Egleston Square hums with activity. Young mothers push toddlers in strollers. Hungry commuters pick up takeout at the Chinese restaurant. Barbers pass the time between clients in front of their shops. And those living in the margins loiter in the park and sidewalk near the liquor store as cars drive by blaring bachata and reggaeton.
Standing on Washington Street near School Street, Martin J. Walsh, mayoral candidate and state representative, does something of a 360. "I see potential in this neighborhood. This reminds me of parts of Hyde Square 20 years ago, where Hyde Square today, with some investment by the city, is completely transformed."
Walking down Washington, Walsh passes a nail salon, a travel agency, a smoke shop, a butcher shop. There are a lot of great small businesses in the neighborhood, but "there are a lot of buzzers," he laments, trying to pull open the locked door of an electronics shop.
This neighborhood, on the border of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, is one he's becoming more familiar with, one that lies about 4 miles outside of his State House district. Still, every few feet someone's shaking his hand, saying hello, or telling him that they voted for him.
His style is to listen, saying conversations with business owners, organization leaders, and police officers who walk the Egleston beat enrich his understanding of the neighborhood, its challenges, and the type of partnership needed between the city and communities. Because, he says, at the end of the day, the neighborhood must decide its own future. City Hall is simply a resource to bring that future to fruition.
"That's an important piece of being mayor: How do you help energize and bring the right mix of businesses to the community? Businesses bring jobs to a neighborhood," he says. "Having stores and restaurants and things like that are good, but we also need to bring in light manufacturing, biotech manufacturing into neighborhoods . . . give people the opportunity for homeownership."
Egleston, he says, should be a gateway neighborhood, where businesses thrive, students attend schools with no achievement gap, young people head off to college or on to careers, and people have the opportunity to own homes.
Looking down at the cracked and uneven sidewalks of Washington Street in the heart of Egleston's business district, littered with small liquor bottles, discarded takeout containers, and rotting food, Walsh says: "This area here, it needs help."
He steps inside Egleston Pizza at Washington and Columbus Avenue and strikes up a conversation with Boston police officer Carlos Martinez, whose walking beat means patrolling the streets of his youth.
"Howaya, sir?" Walsh says extending his hand.
Martinez answers in kind, before telling Walsh part of his story: "I grew up in this neighborhood. Nothing was ever done for this neighborhood.
"I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?' Simple things could be done for this neighborhood that could improve the quality of life, like basic structural improvements," Martinez says.
It was, Walsh agrees, one of the first things he noticed when he first walked through the square. "It was a Saturday morning. Most of the stores on this end of town have buzzers on the doors except for the liquor stores and the corner stores, or convenience stores. The streets have trash on them. The sidewalks need to be repaved."
It's the city's job, Walsh says, "to bring some pride back to the neighborhood. Residents have to take pride as well, but, I think, the neighborhood here, a lot of the residents don't have opportunities."
No, they don't, Martinez says. "If you look around, all these — and I'm not against subsidized housing — all these are subsidized housing. So basically, what you're doing is subsidizing these businesses."
"And you're putting a lot of poor people in one area," Walsh continues. "I'm not opposed to subsidies; families need them. But I also think we need to look and see how can we help families be successful, and as I said earlier, that's creating opportunities for employment."
There's a lack of opportunity in the neighborhood, Martinez says. Youth organizations are closing because they don't have money, and the local YMCA doesn't get the same level of support as others, he complains.
The five-minute conversation ends with a "good luck" and a "goodbye." Outside, Walsh returns to the topic of housing.
"Not everybody is going to qualify for affordable housing, and there's really not enough stock of workforce housing, so people end up leaving the city of Boston," he says. "We have to have that balance in neighborhoods. You can't, I don't want to say overburden, but don't want to overload a neighborhood with just low-income housing. You want to be able to add a component of workforce housing."
After a quick stop by Skippy White's, the famed music store, Walsh wants to swing by Egleston Square Main Street, a nonprofit redevelopment organization that is part of a citywide effort to build vibrant commercial districts in Boston's neighborhoods.
Back at School and Washington streets, a man, slurring his words ever so slightly, approaches Walsh, asking for a sandwich while offering good luck and advice.
Walsh leans in to hear the man, who is a little unsteady on his feet.
"You supposed to been come around here, so it woulda been more people know who you are," the man says, almost chastising.
"Can I still get that sandwich?" he asks
People struggling with addiction need programs, Walsh says, crossing School Street as the No. 42 bus pulls up. More treatment programs and better access to the ones in existence are needed. But, he cautions, "You can't force someone into a program."
"I mean, look at the people getting off the bus. You have working families coming off the bus. Young kids coming off the bus, and then what you just saw. That's part of improving the quality of life for people."
Education and jobs are keys to improving someone's station in life. "They both kind of feed off one another," he says.
"No one really discusses the high schools," he says. "They talk a lot about turning around grammar schools, but not a lot of discussion about high schools."
As a state representative, Walsh voted for legislation to turn around struggling schools, giving them more administrative freedom and flexibility over hiring, budgets, curriculum, and length of the school day. They also got more money. And this effort has been successful at some of the city's struggling elementary and kindergarten-through-grade 8 schools.
But too many of the city's largest high schools continue to struggle, he says, mentioning his high school reform plan. It calls for creating ninth and 10th grade academies designed to provide students extra attention, functioning like a school within a school.
"We're going to put individualized plans around each kid. Find out where their deficiencies are and focus on those," he said. "Bringing in the support services that are needed, whether it's an after-school program or additional learning in the classroom. We have to make sure that in the basics — math, reading and writing — that kids are proficient and better."
The reading and math test scores of sophomores in the Boston public school system's 10 largest high schools (not including exam schools) are about 12 percentage points lower in reading and 17 percentage points lower in math than the average for Boston public high schools overall.
He's so engrossed in his education pitch that he has passed the Main Street office and is standing in front of a squat brick building at Iffley Road, about 600 feet beyond his intended destination. Walsh double-checks the address and heads back, changing topics and talking about public safety and civic engagement.
"In certain neighborhoods, you have the walking beat; I would certainly like to have walking beats in every neighborhood in Boston," he said. "Then there's a program in Boston that was taken off line for a while, the bicycles, and then they were reinstituted. . . . You're getting officers onto the street."
It's important, he said, to engage those people who live on side streets and might not necessarily feel connected to their neighborhood or Greater Boston. That, he said, starts with the diversity of City Hall, which must reflect the neighborhoods.
But it also depends on city employees being accessible: "You know, go door to door, find out what those challenges are, try and address the needs of the families in the city of Boston."
Walsh then pulls open the door to the YMCA.
"Hi. Where's the Main Street office?" he asks the young man at the front desk, who motions down the hall.
William Morales, executive director of the YMCA's young achievers program, pokes his head out of an office and says the executive director of Main Street isn't in.
Still, Walsh wants to know if Morales has a few minutes to talk about what he expects of the next mayor. He does.
"You know the big Jackson [Square] development project that's happening down the street?" Morales asks about the $250 million project at Centre Street and Columbus Avenue that will include 425 residences, a mix of affordable and market-rate, along with retail and commercial space, and a recreation complex. "Make sure the individuals there are organizing that piece and get the support that they need from the city to really make that kind of come to fruition."
Walsh listens and then asks Morales, "How important is the YMCA to this neighborhood?"
"It provides a lot of opportunities for kids," he says, motioning to waiting teens. "You got a group of kids who are going to take a college tour over at Benjamin Franklin" Institute of Technology.
Morales tells Walsh that he grew up in Egleston and that his younger brother, Hector D. Morales Jr., was shot and killed in a shootout with two police officers 23 years ago at the corner where the building stands.
"I, unfortunately, was in prison at the time," he says. "I got out. Couldn't read and write. The Y gave me an opportunity to become a leader. Got my bachelor's and my master's. So, things can happen; life can change."
"Sure can," Walsh says.
Morales isn't done. The YMCA, he continues, partners with Main Street to strengthen the business district, providing English classes for shop owners, many of whom speak Spanish, so language barriers won't inhibit them from attracting new customers or participating in community meetings.
"They are so fearful that they're going to pronounce it wrong or they're not going to know what they're saying or they're going to be looked at as dumb," he tells Walsh. "Sometimes they can't even be a part of community processes, even though whatever is being debated or put forth might be affecting their businesses."
Partnerships with organizations like this are important, Walsh says. "They're a resource for the community, but the city should be that same resource back."
"We're here. We're here to help," Morales tells the mayoral candidate.
Walsh's car is waiting in the parking lot, signaling the end of a tour that's lasted just over 46 minutes.
But before he climbs into the vehicle, he says these conversations give him firsthand knowledge about people's needs.
Will they continue as mayor?
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.