As I waited for luggage at the Terminal A baggage carousel in Logan Airport recently, I noticed a promotion on a nearby wall for Boston’s Grove Hall neighborhood. The poster advertises all the great things waiting to be discovered in the neighborhood. Visit Franklin Park Zoo! Tee up at William Devine Golf Course! Explore Olmsted’s lovely Franklin Park! Dine at what appears to be Flames Restaurant, one of the few “sit-down” restaurants in the neighborhood. It also shows the fronts of some nice apartment buildings along Blue Hill Avenue. The incongruity of the exciting neighborhood pictured in the poster and the reputation of Grove Hall is probably not lost on the average Bostonian. A search on Google for news about Grove Hall returns a long list of negative headlines, such as Boston Magazine’s 2004 article “Growing up in Gangland,” where one can find the following quote: “If there’s a Ground Zero of youth violence in Boston, it’s Grove Hall, where the spine of Blue Hill Avenue connects streets best known as gang names …”, or a recent article in the Boston Globe entitled “Boston’s Struggle with Income Segregation,” which talks about Grove Hall as one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state. Blue Hill Avenue conjures up many images in Boston, but “fun” is not one of them, and “adventure” requires little comment.
I recently spent a day walking the streets of the neighborhood and I can report that few tourists will find anything of real interest in the area outside the architecture and the aforementioned Zoo and Golf Course. It is not that the city is being disingenuous, these attractions really do flank the Grove Hall neighborhood. The truth is that there are very few places in the neighborhood to spend your money: a handful of primarily takeout places to eat, few independently owned stores, and certainly nothing in the way of entertainment. The promising sight of a theater along Blue Hill Avenue is in fact the home of the New Fellowship Baptist Church, although it was built in 1914 as the Franklin Park Theatre (a great blog about former theaters has an article on this building). The neighborhood might be interesting to the antiquarian and the sociologist, the historian and the politician, but not to the tourist. I get it: the Main Street Initiative is trying to promote areas that have seen better times and Grove Hall could certainly use a boost.
In the previous entry I explored the Boston precinct (Ward 6, Precinct 9, or precinct 6-9) that gave Mitt Romney the highest percentage of votes in the 2012 Presidential election. A three-mile walk along Day Boulevard and then up Columbia Road brings me to the subject of this entry, the obverse side of the voting coin, the precinct which gave the highest percentage of votes to Barack Obama.
The neighborhoods to the north and east of Franklin Park, centered on Blue Hill Avenue, were the source of the strongest support for Barack Obama in the 2012 election. This area is comprised of two of the twenty-two Wards of the City of Boston, Wards 12 & 14. Each of these wards gave President Obama an astonishing 98% of the vote. To put it another way, Obama received 18,989 of the 19,370 ballots cast in the two wards, while Romney received a total of 307 votes in the two wards combined, slightly more than half the votes he received in the single precinct (6-9) covered in the previous entry. Obama received more votes in each of the 23 precincts that make up wards 12 and 14 than Romney did in all those 23 precincts combined!
Although Mitt Romney received at least one vote in each of the 255 precincts in Boston in the 2012 election, in Ward 14, Precinct 3, Romney garnered the support of a total of only four voters, while Obama received 765 votes, or 99.09% of the ballots cast. Two other votes were distributed singly to the Libertarian candidate and to the Green candidate, and a blank ballot was also cast. Apparently this is epicenter of Romney’s infamous ‘47%’!
This precinct (14-3) is the heart of the area known as Grove Hall which I discussed in some detail in a previous entry where I walked along the old “upper road to Braintree”(Taking the High Road in Roxbury and Dorchester).
On early maps of Roxbury and Dorchester, Grove Hall is a major intersection of roads coming from Boston and Lower Roxbury, Dorchester, Milton, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain. A map of 1832 by Hales, for example, shows a triangle formed by Columbia Road, Washington Street in Dorchester which becomes Warren Street in Roxbury, and the Brush Hill Turnpike (now Blue Hill Avenue), while two other roads, Seaver Street and Glen Road, intersect the triangle from Jamaica Plain.
In the center of this triangle stood, from around 1800 until about 1900, a large mansion and estate that went by the name of Grove Hall, hence the name of the neighborhood. Baker’s map of Dorchester from 1831 shows the house, which was owned by a Boston merchant named Thomas Kilby Jones, at the apex of the triangle. On Whitney’s 1849 map Grove Hall is identified as a prominent feature of Roxbury, along with churches, the town house, and the alms house.
The entire 10 acres of the original Grove Hall estate is today part of the 52 acres that make up Ward 14, Precinct 3. The site of the original mansion, bounded by Blue Hill Avenue, Washington Street, Normandy Street, and Seaver Street was still undeveloped in 1894, as seen on a detailed map of the neighborhood, which shows the mansion and the grounds in some detail. The mansion is quite large, at least three times as large as the Grove Hall Universalist Church across Blue Hill Avenue, which moved in about 1898 to a new building on Washington Street which has been the home of the Holy Tabernacle Church since 1966. The original Blue Hill Avenue site is now Mother Caroline Academy. According to Francis Drake, in his history of the town of Roxbury (1878), Grove Hall became a clinic for tuberculosis patients, the “Consumptives Home” founded by Dr. Charles Cullis. This is apparent in the maps of the area: the 1873 Map shows Dr. Cullis as the owner of the entire ten acre parcel and the remodeled mansion is labelled “Consumptives Home.”
Once the streetcars arrived the area began to transform rapidly. Most of the properties adjacent to Grove Hall were also largely undeveloped as late as 1894, but one by one the estates were subdivided and new streets were built. On a 1904 map of what was then Ward 20, Normandy Street had been pushed through between Washington and Columbia Road, the old mansion was gone, a half dozen townhouses had been built along the newly created Castlegate Road (probably the best known of the “street” gang names mentioned above) which cut across the property on the site of the old mansion, the triangular property north of Castlegate to the junction of Washington and Blue Hill Avenue was vacant and in possession of the Federal Trust Company, while the remainder of the property was occupied by the new buildings of the Cullis Consumptive Home.
By 1933, when a newer map of what had become today’s Ward 14 was produced, the entire block had been subdivided into smaller lots, almost all of which had been built upon. I will revisit the fascinating and often bizarre history behind the transformation of a once rural retreat for a wealthy merchant into the heart of a gritty urban neighborhood in a future entry, but not before teasing the reader with promises to reveal in the future entry the weight of the human soul! (I also recommend the website of the Youth Violence Systems Project, “Getting to the Roots,” which has a well-researched history of Grove Hall).
As I mentioned earlier, three miles separate the precinct in South Boston I profiled in the previous entry from this precinct, a short walk along Columbia Road which forms a large part of the southern border of the precinct and was originally intended to be a continuation of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace (again a story for another day). However, the two precincts are very different from each other and reflect the continuing segregation of Boston. Ward 6, Precinct 9 (precinct 6-9) has a population which is 96.8% “White Alone,” according to 2010 Census figures (1,692 of 1,748), while Ward 14, Precinct 3 (precinct 14-3) has only 25 people identifying as “White Alone”, a mere 1.1% of the total population of 2,180 inhabitants. 63% of the residents identify as “Black or African American Alone,” another 31% identify as “Hispanic or Latino Alone,” with the remaining 6% identifying as one of the other categories on the Census, including “Some other Race/Ethnicity Alone” or Two or more Races/Ethnicities Alone.” (Note: I have generated a page which contains detailed reports by the Boston Redevelopment Authority of Boston Census Data by Precinct for 2000 and 2010.)
A walk around Grove Hall on a rainy, chilly winter’s day does little to help me to see the neighborhood in a more positive light. I go back again on a sunny but still chilly spring day and there is still not much to cheer about. There are exactly four places to eat within the precinct: Stashes Pizza and BBQ, Burger King, Sun Pizza, and a restaurant on Blue Hill Avenue called “The Big Easy.” I stop at the Big Easy, which seemed permanently closed on a previous visit, but fortuitously reopened under new ownership only last Friday. After eating a filling and delicious meal of chicken and waffles, I saunter the half mile north along Blue Hill Avenue that forms the western border of the precinct. There are few stores even along busy Blue Hill Avenue, which was for a time called Grove Hall Avenue according to an 1870 map of the area. I pass a clinic, a couple of bodegas, a liquor store, a “check-cashing” facility (never a good sign), a pharmacy, and a men’s clothing store at the corner where the Jones mansion would once have appeared to the southbound traveler. The Burger King is on Columbia Road, in a sort of mini-mall with only BD’s Discount Furniture for company, at the intersection with Washington Street. Following Washington Street back up to Blue Hill Avenue I pass the Grove Hall Fire Station, Burke High School, and the Nation of Islam Mosque, along with the aforementioned Sun Pizza and another convenience store. There is a Stop and Shop just outside the precinct boundaries across Geneva, and Flames Restaurant is just across Blue Hill Avenue, but that is about it for commercial establishments within precinct 14-3. Fortunately, the bustle of traffic along Blue Hill Avenue, the presence of Burke High School and the lovely new Grove Hall branch of the Boston Public Library on Geneva Avenue add a bit of energy to what is otherwise a fairly quiet residential neighborhood. There are few empty lots or houses and the residential buildings seem on the outside to be in decent shape.
I find little evidence of any structure built before about 1895 in the precinct. Although there are few single-family dwellings, there is no shortage of handsome multi-family residential dwellings, almost all built sometime in the early twentieth century. The majority of the people in Grove Hall reside in these two and three family dwellings or in the large apartment buildings that cover the site of the old mansion. A quick calculation (52 acres is roughly 0.08 mi²) shows that the density of the precinct is roughly 27,000 inhabitants/mi², a density that is more than double that of the city, already one of the most densely populated cities in the country. Fortunately, Franklin Park is literally across the street from the precinct, so there is room even here to stretch out. My overall impression, putting aside the notorious gang violence and the years of neglect the neighborhood suffered as urban America depopulated in the decades after World War II, is of a neighborhood with a solid architectural core in an advantageous location almost at the center of the City of Boston, near to lovely parks and close to virtually every neighborhood in the city. Little wonder that the city government wants to sing its praises at the airport. With a little boost and some improved public transit (a new MBTA subway line, perhaps the construction of a proper Silver Line extended out to Mattapan or Hyde Park), the neighborhood could be much a more dynamic and thriving destination, which would benefit all the residents of Boston, especially those of one of the city’s least well-off neighborhoods.
What about voting patterns and turnout? As I mentioned earlier, Romney received only four votes in precinct 14-3 compared to Obama’s 765 votes. 772 ballots were cast, which represents a turnout of 61.42% of registered voters. Romney received 547 votes in precinct 6-9 compared to Obama’s 510, while turnout of registered voters was substantially higher at 72.47%. It is interesting to reflect on these few data points as much information can be gleaned from them. Most of this information is summarized in the table below. The 2010 Census lists the resident voting-age population (or those age 18 years and older) in precinct 6-9 as 1,572, while precinct 14-3 has almost the same number of age 18+ residents at 1,549. However 1,074 ballots were cast in the Southie precinct compared to only 772 ballots in the Grove Hall precinct. Official city election data indicate that over 94% (1,482/1,549) of the 18+ residents of the Southie precinct were registered to vote while only 81% (1,257/1,549) of the voting-age residents of Grove Hall were registered to vote. One explanation for the difference could be that a significant fraction of the residents of Grove Hall are immigrants who are not citizens. However, even the turnout figures show that turnout of actual registered voters is ten points higher in Southie than in Grove Hall.
|Precinct||Population 2010 Census||% of total Boston Population (617,594)||Voting Age Population (18+) 2010 Census||% of Voting Age Boston Population (513,884)||Registered Voters 2012||Registered Voters 2014||Ballots Cast 2012 President||% of Total Ballots Cast Boston 2012 President (255,021)||Ballots Cast 2014 Governor||% of Total Ballots Cast Boston 2014 Governor (161,115)||2012 Ratio of % Ballots Cast: % Voting Age Population (VIN)||2014 Ratio of % Ballots Cast: % Voting Age Population (VIN)|
One obvious conclusion is that, despite its liberal reputation, Boston would be much more blue if turnout in places such as Grove Hall were to improve.This low turnout rate is even worse in the “off-year” elections such as the Governor’s race, held on the alternating even year from the Presidential election. In 2014 Republican Charlie Baker defeated the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley by 40,000 votes in Massachusetts to become governor. In Ward 6, Precinct 9 Baker received 433 votes to Coakley’s 266 and turnout was 49.7%. In Grove Hall, Coakley defeated Baker by 383 votes to 16, but turnout was a dismal 32.7%. In other words, had the turnout of Ward 14, Precinct 3 merely matched the modest 49.7% turnout of the Southie precinct, Coakley would have received approximately 200 more votes to Baker’s 9 additional votes based on the assumption that precinct voting patterns would have been consistent had more voters turned out. Compared with the data from the 2012 election, it seems obvious that a more conservative electorate shows up for the off-year elections. The main point is this: Obama got 200,190 votes to Romney’s 48,985 in Boston in 2012, while Coakley received 104,995 votes in Boston in 2014, half the number Obama received. Almost 100,000 Democratic votes disappeared in 2014. On the other hand Baker earned 47,653 votes in 2014, only slightly lower than the total Romney vote in Boston. Had the Obama supporters from places like Grove Hall shown up in more respectable numbers, the 40,000 statewide vote advantage of Charlie Baker would likely have evaporated.
The case of Scott Brown further illustrates this point. Brown first won a special election in 2010 to replace Senator Ted Kennedy, defeating Martha Coakley by 110,000 votes statewide. In 2012 Senator Brown was in turn defeated by Elizabeth Warren. Although Brown increased his statewide vote total by almost 300,000 votes, Elizabeth Warren bested Martha Coakley’s vote tally by over 637,000 votes, inflicting a heavy defeat on the sitting Senator. At the local level, precinct 6-9 voted both times for Scott Brown: in 2010 by 529 votes to 251, and in 2012 by 644 votes to 417 votes. Meanwhile precinct 14-3 voted for the Democratic candidate both times: in 2010 for Coakley by 350 votes to 10, and in 2012 for Warren by 749 votes to 20 (interesting side note: Brown (20 votes) was five times more popular in precinct 14-3 than former Massachusetts Governor Romney (4 votes) in the 2012 election!). Again, voter turnout in 2010 was much lower in precinct 14-3 (31%) compared to 2012 (61%), while in precinct 6-9 the difference was less pronounced at 57% in 2010 versus 73% in 2012. The total votes in the 2010 election for Brown in the two precincts combined was 539 versus 551 votes for Coakley, almost even. However, in 2012 Brown’s combined vote tally was 664 while Warren’s total was 1166 votes, over 500 votes more than Brown received. Overall Warren earned 82,000 more votes in Boston than Coakley received in her 2010 quest to become Senator, while Brown received 18,252 more votes in 2012 than in 2010 in the city overall. Hence over 60,000 votes of the 110,000 vote deficit of the Democratic candidate was made up in the city of Boston alone, illustrating the power that is in the hands of the voters in precincts like 14-3 to sway elections.
The table above is an attempt to calculate the impact of the voters from each of the two precincts in question. In the last two columns, I have calculated the percentage of the total number of ballots cast in Boston in each of the two precincts and then divided that figure by the percentage of the total voting-age population of Boston that is found in each precinct. Thus, in 2012 the voting-age population in precinct 14-3 made up 0.30% of the total voting-age population of Boston, while the actual ballots cast in precinct 14-3 represented 0.30% of the total ballots cast in the 2012 election. The voting impact is therefore 0.30/0.30 or 1; in other words, one man, one vote. However, in the 2014 race for Governor the “Voting Impact Number (VIN)” for precinct 14-3 was only 0.87, while in the 2010 Senate race the VIN for the Grove Hall precinct dropped to 0.80. In off-year elections voters in 14-3 are only having 80-90% of the impact they should have relative to other precincts in Boston. On the other hand, Precinct 6-9 had a VIN of 1.35 for the 2012 election, 1.45 for the 2014 race for Governor, and a VIN of 1.65 for the 2010 Special Senate Election. Thus, in 2010, the voters in precinct 6-9 had 65% more influence on the outcome of the election than the relative voting-age population for the precinct predicted.
There is some evidence that voters in precinct 14-3 will turn out in higher numbers if the candidate has more appeal. Deval Patrick, the first African-American elected Governor of Massachusetts, won a three-way race for reelection in 2010 with 48.4% of the vote in Massachusetts. Although his vote percentage was under 50% he managed to defeat Charlie Baker by over 145,000 votes, although the combined vote total of Baker and Tim Cahill, the third candidate, totaled 1,146,781, enough to defeat Patrick by 38,000 votes. I want to make two points about this election. The first is that the precinct 14-3 VIN was 0.97, nearly a 1:1 ratio, significantly higher than in the 2010 Senate election (0.80) or the 2014 Gubernatorial election (0.87) and almost the same as the 2012 election for President. The second point is that the total vote in Boston that Deval Patrick received in 2010 exceeded the total vote of Martha Coakley in her 2014 race for Governor by almost 10,000 votes (114,519 to 104,995) while the total combined vote of Baker and Cahill in 2010 was not much different from the total Baker alone received in his successful campaign for Governor in 2014 (46,180 to 47,653). Had Coakley received the same number of votes statewide as Patrick received in 2010 (1,108,404), she would have defeated Baker in 2014 (1,044,573) by 60,000 votes. Most of the additional votes in Boston for Patrick in 2010 came from precincts like 14-3. A small change in turnout among a key demographic can have a large impact on the makeup of the government.
One might argue that the people who show up to vote in an election should have more say than those who don’t vote, and I am somewhat sympathetic to this argument. However, the fact remains that the election results would differ dramatically if voter turnout was equivalent from precinct to precinct. Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but minorities do not vote in the same numbers as the majority white population of America. It seems clear that the depressed turnout of minorities has delivered the race to the Republican candidate in several elections in Massachusetts. I think it explains Scott Brown, and Mitt Romney, and any number of Republicans who have held statewide offices, all elected in ‘off-year’ elections. It is interesting to note that both Scott Brown and Mitt Romney benefited nationally from their success as Republicans in a Democratic stronghold. In the case of Scott Brown, the attention he received for his surprising victory certainly led to him becoming an important (and wealthier) figure in Republican politics and his victory was considered at the time a model for how Republicans could win at the national level. Mitt Romney’s entire campaign was predicated upon the notion that, as a Republican from a liberal state, he could peel off enough votes to capture one or two more moderate states from Barack Obama and win the election. His strategy of course failed, arguably for the reasons I have presented here, and the consequences of his loss are still being felt today, as many see the current all-out war in the Republican primaries as a struggle for control of the party between the moderate and conservative wings of the party. One might argue that, had the voters of precincts like 14-3 turned out in higher numbers, neither Romney nor Brown would have even been on the national stage and that the internecine strife among Republicans might have broken out much earlier.
The example of Grove Hall is illustrative of the state of the electorate nationwide. If ‘liberal’ Massachusetts can elect Republicans as a consequence of depressed minority voter turnout, imagine what it must be like in a place like North Carolina or Alabama, states with a much higher percentage of minorities than in relatively white Massachusetts. In these and other states the legislatures actively attempt to further reduce voter turnout by imposing all manner of obstacles to registration, presumably in an effort to cling on to power in a demographically changing country. These activities occur despite the fact that voter turnout is already depressed in minority neighborhoods nationwide.
The low turnout rate of minority voters is, in my view, the primary reason the national political landscape is tilted so far to the right. Grove Hall is evidence of this phenomenon at the local level. Of course, not all elections turn on race, and plenty of liberal candidates do just fine in non-presidential years, but the streak of conservatism that rears its head two years after every Presidential election does not reflect a recurring turning against the President and his “liberal” policies, it is a demographic phenomenon that needs to be addressed.
I am not sure what the solution should be. Some countries require people to vote, but this seems un-American. Increased awareness of the consequences of not voting would be a good start (Iraq War?). Some might argue that, if you can’t be bothered to vote you get the government you deserve. The fact remains, however, that although the Supreme Court recently upheld the principle of one man, one vote, the reality is that even if the potential one man, one vote platonic ideal existed, in reality it is not one man, one vote and the “MAN” gets a bigger slice of the vote than his non-white fellow citizens who, unsurprisingly, are also generally poorer than the average voter. This should matter to all of us: I do not believe, as many pundits claim, that the electorate is basically conservative. Many of the conservative policies that have been pursued in recent years by governments at both the state and national level have been enabled by the demographic disparity in voting patterns, with consequences for everyone, not just “minorities.” The results have a deleterious effect even on me, and I am part of the White Male demographic group that is meant to be gaining an advantage from the current state of affairs. The relative paucity of blue votes gives me the blues.