Boston residents, like the rest of the country, have recently been through the wringer.
Sky-rocketing prices coupled with a dire shortage of affordable homes. A pandemic everyone seems to insist is over, even as case counts continue to rise. The end of Roe, renewing the fight for reproductive access even in a blue state like Massachusetts.
The compounded issues can feel overwhelming, as if everything is reaching a breaking point. And they continue to ripple through Boston communities, even as people citywide return to a newly opened world with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
Yet in the face of it all, Boston residents have come together. From wide-reaching food distribution efforts to support families hit by inflation to community art projects and activities, people have found ways to stay connected, take care of one another, and move forward.
In recognition of the hardships we’re still trying to overcome, the Globe asked more than 40 Bostonians who live or work in four disparate neighborhoods — East Boston, Fields Corner in Dorchester, Roslindale, and Roxbury — to tell us: How are you doing? And what do you still need?
A community rallies for its children still healing from COVID’s trauma
Residents describe East Boston as a “tight-knit” community, with a longstanding spirit of activism and a desire to help, said resident Tina St. Gelais Kelly.
So when the pandemic hit, it was no surprise that many sprang into action, from distributing meals to engaging in community discussions on racial justice.
But St. Gelais Kelly and many others say those affected most were the area’s youths.
“There’s a lot we lost and a lot of healing that hasn’t been done,” said St. Gelais Kelly, a parent. “Parents died, and these kids just had to keep going. It’s crazy to think about that.”
Even as Boston recently joined other jurisdictions in abandoning pandemic regulations such as mandatory masking in schools, East Boston continued to see a high percentage of positive COVID tests: 9.4 percent from Sept. 20 to Sept. 26, compared to 7.8 percent across Boston.
Children in East Boston, where half the population is Hispanic, have frequently served as interpreters for loved ones who don’t speak English. In the early days of COVID, they juggled those duties alongside online classes in isolation from their classmates. Those challenges left a mark.
Justin Pasquariello, executive director of East Boston Social Centers, says his organization has worked to mitigate the effects on the community’s young people by expanding teen programming to provide mental health initiatives “with a focus on joy and resilience.”
“We’re continuing to grow to respond to the need,” Pasquariello said. “Some of this mental health crisis is so new that we don’t fully know what the solutions are yet.”
Participating in such programs after two years of disrupted schooling and increased anxiety gave East Boston High School student Siene Jaikaran a sense of purpose.
Jaikaran, 15, spent the summer volunteering in the social centers’ community garden alongside other students, earning herself a pepper and a lemon balm plant she could take home as proof of her summer’s efforts.
“It feels very productive to wake up early in the morning and have a lot to do,” she said.
For 23-year-old Deysi Gutierrez, seeing cries for help in the community she’d lived in since she was 7 prompted her to help found Mutual Aid Eastie.
The group advocated for specific needs during the pandemic. For example, when Boston Public Schools began providing East Boston families meals that were not suitable for a halal diet according to Islamic requirements, Mutual Aid Eastie helped find a local restauranteur who stepped in to provide halal meals for the area’s Muslim families.
With the brunt of the pandemic behind it, the group has turned to addressing mental health.
It began hosting community discussions this summer, Gutierrez said, where dozens of attendees came together to “cry and be vulnerable and meet other neighbors that are going through the same things.”
“That support during the pandemic was created through crises, but it has shifted into this other body that still exists but is different,” Gutierrez said. “After quarantine, I think everybody was in panic mode together. Now, we’re able to breathe — and we’re still together.”
The push to limit the sting of inflation in Fields Corner
Often recognized as a Vietnamese enclave, Fields Corner is now struggling to maintain the long-sought “Boston Little Saigon” designation it earned last year.
The area is a diverse pocket of Dorchester that has experienced significant development over the last decade, composed of a growing commercial district on Dorchester Avenue and surrounding neighborhoods. It celebrated its inaugural Cho Dêm (night market) in July, drawing thousands to stalls featuring various foods like seafoods on sticks and live entertainment.
But that celebration of Fields Corner’s Vietnamese community came as surging housing and food costs threaten to price out local residents and businesses alike.
Somath Om, the owner of dessert café Coco Leaf, said between pandemic slumps and increased costs, businesses have struggled, forcing many to raise prices.
“A lot of the people coming here are kids, students from the area, so we’ve always tried to keep [prices] as low as possible,” he said. “But with everything doubling, tripling in price, it just wasn’t feasible.”
Local owners discussed ways to help one another, from buying groceries in bulk to letting others know if there’s a good deal for supplies.
“We’ve just been going day by day at this point, as best as we can,” Om said. “Hopefully everything will come back down — we kind of don’t want to think about what happens if it doesn’t.”
That one-day-at-a-time mentality is a sentiment shared by others in the community.
“As an Asian American woman, it’s been hard, on a deeply personal level, watching the kind of things that have gone down: the pandemic, the rise in anti-Asian bias incidents, the death of George Floyd, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and all this heavy impact on top of the responsibilities of maintaining an organization,” said Lisette Le, the executive director of VietAID.
“I think people are making really hard choices because of COVID and now because of inflation as well,” Le said. “I am always kind of fearful, particularly people who are renters, about their ability to stay in the city.”
While housing remains the top issue in the area, food insecurity is a growing problem locals have sought to address, with new food distribution efforts from groups such as VietAID, DotHouse Health, and the St. Ambrose Family Shelter.
Individuals, like artist Carmen Powell, also did their part to help through mutual aid programs like Dorchester Community Care.
“If I didn’t have something that gave my life purpose during that time, then it would have been very different,” Powell, 56, said.
Emerging from the pandemic with hope and heart
Every Saturday, Adams Park, in the center of Roslindale, comes to life.
Families stroll from stand to stand, as they peruse an assortment of goods: fruits and vegetables, pottery, baked goods, T-shirts. Dancers of all ages learn to salsa — or simply jump off-beat — on a checkered dance floor. Longtime residents chat with one another on the greenspace, reclining in lawn chairs with popsicles in hand to beat the summer heat.
For many, the popular farmer’s market signals a long-awaited return to normal in the community whose central business district lay dormant for months. While the neighborhood has seen an increase in new businesses over recent years, the pandemic shuttered many doors, forcing many to pivot online or risk closure.
Anna VanRemoortel, the director of Roslindale Village Main Street, said community support was vital in reviving the area’s now-vibrant business district.
Her organization saw an increase in volunteers during the pandemic, who gathered to put on virtual concerts and organize safely-distanced events outdoors. They moved their annual winter market outdoors and rented a parking lot for vendors to keep warm in their cars.
“Even though we weren’t really in person during the pandemic, our community still really showed up for us online, and even outside in the freezing cold,” VanRemoortel said.
Now, Main Street is painting murals on the sidewalks leading into Roslindale Square, encouraging people to visit businesses in person.
But for some, the trepidation fueled by the pandemic remains; some at the market continue to don masks.
Mary Mccusker, a therapist who began seeking clients remotely in March 2020, said she has yet to reopen her clinic’s doors, despite patient requests to meet again in person. “I’m not sure I’m ready,” she said.
Others say there’s still more work to do to heighten the quality of life for the community at large.
Cheryl Rosenberg, who works with the Food Access Volunteers of Roslindale, which redistributes excess food from grocery stores to community members, said the shifts in Roslindale have come at a cost: less attention given to those who still need relief.
“People are tired, and we’ve seen a drop in volunteerism, in donations, because people think the pandemic is over,” Rosenberg said. “I’m glad that people are back to work, but when it comes to supporting others, that’s kind of dropped off the radar for a lot of people.”
While key resources closed for years, like the library and community center, have now reopened, Rosenberg sees a need for additional support, especially as gentrification increases prices and some families face continued harm from the pandemic.
“What our group likes to do is redistribute some of the wealth that’s coming to the community to help the folks who are not benefitting,” Rosenberg said. “I feel like as someone who has privilege, we need to be the ones to do a little bit more work to help folks who don’t.”
Taking care of their own
Roxbury residents are quick to say that neglect in the community didn’t begin with the pandemic.
The area has long fought for more resources to improve quality of life and tackle longstanding issues — violent crime, lack of affordable housing, reintroducing formerly incarcerated people into the community, and providing opportunities for youths.
“It seems like there’s always something more important than this neighborhood,” said Patricia Knight, a longtime resident and neighborhood association leader. “After all of those years of neglect, it’s now become a place that people are looking at differently. People see an opportunity that is a blessing and a curse, from my perspective, to develop in the area.”
The pandemic exacerbated those problems, according to Michael Kozu, who works with Project R.I.G.H.T. Inc. in the Grove Hall area. He pointed to the neighborhood’s lack of a community center for youths, which Kozu has sought for years to alleviate the impacts of crime.
“What the city has created is a cradle to prison pipeline in Grove Hall, because it takes a tremendous amount of effort for young people to try to find positive resources and opportunities to get out of being impacted by violence,” Kozu said. “The pandemic has aggravated the existing lack of resources and just added to the problems that families face.”
With a lack of resources coming from outside Roxbury, many in the community began to organize themselves to respond to those problems.
For Tamara Lawrence, a Roxbury preschool principal then working as a special education teacher, that meant raising her hand to deliver food and school equipment that students needed.
“Being an educator gives you a source of hope … because you could really see the human side of what the pandemic was destroying,” Lawrence said. “When other people were like ‘oh my god, I’m really anxious,’ I didn’t have any of that because I was like, ‘I have a job to do, and I never stopped working.’”
Similarly, Ryann Harrell, the youth coordinator at nonprofit MissionSAFE, sprung up to offer options for youth to come together. That involved organizing a program called Future Fridays, where he sought out middle school students across Boston to meet at Roxbury’s Ramsay Park to play basketball.
Harrell, who lost his father and several other relatives during the pandemic, said engaging in initiatives like Future Fridays was his way of finding purpose.
“It’s given me a new outlook on life: You can’t control things you thought you were in control of,” Harrell said. “So I’m loving life, and doing the work — we’re all working together to keep a stronger Roxbury. It’s that pride in Roxbury that fuels us.”
Anjali Huynh was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @anjalihuynh.