EDITED 10/6/13 10:30AM: For grammar.
This post is the first in a series profiling the wards with contested races this year.
SPRINGFIELD—Last weekend artists and makers of all manner of crafts plied their wares on a charming side street lined with well-maintained brownstones. At the same time, barely a mile away at Glendi, young Greek-American children danced to traditional music as gyros and baklava were snapped up by visitors, Greek and not alike. This weekend a Puerto Rican parade will fill the streets of Springfield with bright color and revelers along a route nearly the length of the ward that played host to all these events.
This sunnier view of Ward 1, which will hold a preliminary for its ward city councilor on Tuesday, in some ways aptly describes the still rich heritage and vitality of the city as a whole. However, these happy and festive events belie the broader problems experienced in this, probably the city’s most Latino political subdivision.
Running from Union Street at the southern most edge of downtown and up Main Street to the North End and Brightwood, Ward 1 encompasses not only City Hall and the Municipal Group, but virtually all of the city’s skyscrapers and most of its cultural attractions. But even though it includes downtown and the Armoury-Quadrangle area, the center of gravity, low turnout notwithstanding, lies north in the Latino precincts.
In those precincts, an image forms of a place that is either incrementally improving or receiving insufficient attention from the same City Hall with which it shares a ward.
Many residents and their needs are “not taken seriously” by “people who can do something,” incumbent Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, a social worker, said.
“What people need are jobs,” said Miguel Rivas who heads the Brightwood Development Corp. and is also running for the seat, “they do not want to be dependent.” Dependency on government assistance is probably one of the more unfortunate reputations the area has. Adding insult to injury such a reputation also tracks with more prejudiced notions many have about the city’s Puerto Rican population at-large.
Underachievement in schools is also pronounced here. Jose Claudio, another Ward 1 council aspirant and Chief Operating Officer for the New North Citizens Council, a neighborhood association/social services agency hybrid, said in an interview that he wants to put education front and center.
Crime, too, is a well-known problem even nationally. From New York Times stories to CBS news specials, the coverage of the counterinsurgency tactics used by city and state police, whether effective or not, does little to help the brush off the city and Ward 1’s rap for danger.
Stephen Daly, the only Ward 1 candidate from outside the North End or Brightwood, spoke of residents’ direct experience particularly around Kimball Towers. “Most of us have to park on the street,” he said during a phone interview, and “vehicles are subject to break-ins.” He also said that he has been woken up by the sound of gunfire.
But where the negatives surface, some see hope in the competitiveness of the race. “I am extremely excited,” Carol Costa, the President of the Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association said. “This is the first real race we have had since ward representation.”
Although Luna did face off against Gumersindo Gomez in 2009, hers was one of only a few ward races that year without a preliminary. This year it is the reverse. Only Wards 1 & 5 have enough candidates running to need preliminaries. The rest of the city will not vote Tuesday.
Jose Tosado, a former at-large City Councilor who grew up in the North End agreed, “The competition is great,” adding that he knew many of the candidates very well. Although Tosado no longer lives in the ward he has offered his support to Luna.
Waxing a bit nostalgic, Tosado described the area when he was growing up. His father opened up one of the first Puerto Rican restaurants in the neighborhood. Then the area was still heavily French and Greek, with a sizable black population in Brightwood. It was a “Gateway for new populations,” Tosado said, a moniker he argues it is still earning as Puerto Ricans are replaced by Dominicans in increasing numbers.
According to Tosado, even as the Latino population grew, the North end remained close-knit. He said with urban renewal and the construction of Interstate 91, which demolished homes and “made streets dead-ends,” the sense of community was damaged, if not destroyed. Medina’s Supermarket on Main and the Puerto Rico Bakery on Armory remain legacies of that era and add to the vibrancy the North End still has, while being key stops for state politicians and their surrogates.
Tosado also alluded to Ward 1‘s poor voter turnout. In 2012 turnout surged in Latino precincts, including in Ward 1 and exceeded some expectations for the special US Senate primary and general elections. But in the 2009 city election, where all wards had contests to fill the new ward seats, turnout was only lower in Ward 3, a less monolithically Latino than Ward 1. In addition to leading to an potentially close result this Tuesday, it lends itself to less attention from City Hall.
Neither Luna nor Rivas singled out any city agency or anybody, but Rivas did say that when he worked in the city’s economic development office there were efforts that he thought were correcting the ward’s problems. Loans and resources were being diverted to a broader swath people throughout the neighborhood, Rivas said.
Luna suggested the situation is complicated by a failure to communicate effectively with the population. “There are a lot of opportunities that people don’t know about,” she said. Although jobs and economic opportunity are in great need, the city needs to do a better job sharing what options exist, she explained. “Agencies that could advocate for [residents],” are not talking to “the whole community.”
Luna’s concerns about appropriate attention from city government was front and center when one of the more recent blows to the neighborhood came up at last Monday’s council meeting. While the Council was considering emergency deficit spending to demolish the closed, undeveloped and now fire-gutted Chestnut Middle School. Luna asked how quickly the site would be secured and made safe. She worried that cleanup would not come swiftly and thus leave the ward with another eyesore and hazard.
Claudio, notably, did not make any such implications about city outreach and responsiveness. He did, however, allude to the ward’s problems like crime, but also housing. He cited absentee landlordism is chronic throughout the city, but particularly pronounced in Ward 1. He also mentioned a project that had sought to reverse some of the blight and give people a chance to live in better maintained homes.
But one of the elephants in the room in the race is the very organization for which Claudio works. The New North Citizens’ Council, often simply “New North,” has long been a powerhouse in the North End and Ward 1 generally. It has also evolved into one of, if not the preeminent Latino group in the city. However, whether by accident or design, it has been competing for the title of late with SEIU’s Community Action and other groups.
The late community activist Barbara Rivera, mother of Representative Cheryl Coakley-Rivera led New North for many years. It still has strong ties to Coakley-Rivera and maintains political power and a drive to keep it as The Valley Advocate has observed. Other sources have remarked to WMassP&I about the power struggles at the center of which was New North. Coakley-Rivera did not respond to a request for an interview as of posting time. Luna and Rivas accused New North of nothing in any conversation with WMassP&I, but their choice of words left the impression that some problems may not be of the city’s making alone.
Indeed, among the constellation of supporters Claudio has are Mayor Domenic Sarno, Coakley-Rivera and other city players. However, one can read only so much into that as among Claudio’s out-of-ward supporters is the hardly establishmentarian former City Councilor Patrick Markey.
Across town in downtown, Costa of Armoury-Quadrangle tends to see the ward and the city’s problems as the lack of coherent plan. “The downtown needs to generate more tax through development,” she said. Too often, however, despite the city’s assets, projects and development are pursued and executed in isolation.
“Vision,” Costa said, “a real vision for what the city is and what it can be” is what is needed. Whether its Union Station or the Federal Courthouse, what is often lacking is city officials “finding that thread that will connect all of those things.”
Daly, the downtown resident, in the race, who has lived at Kimball for 15 years, said that turnarounds are possible. He said that the Kimball itself was at one time beset by prostitution and drugs. While that still exists on the periphery Daly admitted, it showed what could happen when people endeavor to revive buildings like his.
Even as some like Luna, Rivas and Tosado encouraged more attention be paid to the vulnerable in the ward and its neighborhoods, their exhortation did not come across as resigned. Rather, they implied untapped opportunity. Luna, while lamenting the city’s poor outreach both in person or digitally, said people want and need someone or someway they can seek answers and help, suggesting pent up potential in the population. Claudio, for his part, also evoked the language of potential, alluding to the city’s cultural resources and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Echoing all of them Costa said both her neighborhood and the ward have “a wonderful mix of people and backgrounds.” “It is a great city,” she said. To grow and thrive, it has “all the bones that need to be in place.”