural, and multigenerational coalition” that supported her candidacy.

But Tuesday’s outcome was met with disappointment, disillusionment, and quiet reflection in Roxbury.

“There’s nobody to stand up for us,” said Beatha Brandon, as she left the Washington Park Mall on Warren Street explaining why she did not vote. “I was hoping to hear them say what they are going to do ... in my community. I just didn’t hear it.”

Along the boulevard and nearby Warren Street, people cited work demands, apathy, dissatisfaction in government as reasons they never made it to the polls. But they also said they had hoped to have seen more of the candidates campaigning in their communities and hear from them firsthand about things that matter, such as access to low-income housing and plans to address violence and improving the city’s schools.


At the Grove Hall Mecca Mall, a bright afternoon sun greeted Nikki Berger and her friend Lurgie Romain as they sat side-by-side on a copper beverage cooler outside of the Back to the Roots storefront along Blue Hill Avenue. A multicolor sign in one of the shop’s windows said: “Make Everybody Feel Like Somebody.”

“If I was a candidate, I would’ve stood right there,” said Berger, a Grove Hall resident and retail manager, as she pointed to the mall. “[The candidates] need to be physically there in the community. It’s not just door to door.”

Romain said she did not think low turnout was a factor. “I know for a fact that people come out in droves to vote for Janey,” said the Haitian-American seamstress. Neither Romain nor Berger voted.

“It’s the same old same,’’ said Andrew Watson-Brown, 52, a Black man who has lived in Roxbury for over 50 years. He also did not vote, though he expressed concerns that no Black candidate advanced in the November election. “I think we can learn from this.”

Habib Saccoh, a 47-year-old Black hydrogeologist running errands in Roxbury, was encouraged by the accomplished slate of candidates. He voted for Campbell and has no regrets, though he did not like Tuesday’s outcome.

“Boston is a melting pot,” Saccoh said, “and to see that we are not pulling together is really disappointing.”

Divisions in Jamaica Plain

Across the city, blame and finger-pointing abound.

Black people are angry at Campbell for not dropping out after Janey, as council president, was named acting mayor when former mayor Martin J. Walsh departed for a Cabinet post in Washington in March.

Others are annoyed with Janey for not giving deference to Campbell, who had announced her candidacy in September, seven months before Janey jumped into the race.

But many Black people and some white progressives are fuming at the white progressives in places like Jamaica Plain, whose support for a Black mayoral candidate they had relied on. Supporters of both Campbell and Janey had hoped to ride the progressive wave that led to the 2018 victories of Rachael Rollins as the first Black female Suffolk district attorney and Ayanna Pressley as the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, and, in 2019, of Nika Elugardo as state representative.

“Talk about white guilt,” said Anne Rousseau, who is white and the cofounder of Jamaica Plain Progressives, a political group. “There’s a lot of anger against us and I do not blame people for being disappointed. I’m disappointed.”

Back in July, the JP Progressives leadership voted 12 to 1 to endorse Janey over Wu, despite Wu’s deep political roots in Jamaica Plain, cultivated over her 10 years in office. But the group’s 1,000 members voted otherwise, dividing their votes between Wu and Janey. Ultimately the organization did not endorse anyone, Rousseau said.

After that happened, Wu supporters in the group returned to supporting her, and Campbell also picked up some of their members, as did Janey.

Rousseau said she had no doubt that Wu would carry Jamaica Plain. “She has been running for mayor [since] before she ran for City Council,” Rousseau said. But the well of Campbell support floored her, particularly, Rousseau said, after a pro-charter Super PAC backed the councilor. Campbell voted to support expansion of charter schools five years ago, while JP Progressives had fought hard against lifting the cap for charter schools. “Voters have short memories,” Rousseau said about Campbell’s supporters in Jamaica Plain.

Rousseau, who backed Janey, had hoped the acting mayor would prevail there.

“We were hoping that by stepping back as white allies and listening to groups of predominantly people of color ... that we would take their lead and garner more support for Kim,” said Rousseau. The fact that did not happen “to me was personally disappointing, and it shows that we have a lot more work to do.”

Campbell came in second to Wu in Ward 19, which covers most of Jamaica Plain and had the second highest turnout of any of the city’s 22 wards in Tuesday’s election. Campbell had 29 percent of the vote there, to Wu’s 46 percent, Janey’s 14 percent, and Essaibi George’s 9 percent.

Campbell also placed second to Wu in Ward 11, which borders Jamaica Plain and runs into Egleston Square, Fort Hill, and parts of Lower Roxbury. Campbell won 24 percent of the vote there, to Wu’s 44 percent.

Janey did well in the poorer parts of Jamaica Plain, while Wu and Campbell had strong showings in the more affluent sections of the neighborhood, Elugardo said.

“There is a class split in the Black community,” said Elugardo, who is Black and lives in Jamaica Plain. “The Black community has to have some conversations around what it means to not be poor anymore and still allow the voices of people currently struggling with poverty to be catapulted to the front.”

Elugardo, who cochaired Bernie Sanders’ Massachusetts committee, said that for Boston’s Black residents to succeed politically they are expected to speak, perform, and generally seem like white progressives. She said that even though Janey was doing the work as mayor, white progressives demanded more from her, including detailed plans on matters such as rent control.

Elugardo — who proposed state legislation that would lift the ban on rent control, enabling cities and towns to stabilize rent — said she had spoken at length with Janey and felt they were on the same page on the matter, including around capping increases on rent.

But Elugardo said Janey used “everyday language versus policy speak” to articulate her point. As a result, some white progressives made negative assumptions about Janey’s ability to understand the issues and articulate her perspective, but that only “reflected their biases and not her actual knowledge,” said Elugardo.

Rousseau also said Janey could have done a better job laying out “forward-looking” plans on how she would lead the city. Janey’s comments comparing proof-of-vaccine requirements to slavery also hurt.

Still she said the group she cofounded in 2009 that had worked hard to get progressive candidates has some reflecting to do about what it means to align with communities of color and “what it means to be a white progressive.”

Across Jamaica Plain, others are also reflecting on Tuesday’s outcome. Former state representative Jeffrey Sanchez, who grew up in the neighborhood and represented it for 15 years, said Jamaica Plain has dramatically changed over the years. The traditional areas where candidates could shore up voters are now populated by affluent professionals, many of them disconnected from the candidates seeking office.

“The community that we knew doesn’t exist any longer,” he said.

Around Jamaica Plain and Roxbury late last week were remnants of the losing campaigns: a “We can go better” purple sign from Janey lingered on one wall; a sizeable Andrea Campbell campaign sign covered the fence of Curley K-8 School.

For Gina Sanders, a 64-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, voting was personal. Nine years ago, she and her entire congregation were unceremoniously kicked out of their beloved Mount Calvary Holy Parish Church on Otisfield Street in nearby Grove Hall, and they have not been back since, she said.

They’ve been locked in a battle over ownership, fighting to save the church building from demolition, to get it landmark status, and eventually to return to their church home, which Sanders’ grandfather, the late Bishop Brumfield Johnson, founded.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Sanders said as she stood outside the crumbling church with tears in her eyes. “Just devastating.”

Sanders remembers a school on the premises, weekly meals held here for the community, a flourishing community garden.

Her godsister, Queen Wornum, a community activist, said they had asked Janey, when she was council president, to join their effort to save the church. But aside from a Zoom call last year, Wornum said, they have yet to hear back from Janey, though Wu did sign their petition to save the church, and Campbell and Essaibi George have offered support. When they went to vote Tuesday, both women said they remembered who had their backs.

They did not vote for Janey, they said.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at tiana.woodard@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.