Ask longtime Mattapan residents like Harry G. Wilson III what changes they'd like to see in their neighborhood, and chances are, they've pondered the question.
“There’s a process that doesn’t include everybody, but it gets things done,” Wilson said, referring to development that flies under the radar of many neighbors.
Wilson, who is 72 and has lived in Mattapan for more than half his life, was one of about 150 residents who voted in February's election of the new Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council. While sitting at the election site inside Kipp Academy Boston Middle School last month, Wilson said the very building illustrates a common complaint among residents. He lives on a street about a mile away, but he wasn't aware the charter school building was going up.
“I woke up one day and the school was here,” he said. “I didn’t know that. Why is there a school here?”
The new neighborhood council is seeking, among other things, to cut back on surprise developments. According to its bylaws, the purpose of the group is to “empower residents with relevant information that improves partnership between the Greater Mattapan community and the city of Boston.”
An 11-member board was elected last month. It includes a Boston police officer, an event planner and a construction management superintendent.
The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services described neighborhood councils as informally-recognized vestiges of administrations past. In a statement to WGBH News, the agency said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh actively encourages all forms of civic engagement and “when new resident-based groups or councils form, the Mayor’s Office will send a representative to meetings if requested by the new organization.”
The office pointed to meeting of abutters and Impact Advisory Groups on major developments as means of seeking community input. “The City of Boston and Boston Planning and Development Agency focus on forms of civic engagement which encourage a wide range of community members to participate, rather than creating new neighborhood councils, as was the practice in the past,” the office added.
New council members, however, see it as the perfect mechanism for unifying greater Mattapan, which the council defines as stretching from Franklin Park to Mattapan Square.
Fatima Ali-Salaam, the council’s inaugural chair, said that without the group, Mattapan has missed out on “the ability to focus as an entire neighborhood.”
In an interview with WGBH News, Ali-Salaam said at least a dozen, smaller neighborhood and civic groups exist across Mattapan, but they haven't worked closely together. With more development proposals on the horizon, there’s a case for a unifying organization to look out for the whole area, she said.
“We know that it's coming,” Ali-Salaam, 53, said of looming proposals. “But a lot of people can't keep up daily, or even weekly, with all the changes, and you do need to have an entity that its purpose, locally, is to help facilitate that."
There are other concerns, too. Only 11 of the council’s 21 elected board seats are currently filled. The group originally set aside a third of the seats for residents aged 16 to 35, one of which went to Vice Chair Janae Tooley, 22. For now, Ali-Salaam said the neighborhood council is planning to keep that provision in its bylaws, She said there are plans to engage younger residents before holding another round of elections between now and 2020 to fill the remaining seats.
Mirlande Joseph, the council’s assistant treasurer, also pointed to diversity as an issue for fostering connections. Mattapan has the heaviest concentration of black residents, 74 percent, of any Boston neighborhood. More than a third of the Mattapan's population is foreign-born — mostly from the Caribbean — and the city’s largest share of French and Haitian Creole speakers reside there.
“We have Haitian Creole, we have Africans, we have Asians in the community. We have all different types of nationalities in our community, and I think it’s very imperative that we address that,” Joseph said. “So we can bring them on board and make this more bigger and powerful.”
Multiple elected officials have expressed their support and optimism about the new group.
“I'm hoping that the neighborhood council does exactly what they've been saying they're going to do, and that is stay organized, get folks informed and have it so that they are coming into community discussions with an educated perspective,” State Rep. Russell Holmes said in an interview.
Holmes, who represents the neighborhood in the legislature, said his biggest concern is whether the council will truly amplify the voices of all residents or add another layer of bureaucracy to city projects. Boston City Council President Andrea Campbell echoed the optimism and concern.
“I’m excited that Mattapan has come together as a community,” she said in an interview. Campbell, who also lives in and represents Mattapan, said she’s been assured by neighborhood council members they will amplify and inform residents and siloed civic associations.
At the group’s election, longtime Mattapan resident Harry G. Wilson III said he’s excited about the prospect of having a voice to the city through the council.
“Otherwise, they’ll just do what they want to do,” he said, referring to developers.
Ali-Salaam told WGBH News the council is finalizing its inaugural year-long agenda to present to the public. The Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council’s first meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 1 at the Mildred Avenue Community Center.