Generation Boston

Some neighborhoods getting younger, but not livelier

Millennials make up 25 percent of the population of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan

Stanley Onuoha attended an advisory board meeting at the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club on Jan. 23 in Boston. Onuaha grew up with the Boys and Girls Club, and is now on the Advisory Board of the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club.
Stanley Onuoha attended an advisory board meeting at the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club on Jan. 23 in Boston. Onuaha grew up with the Boys and Girls Club, and is now on the Advisory Board of the Yawkey Boys and Girls Club. Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Generation Boston is a series looking at Greater Boston’s increasingly influential young adult population and its challenges, concerns, and contributions. Visit BostonGlobe.com for more.

Boston is one of the youngest big cities in America, with thriving pockets of activity that increasingly attract the 20- to 34-year-old demographic. Although the youthful shift may be most evident in trendy places like Allston and South Boston, the more traditional neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury are becoming increasingly young, as well.

A quarter of the residents of these three neighborhoods are between the ages of 20 and 34, according to a Boston Redevelopment Authority analysis. That’s less than the citywide proportion of young adults — currently 1 in 3 — but commensurate with other young adult destinations like New York or Los Angeles.


In Roxbury and North Dorchester, the number of 20- to 34-year-olds increased 41 and 24 percent, respectively, between the 2000 and 2010 US censuses.

And yet, to many in these neighborhoods, their streets do not measure up to other “young” areas of Boston or other cities.

“In my immediate neighborhood, there’s not a single cafe, not a single restaurant,” said Reynolds Graves, 26, who lives in Roxbury. Of going out at night he said, “You either have to stay downtown and go home late, or go home and come back into downtown to go out.”

For millennials in these neighborhoods, it’s a choice: Stay and work for the improved housing, transportation, and entertainment options available in other young neighborhoods, or leave Boston entirely.

“In order to retain young talent, we need to make sure to know what their needs are,” said John Barros, chief of economic development for the city of Boston. “We need to make sure we have the right amenities and vibrancy in our neighborhoods and throughout the city.”


Residential neighborhoods across Boston have been transformed to accommodate growing young-adult populations. South Boston saw its 20- to 34-year-old population increase by 54 percent between the 1990 and 2010 censuses. With the shift have come new bars and restaurants — and increased housing costs.

As the young-adult population in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury grows, those neighborhoods could change, too.

In 2014, Boston was granted a total of 75 new liquor licenses over three years, 60 of which were restricted to residential neighborhoods including Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, which will expand food and drink offerings in these areas.

“These neighborhoods are appealing,” said Malia Lazu, the executive director at Future Boston Alliance, a group that advocates for the cultural growth of the city. “We’re seeing that with the development in Dudley Square right now. What needs to happen is for the community already there to ensure that it’s not ignored in this process.”

Reynolds Graves said that the park is the "third place" in his life: work, home, and Highland Park.
Reynolds Graves said that the park is the "third place" in his life: work, home, and Highland Park.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

The key, Lazu said, is transforming the communities into youthful destinations true to the people who live there instead of gentrifying them.

The Main Streets Makeovers initiative, highlighted in Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s State of the City address, seeks to tackle this concern in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva and Roxbury’s Grove Hall neighborhoods. The program will upgrade public spaces, offer transportation alternatives, help small businesses, and provide increased wireless Internet access, said Sheila Dillon, chief of housing for the city.

In addition to infrastructure improvements, the city will analyze the business landscape in these areas, Dillon said. She encouraged young adults to voice their needs during the process.


Stanley Onuoha, 29, a financial analyst who grew up in Roxbury but now lives on the Brookline-Brighton line, wants the city to invest in new housing developments and commercial spaces that will allow minority-owned small businesses to thrive.

Much of the food scene in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester consists of takeout establishments, and giving those business owners the space to add seating or a liquor license to serve alcohol will both open up jobs and help showcase the neighborhood’s cuisine, he said.

But how long those changes take matters.

The cultural void felt in these neighborhoods has led some young people to leave, said Graves, whose Boston friends have relocated to places like New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.

It makes a heavy calculus for young adults in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan: Wait for the neighborhoods to change — a process that could take several years and a significant amount of work — or move to neighborhoods or other cities that can meet their needs more immediately.

At least that’s the calculus that Sara Redd often does.

Born and raised on the Roxbury-Dorchester line, she has left the city three times, twice to live in Atlanta and another time to live in New York. But she keeps coming back to Boston.

She bemoans the lack of public transit, bars, cafes, and gyms in her neighborhood. But she sees a lot of promise.

“I don’t know if I want to live here much longer,” Redd said. “But I also want to stay and help it grow.”


Catherine Cloutier can be reached at catherine.cloutier@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @cmcloutier.