Black civic activists, exasperated with seeing neighborhoods decay in the shadow of booming business districts, are talking secession.
“This is no drill and we are not bluffing,” said Andrew Jones, a 34-year-old classical violinist and independent TV producer who is leading the drive. “The city of Boston thinks we’re kidding because it’s not used to taking the black community seriously.”
Jones and his supporters want to carve 12.5 square miles out of Boston’s center and rename it Mandela, after South African black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela.
The area encompasses the districts of Roxbury and Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, the Fenway, Jamaica Plain, Columbia Point and the South End. It has boarded-up housing projects as well as neat Victorian homes on leafy streets. And it is the home of such famous institutions as the Harvard Medical School, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Northeastern University and the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library.
Few took the secessionists seriously a year ago, but they have collected enough signatures to place a non-binding referendum on the November ballot in the districts, where 98% of Boston blacks live.
Prominent community figures have split on the issue. The city’s first black City Council president has voiced qualified support; the editor of the black newspaper, the Bay State Banner, has attacked the idea.
But grass-roots support is being nurtured by a snappy pro-secessionist rap song, which is getting local radio airing:
Being part of Boston used to be OK
When the city used to allocate money our way.
Now all that’s changed and it’s plain to see
That the city only cares about property . . .
Let Boston see what it’s got to see
Mandela, Massachusetts, is the place to be .
Proponents of a separate black city say that 10 years after court-ordered school desegregation, racial barriers remain steep in Boston. Blacks can’t walk safely through some white neighborhoods, let alone buy homes there, Jones said.
Shortchanged on Services
City Council President Bruce Bolling, Boston’s highest-ranking elected black official, complained that black neighborhoods like Roxbury have been shortchanged on municipal services and skirted by the city’s new economic expansion.
An aide to Mayor Raymond Flynn, who campaigned two years ago on promises of re-invigorating Boston neighborhoods, called the secession proposal “bizarre” and “foolhardy.”
Flynn opposes the proposal, said spokesman Frank Costello, who added: “As long as he is mayor, he is not signing off on any proposal aimed at literally dividing the city.”
Although admitting that Roxbury has long been neglected, Costello points to a $750-million renewal project now under way there.
But Jones’ Greater Roxbury Incorporation Project, GRIP, predicts majority backing for its proposal. A victory in November, Jones asserted, would make incorporation politically impossible to stop.
“The real referendum on incorporation took place during the last election when the black community elected a black mayor but didn’t have a city to put him in,” said Jones, referring to Flynn’s 1983 victory over black challenger Mel King, who received more than 90% of the black vote.
Niathan Allen, a black community leader in Dorchester, said he has personal reservations about Mandela’s economic viability.
But when asked how his neighborhood would vote on the incorporation referendum, Allen gave it a 50-50 chance of passing.
‘The Last Priority’
The community envisioned by GRIP co-founders Jones and Curtis Davis, 33, a Harvard-trained architect and urban planner, would be home to one-fourth of Boston’s 620,000 residents on one-fourth of its land. About 20,000 whites would live with roughly 115,000 blacks.
The secessionists argue that Mandela, despite having the city’s highest crime rates and lowest incomes, would nonetheless have good prospects because of a solid tax base and its potential for business expansion.
“The problem with Mandela, Mass., is not lack of revenues but that the city of Boston has made it the last priority,” Jones said.
The Boston Globe quoted city fiscal officers as saying that a breakaway Roxbury, even with state aid, would face a $100-million budget deficit. (The paper noted that when Roxbury merged with Boston in 1868 the community was a wealthy enclave that couldn’t make it on its own financially.)
Seen as a Ploy
King, Bolling and other prominent black politicians have publicly endorsed the referendum, but some observers see it as only a ploy to get Roxbury a bigger share of redevelopment funds.
Bolling said that it is too early for him to make up his mind on secession but that he welcomes the referendum and surrounding public debate.
“No one is satisfied with the quality and frequency of services--police, fire department, access to city government,” he said in a telephone interview. “It is the most socioeconomic depressed community. At the same time, it has become very attractive as the last area of Boston with vacant land because of so much demolition during the past 20 years.
“Suddenly, greater Roxbury has been rediscovered by state and city government, and by the real estate speculators. The question is, will the community have a say in its development?”
‘So Little Control’
Jones and his supporters say the urban renewal project in Roxbury that Costello boasted about is another example of City Hall imposing its will on local residents. They fear that the project will drive up housing prices beyond residents’ reach. Real estate values have already doubled in the last five years.
“The reason the black community of Boston has so little esteem is because we have so little control,” said Jones, who was born in Richmond, Va., and graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University’s graduate school.
He launched the drive, he said, because he was impressed with the participatory democracy practiced at New England town meetings he covered as a TV news producer.